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Archive for March, 2007

The End of the Fifties

Friday, March 30th, 2007

Earlier this month, Roger celebrated his 60th birthday: or rather, since the actual birthday fell on a Monday, and he planned to mark the day by going out and collecting his bus pass, he celebrated the last day of his 50s.

The end of the 50s - the last teddy boy

Roger asked people not to give him presents, but Francis Blake made him this very appropriate birthday card.


Thursday, March 29th, 2007

[This post dates from March 2007. The rates mentioned in it have been revised subsequently. Please see the page on the website about hosting for our current rates.]

When we set up in business designing web sites, broadband was still in the labs. Home internet access was via dial-up telphone lines. I think our first PC, back in 1995, had a 28k modem though 56k became standard fairly soon after that. These figures are in bits-per-second, and as there are eight bits in a byte, the most someone with a dial-up connection can hope for is a download speed of 7,168 bytes per second. These facts of life governed the way we designed websites: the text on the pages wasn’t much of a problem but we had to compromise the quality of the photographs to ensure that download times were kept to a minimum, and we also had to limit the number of photos on each page. I remember when we could copy all of a website happily on to a 1.4 meg diskette and take it with us when we visited clients. And the 20 megabyte allocation we gave each client was many times what they might possibly need.

That was then and this is now, as Bob Dylan once memorably said. Broadband started to become available about five years ago. When BT halved the price in 2003 we took the plunge and it revolutionised the way we use the internet. At that time less than a quarter of the internet connections were broadband. The number has shot up. According to a recent report, in December 2006, there were over 13 million broadband lines in the UK, compared to just under 10 million a year ago. That’s almost 80% of UK connections, according to the Office for National Statistics.

How have we responded to this? And how have our clients? We’ve taken to compressing our pictures less, and thereby improving the quality. We’re also happier to put more pictures on each web page. But the big difference has been that our clients have come to us and asked us if we can run audio and video on their sites. Once we would have cautioned against this, now we’ll do it happily. Recent additions to various websites have included a 40 second DVD trailer for Anne Fine (1.8Mb), a 3 minute promo for the New Rope String Band (5.5Mb), a 5 minute showreel for the actor John Elnaugh (13Mb) and a 17 minute animation for Véronique Tanaka (23Mb — £1.99 payment required). Coupled with streaming technology (where the video starts to play while it is still downloading) this means the video can be seen in real time over a broadband link. On a dial-up link these files take much longer: the New Ropes promo would take at least a quarter of an hour to download, for example. So we make sure that these files are an adjunct to the site, adding extra value, but not essential to the experience.

This trend means that we now have some very large websites, and some with high bandwidth usage. It also means that the spread between our largest and our smallest client sites has grown. We found that we were running out of server space, and so we have upgraded our account with our hosting service. We also reviewed the charges we make to our clients and we have decided that we have to move away from our one-size-fits-all approach. We think that the fairest approach is to introduce a tiered structure so that only those clients who need the extra resources will be asked to pay for them.

The good news for two thirds of our clients is that we have been able to increase their allocations of both disk space (up from 20Mb to 30Mb) and monthly bandwidth (up from 300Mb to 500Mb) without increasing the annual fee, which remains at £50. Clients who need up to 60Mb of disk space and a gigabyte of bandwidth will pay £75 and for 100Mb and 2 gigabytes the fee will be £100. We will be writing to all clients in the next week or so to tell them where they fit into the new pricing structure.

Once we’ve set the level of fees we will of course monitor usage but, unlike some companies, if you bust a limit we won’t automatically pull the plug. We’ll investigate the cause and if it looks like a temporary incident we’ll see you through it. If it’s a permanent increase we will probably adjust the fee when renewal time comes around.

We’ve also been looking at our hourly rate, which was last increased in April 2005, and we are increasing this from £45 to £48 an hour. This 6.7% increase compares with a 7.1% increase in RPI over the same period. Any work that was requested before this increase was announced will be done at the old price.

Other changes we have made are to change insurers to get better cover, which now includes professional indemnity and product liability insurance. We are also changing our telephone and broadband provision from a domestic to a business service, which should mean if anything goes wrong with the phones or broadband service it gets fixed sooner. We are upgrading the broadband speed to 5.5 megabits and unlimited usage, and cancelling the second phone line to replace it with a VoIP (broadband) line. Our main phone number remains as 0191 386 8756.

Design with vision

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

On Monday 26th March, The Guardian carried an eight page supplement, paid for by the RNIB, to accompany their regular Media pages. Its purpose was to encourage the production of information that is accessible to people with a visual impairment: not just those who have no sight at all but the far greater number whose eyesight is not up to reading the print sizes and colours often produced by designers who aren’t aware of these issues. I’d like to point you at the web version of the article, but I cannot find it. There is a page on the RNIB site but it’s not even a summary of the contents.

What the article does add to what’s been published before, including on the accessibility page on our own website, is the growing body of legislation including the new equality duty for the public sector which came into force on 4 December last year. This affects 45,000 public bodies across Great Britain. And it’s clear, as we have been saying for some time, that a web site provides a service. There is no point, for example, in upgrading your theatre to provide disabled access if blind people cannot access your online booking service to get tickets.

It’s a common misconception that blind people cannot use the internet because they cannot see the screen. There are two answers to this: the first is that many people have impared vision rather than being completely blind. People who can read large print books can also use properly designed websites, which are ones that allow the user to adjust the size of the text and which have clear contrast. If this has been done, just hold the Ctrl key and press the + key to make the text larger. It’s that easy with both Firefox and Internet Explorer 7.

Blind people can use assistive technology, which can read the contents of a web page aloud. It sounds a bit like having Stephen Hawking come along and read the web page to you. (Though to be fair, many modern voice synthesisers sound rather more natural than Hawking, who I understand has decided not to upgrade because his accent is now so familiar.) But care is needed, particularly with images, which need a succinct alternative text description for the voice browser to read out.

The Guardian‘s article pointed up some unexpected benefits: Legal and General found that their new accessible website had 50% more pages in the search engines and they doubled the number of visitors receiving quotes. So it seems everybody likes accessible websites.

We try to write accessible websites and have had some success: in 2005 we won a Visionary Design Award for Anne Fine’s website., and these days we try to make all new sites accessible. It’s not that difficult particularly if you are aware of the issues. These days we use style sheets to define the overall look of a site. Although they take a little more work to set up at the outset, it soon pays off because coding the rest of the site becomes a lot easier.

I could go on. And on. But dinner is on the table so I will leave that for another day.

Really Simple Syndication

Monday, March 26th, 2007

The Cornwell Internet web site is the home of this blog, and always will be: you read it here first. But to make life easier for those of us who also use LiveJournal, Great and Glorious Samarcand, whom some clients already know as the person who sorts out any crises while Roger and Jean are on holiday, has used the RSS feed to syndicate the blog to LJ. No, I don’t know what the technical bit means either.

What it means in practice, though, is that you can now read this blog via LiveJournal, and have it delivered direct to your ‘friends page’ there.

Thank you, Samarcand, for making this possible.

World Wide what?

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

I am constantly impressed by the way our clients bring us into contact with distant and exotic places – and not just the superpowers, but the small and idiosyncratic corners of the world!

First we had Chaz Brenchley with a story translated into Estonian (a language related to Finnish and Magyar – Hungarian). Next we learned from Nicholas Rhea that the Heartbeat TV series has a devoted following on the Pacific island of Vanuatu. Now Ann Cleeves tells us that she has sold the rights of her novel The Sleeping and the Dead for translation into Georgian, a member of the South Caucasian language group with its own alphabet!

Number 1 on Google

Thursday, March 8th, 2007

I like to keep an eye on the bandwidth usage of our clients’ websites, to try to head off potential problems should they look like running out of bandwidth. So when this morning I noticed that the Diamond Twig website was over twice as busy as it usually is, I decided to investigate. By using the stats package I noticed that one file, iwd.php, was getting all the hits. Then I realised: iwd = International Womens’ Day = 8 March = today.

Eleven years ago Diamond Twig published a set of six postcards, each with a poem for International Womens’ Day. When we set up the website in July 2000, I created a page which displayed a random postcard from the set. And now, if you Google international womens’ day poems and ask for only pages from the UK, this page is top. How come?

Well, probably a combination of things: the text mentions International Womens’ Day very prominently, and the page has been around for a long time. Still, to be number 1 out of 115,000 is an achievement which we’re proud of. And it explains why every year, when International Womens’ Day comes around, women head for the Diamond Twig Website to read a poem or six.

Good things come in threes

Sunday, March 4th, 2007

We don’t – by a long chalk – go to all the events run by our clients; but somehow it has fallen out that in the past two weeks we have been at the three launch events run by Smokestack to celebrate their two latest books.

We started at the Lit & Phil for the launch of Tom Kelly’s The Wrong Jarrow, poems about the people who built the ships and mined the coal and were left behind when the industry went, echoing around the sedate shelves of the private library.

Next came the Teesside launch, in the Teesside branch of Borders bookshop, a busy store with a constant flow of customers peering curiously down from the staircase to listen to a little poetry without having to commit themselves. Tom Kelly found himself explaining that his poem, The Wrong Jarrow, had as its starting point Andy Willoughby’s The Wrong California in the presence of Andy Willoughby himself, and Ellen Phethean read from her novel-in-poems, Wall, impersonating in turn a teenage girl, a family of refugees, dad in his pigeon cree and a gaggle of lads getting high in the park.

Charlie Hardwick and Ellen Phethean at Seven Stories
Charlie Hardwick (left) and Ellen Phethean at Seven Stories

Finally came Ellen’s own launch, in the attic of Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books, a magical space (especially for people of below average height) webbed with the beams of the old warehouse in which the Centre is built. Wall grew in part from Ellen’s residency at the Centre, and she had assembled a team of the people she had worked with there to read teenage Kylie and her family.

Three entirely different events, two good books, and it all counts as work!

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