Jeff Rule is a Senior Interactive Web Developer at Discovery Channel Online, where he is responsible for the programming behind the Discovery Channel home page. He was a DHTML pioneer for Netscape and worked as part of the IE4 Beta Team. His company, RuleWeb Development, provides consulting and development services for advanced media sites.

An interview by Christopher Schmitt

H5: What is your design and/or art background?

JR: I've always drawn and sketched however, I've never been formally trained in design. My real talents lay in the area of interface design. Designing education CD-ROMs for children taught me a lot about how people interact with the computer screen and how they see and access information. A person seeing a web page sees it much differently than the developer who has stared at it night and day for months. Nothing teaches you humility like sitting behind a one way mirror and watching people bitch about your interface and design. You can write off one person not getting it, but when they all don't get it its you not them.

H5: How did you get introduced into the Web?

JR: I started off in CD-ROM development back in 1993 using Macromedia's Director and Authorware and Photoshop. These tools made the transition to the web easy. I got ahold of an early beta of Mosaic for the Mac even before I had Internet access. It came with a couple of example HTML files. Possibly the greatest revelation of my life came when I stumbled across the View Source button and realized that I could change the code without being on this thing called the Internet. After that I harassed the company I worked for to get Internet access. The squeaky wheel eventually got the grease and its all been downhill from there.

H5: How do you see Web development will be done in regards to making broadband Web sites?

JR: There are a lot of tools out there that have been waiting for the day when broadband appears. Shockwave has been waiting for years to fulfill its promise. I can remember creating a 15MB Shockwave file when the 14.4 modem was new, there was no way that thing was fitting down a wire. Broadband is going to be about accepting content in any form. When you have a fast connection and plug-ins install automatically then who cares about a 1 or 2 MB plug-in? I see streaming video being the first hog of this new bandwidth followed by development of great interactive and collaborative applications.

H5: How was writing your book Dynamic HTML: The HTML Developer's Guide?

JR: The beginning was a challenge. I wanted to write a book with examples on how to do drag and drop, pull down menus and animations in Dynamic HTML. The user would learn the way most people learn on the web, by taking apart examples and learning. Most publishers wanted a book explaining the syntax of DHTML. Addison Wesley was great about letting me write the book I wanted to write.
   
I work best when I'm really busy. At the time I was averaging 60 hours a week, writing the book and building my web development firm RuleWeb Development with its first big project at Discovery Channel Online. I had most of the demos from the book ready before the writing started and it still took a year from start to publication working mostly on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. It was an incredibly rewarding experience - after it was over.

H5: What do you think about DHTML? Has it reached its full potential?

JR: Not even close. DHTML is going to be the front end for all future web applications. It's lightweight and it's easy to program by comparison with older languages. I've been disappointed that Netscape hasn't done more with it. Netscape 4.5 would have been a great opportunity to flesh out their DHTML offering and they didn't do it. Microsoft on the other hand has stepped beyond browsing into making the browser a full-fledged development environment. There are some hidden features in IE5 that will be the building blocks for future web apps. Their ideas of HTML Applications (.HTA files) is amazing.

H5: What has been (or is) your favorite Web (or other) project?

Working at Discovery Channel Online has been the web experience for me. It's a great combination of access to some of the best content in the world, a magnificent brand name and a willingness to experiment, push and define the creative extremes of the web. It's also a great place to be for the coming of convergence of web and TV.

H5: How do you keep up with new Web technologies?

JR: My niche in web development has always been the bleeding edge. I've been lucky to be the one who was hired to translate the buzzwords into examples for clients. I religiously visit Web development-related Web sites. I also try to experiment with new promising technologies. Sometimes they stick sometimes they don't. I was in early with DHTML and it paid off. I was in early with SMIL and it's been slow to be adopted. You never know. Dynamic HTML and Flash, while not new, are going to be the hot web technologies of the next couple years.

H5: Where do you see the Web going in the next few years?

JR: The web as we know it will be fragmenting in the next few years. Broadband and Interactive TV will hopefully cause a resurgence in content development and allow the web to both compete and work with television. I frankly couldn't be happier that Interactive TV failed the first time around. Can you imagine what would have happened if the Baby Bells had implemented a proprietary Interactive TV standard? The web would have never developed, prices would be sky high and getting access to development tools would be nearly impossible. Instead the web grew organically with development tools available to everyone. Now those web development tools and infrastructure are coming back to build Interactive TV in a new form.
   
The second big development is going to be the end of web sites and the development of web applications. It will be a move from information access to information manipulation. E-commerce will obviously be a big application.
   
The biggest challenge is going to be the schism of the web into high and low bandwidth users. How can you please someone who has the equivalent of a T1 line coming into their house with content that a 33.6 modem user can download. I expect premium services to evolve around the high bandwidth content that will help to pay for the additional costs and move the web as a whole to a stable revenue model.

H5: What do you hate about the Web?

JR: The worst thing about the web is that it has destroyed my patience. Working on the web means you have access to information now, either off the web or by e-mail. When I have to integrate with the real world and have to wait four to six weeks for something it drives me up the wall.

H5: What do you love about the Web?

JR: I love having access to information 24/7, movie times, new book publication dates, latest news, e-commerce. It's all right there.

H5: What changes would you like to see in the Web?

JR: I'd like to see the web accessible on a wider range of platforms. Let's admit it, computers are hard to use. I'm always wasting time tweaking my machine or upgrading it. Normal people don't want to do this. I love devices like WebTV. Talk about interface design! I think the possibility of digital TV and the web coming into your house on ADSL or cable modem on a $199 set-top box controlled from the remote and a wireless keyboard is great.

H5: What advice do you have for beginning designers?

JR: The best thing a beginning designer can do is drop $24.95/month in an ISP and get a domain name. Get www.yourname.com and start building. That way everything you learn will be preserved in one place. I started DHTML Demos as a depository for my Dynamic HTML examples. I did it so my examples would all be in one place and organized so I could find them. It has also helped bring in a lot of work and the book contract.

H5: What types of hidden features are there in IE5?

JR: IE5 has a number of developments that make development easier. The main one is DHTML Behaviors. Using behaviors all the scripting is kept as an external reusable file (HTC file). When the "behavior" contained in the script is needed it is simply attached to an object on the web page such as a graphic with a simple line of code. If the Behavior was a drag and drop behavior the graphic could be made drag and drop simply by setting this one property. Making properties such as this reusable means that code can be used as a component and mixed and matched for rapid development even by people who don't understand the behavior.

H5: What's amazing about HTA? Why (and how) would someone go around building those?

JR: HTML Applications install just like regular application and launch from the desktop with an icon, but the application is written in HTML or any other web technology supported by Internet Explorer. This is because the application just launched is a web page without all the navigation buttons, pull down menus and spinning IE logos. All the navigation happens inside the window area. You can link to external web pages or run it all off the hard drive or use a combination of the two. This can all be done by changing your HTML externsions to HTA and adding some code to the page:

<HEAD> <TITLE>HTML Application</TITLE> <HTA:APPLICATION ID="Jeff App" APPLICATIONNAME="Web App" BORDER="none" CAPTION="no" ICON="/graphics/launcher.ico" SHOWINTASKBAR="no" SINGLEINSTANCE="yes" SYSMENU="yes" WINDOWSTATE="maximize"> </HEAD>

Suddenly you're writing hybrid applications that run from the hard drive, but are always accessing new material from the web to keep up to date. Macromedia has been trying to do this on CD-ROM, but here is a easy way to do it with web tools. Web developers make the easy transitions to application developers.

H5: What advice do you have for people who want a good programming education?

JR: I have no idea, my education has been terrible. I've worked my way back from Photoshop to where I am now without ever taking a programming class. In the mean time I've learned a lot of stuff in a way that would make most programmers shudder. I think its important to learn the basis of logical thought and program development on an easy language. Try Javascript or Macromedia's Lingo and then work your way to the hard stuff.

H5: Which of your skills and experience best prepared you for a career in web development?

JR: I was lucky to get in a few years in CD-ROM development before the bottom fell out of the market. At the time I thought CD-ROM was going to be the thing. The internet was something you sent e-mail over. Ironically doing CD-ROM development left me in a great position for developing broadband applications. I've gone from a 9600 baud modem to an ADSL connection and guess what I'm almost back to having the speed of a 1X CD-ROM. It all comes back around, only faster.

H5: When do you see broadband making a serious impact in the way Web development is done?

JR: It's having a impact now. There are a lot of people doing demos now of Interactive TV and broadband development and at some point that content is going to escape from the lab and grind your 56K connection to halt. My companies latest site BroadBand Zone is all about anticipating this moment when the web divides into the "haves" and the "have nots".

H5: How do you see Web development will be done in regards to making broadband Web sites?

JR: There are a lot of tools out there that have been waiting for the day when broadband appears. Shockwave has been waiting for years to fulfill its promise. I can remember creating a 15MB Shockwave file when the 14.4 modem was new, there was no way that thing was fitting down a wire. Broadband is going to be about accepting content in any form. When you have a fast connection and plug-ins install automatically then who cares about a 1 or 2 MB plug-in? I see streaming video being the first hog of this new bandwidth followed by development of great interactive and collaborative applications.


Christopher Schmitt isn't a stranger to the High Five. He has won second place in the High Five Student Contest and won the Cover Contest before being nabbed as producer of the site in late 1997. Presently, Christopher, a Web consultant, is co-founder of the Web design shoppe, Media Collective, and inventor of the Web Design Pad.