Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
Wherefore do ye spend money? 1
Wherefore do ye spend money?
Keywords Internet, Printed circuit boards
I have often severely criticised in these columns, and those of our sister-journals, sites which require very long downloading times. In the past, these "user-unfriendly" sites were mostly because of large graphics files. This is still the case, but animation has become an even greater danger when it is indiscriminately used. A very bad example recently came to my notice when I looked at the site of a Swiss group of printed circuit manufacturers. The site itself was not too exceptional, save that the group had their name rotating in a separate frame. This, believe it or not, took no fewer than 250,000 kilobytes. To say the least, this is more than excessive because it may require minutes to download a file if the connection is poor. As I have often said, potential customers are more likely to be persuaded to stop the download and go to a competitor's site rather than have their time wasted for a minute or so. This is especially so when the heavy graphics are on the Home Page.
A couple of years ago, I suggested that the maximum aggregate length of all the files, graphics included, on the Home Page should not exceed 15-20 kilobytes. Today, with faster modems and better connections, I suggest that 30 kilobytes should be considered the maximum under normal circumstances, possibly 50 kilobytes as an extreme limit (these figures presuppose a fast server and a good connection from the server into the Internet backbone; otherwise even they should be reduced). If the site uses frames (not particularly recommended) then this aggregate should apply to all the frames that appear when the Home Page is downloaded. Alternatively, I suggest that if such a large aggregate file size is necessary, it would be better to have an additional text-only Web as an alternative for those who do not have rapid downloading.
In the case of the site which I mentioned, the aggregate size was at least ten times the maximum which I recommend, so that instead of a typical 20-second download, it took about three minutes with a reasonable connection. It can be imagined, in some developing countries, that this could be extended even longer because most of these nations rely on copper connections rather than optical fibres. Also, the infrastructure of the Internet service providers is less well developed than in the Western world. The moral of the story is to use animated graphics with a great deal of circumspection. It is very rare for an animated graphics to take less than 10 kilobytes - and this must be a very simple one - and most of them take 15 to 20 kilobytes or more.
One question which may be usefully asked is whether animation really serves any useful purpose. Obviously, there are cases when it must do so. However, most of the time, they only serve as visual enhancements of the site. It is all very well making a site look more attractive but not at the expense of frightening customers away, not to mention that, if no one looks at it, it doesn't matter a tinker's cuss whether the site looks good or not! Along the same theme, there is the physical layout of the Home Page. Ideally, a Home Page should fit into a screen running at a resolution of 800 x 600 pixels . Even for a simple Home Page, this is often just not possible, especially on a complex site. If it must be longer, then always make sure that it is never necessary to scroll down more than one screen height. Also, as I have often said, the full company name, address and telephone contacts should be inscribed on the Home Page. It is impolite to ask customers to have to search to find your address. As a rule, when you write a letter on your company letterhead, the reader does not find the address on the third page but very visibly on the first page and so it should be on a Web site.
I am going to offer a criticism of a single miscellaneous set of sites for this issue's commentary. This is a number of sites of which only one is available, for the moment. However, it is expected that the others will be implemented in the not-too-distant future. These can be found at http://www.web-quote.com This site incorporates quite a number of sub-sites, each of which is independent.
The other sites under the web-quote banner, which are still under development, are for Parts, ICs, Mechanical Work, ASICs, PCs, Printing and Loans. The Parts quotation system will be essentially for electronic components and you will be able to export a bill of materials from a CAD system to the Web site in a similar manner to PCBs, as described below. This is unfortunately likely to be restricted to US components houses, at least in the beginning. The ICs system is essentially similar but uniquely for integrated circuits. The Mechanical system will provide offers for machining, sheet metal work, tooling and dies, welding, painting or coating. The ASIC system will provide quotations for prototypes and production quantities. The PC system will be designed to provide quotations for both distributors and manufacturers and also for systems for integration. The Printing quote system is foreseen to provide the cost of printing manuals, brochures etc. and, possibly the most controversial, the Loan quote system is for obtaining finance for product development and equipment purchases. It is probable that the latter would not be exportable to Europe, which has a totally different attitude towards financing, compared to the USA. When all this is fully implemented, it will be a really complete service.
The one which I shall discuss can be found at this URL (Figure 1). Particularly in the USA, I can describe this site only as fantastically useful. For European users, it is probably less "user-friendly". This is not only because the database of potential suppliers is mostly North American but there is also a question of units and techniques. The site does allow metric units to be used, but these extend only to the basic data and not to details like the thickness of gold plating, which should be specified in microinches. You, at the back of the class there, how many microinches make 2.5µ ± 0.3µ? (The answer is 98.4 ± 11.8 microinches I think, after a go with my HP scientific calculator!) Again, there are some standard PCB formats mentioned, but only those used in the USA, to the exclusion of, for example, the popular Eurocard range of formats. I would suggest that a special European version, tailored to the local market requirements, should be made available, either as a separate site from the same company or licensed to a European organisation. Another limitation is the conductor width/spacing parameters which forbid the introduction of the dimensions of a fine HDIS circuit.
Figure 1 If you are buying or selling printed circuits, a look at this site may be worthwhile
The main part of this site allows registered users to obtain quotations from almost any number of printed circuit board manufacturers (there are clearly plans to extend this Web to cover layout and assembly, as well, but these are not yet accessible). It is possible to limit the number of offers, either geographically or by specifying certain criteria or even approved vendors. Perhaps slightly less ethical, it is also possible for the manufacturers to see the lowest quotations to date from other potential suppliers. This "Dutch auction" may mean that it is almost an invitation to cut quality corners. The information required to obtain a quotation can be supplied either as a file or by filling in a form. The file is in ASCII format and can be generated by a small number of CAD systems which are specified on the site. For other CAD systems, it would require the manufacturers of the latter to provide a custom interface. This would not be difficult, as many CAD systems already have some form of file generation for this purpose. It would seem that some form of standardisation is necessary before this type of quotation can really take off.
I mentioned that registration is necessary to obtain a quotation using this site. This registration format requires answering a considerable number of questions. However, all these questions are of a type that could be expected and are relevant. Nothing indiscreet is required. Once a registration form has been submitted, the user's identification and password are optionally recorded on a cookie. This means that the user does not need to re-submit the identification and password each time he accesses the site. On the other hand, if a user does not allow cookies to be recorded on his own computer, he will need to re-submit these data at each access.
As far as the site itself is concerned, it is reasonably well designed and easy to navigate. I won't say that it is the best site I have ever visited but I cannot say that it is even close to the worst one. The Home Page is somewhat on the heavy side with an aggregate of over 70 kilobytes, due mainly to the fact that some 11 forms are set out in a graphics style. My feeling is that it would have been better to have placed these forms on other pages with links from the Home Page. The most important forms are a Buyer's Center and a Vendor's Center. I shall describe these in greater detail in the next paragraph. There is also some information posted about the success of the site. On the date of examination there have been registrations of 2,028 buyers and 400 vendors. There have been 6,749 quotes requested, resulting in 6,425 bids and 1,382 orders. This performance seems impressive. It is substantiated by some testimonials on another page whereby satisfied users claimed that they have saved thousands of dollars. The legibility of the main information is good, but there are a few items of text which are not too easy to read with some combinations of browsers, screen size and resolution (Table I).
The Buyer's Center is an interface to allow you to provide all the information necessary for a quotation. Whether the information is sent as a file or by filling in the form, it is a simple process. The Vendor's Center is slightly more complex; other than the registration, you can obtain software to enable you, the PCB manufacturers, to calculate prices and add some pages to your Web site to provide an automatic online quotation. Your customers have only to fill in the form and they will receive your quotation back by e-mail within a short period of time. This is obviously considerably more complicated and I have not been able to judge the effectiveness of this.
There are also other services offered but not all the links have been implemented for the moment. For example, it is theoretically possible to obtain quotations for layouts and assembly but the links to these pages do not work. My personal feeling is that until these links do work, it would have been better not to introduce them. There are also a number of other links, probably the most important one being a set of Frequently Asked Questions.
It is obvious that a great deal of thought and work has gone into the creation of this site and the services that it offers. Presumably, this is still an ongoing process and it will be interesting to see how it develops. Who pays for this service? It would seem that it is free for buyers and that the vendors are charged a small fee for the opportunity to quote. There is some talk about replacing this method by a commission system for orders, but it is obvious that this would be much more difficult to implement. What is gratifying is the fact that there are no advertisements of any type throughout the site, so that it can be said that the system is free from all commercial pressure.
Finally, it must be mentioned that communications with the company running this site are not very good. On the Home Page, the only indication is an American 888 phone number (maybe it has not been understood there that this works well only from within North America). The "Contact Us" page gives no further information: it offers only an e-mail form, so that it would be difficult for someone without a forms-compatible browser to contact the company (again, think of the guys in developing nations). There is another reason why I am not keen on forms for communicating with companies: when I e-mail, for example, email@example.com, my messenger software can keep a copy of what I send on file. With a form, you lose what you say for ever. A third reason, which is not applicable in this case, is that forms often request indiscreet and irrelevant questions. I like sites which give the choice of forms and a regular e-mail address.
1 "Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not?", Isaiah lv. 2.