Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited
By just exchange one for the other giv'n 1
By just exchange one for the other giv'n
Keywords: Internet, Discussion lists
One reader has asked me to comment on forums, newsgroup and news lists. These are all three different ways of allowing the general public to exchange (not to impose) views on any particular subject, as the sub-title of this article implies. For the context, I'll use "group" as the generic term for all these. However, in the technical fields of work, groups serve a very useful purpose in that anyone with a question can ask his peers for an answer. In our fields of activity, there are many of them ranging from the general through to the highly specialised.
It may be that you will be able to find several discussion groups covering the same subject. It could be that each one is in a different format: if so, then you will be able to choose the format which is most convenient for your method of working. A forum is where a user types an initial message, usually on a specialised form, which is the start of a "thread". Anyone wishing to respond to this message will do so with a similar form. The forum is always displayed on a Web page and usually gives a list of the titles of a thread, which can be double-clicked. On the other hand, a newsgroup is a specialised form of e-mail communication. It is less explicit than a forum and, according to how you have set up your messenger software, you can more easily choose the order in which you wish to view the messages. This format is very popular with software manufacturers who prefer delegating technical support to the general public, rather than employing specialists to answer individual e-mails - it is cheaper for them! The news lists are totally different in that if they operate using a pure e-mail system. You send a message, whether it be a new thread or a response, to a given e-mail address from which it is automatically forwarded to all the subscribers.
Many of the forums and newsgroups are open to everybody, without the need to register. This is good, because it allows you to protect your privacy behind a pen name and sometimes even without a display of your e-mail address. Registration is compulsory for a news list subscriber but is also often required for users of the other two systems. If such registration asks only the essential questions, this should not be objectionable. Unfortunately, many of the registration systems ask extremely indiscreet questions and it could be understood that some of these would be objected to. For example, one well-frequented forum asks users which technical magazines they read and which conferences, exhibitions etc. they attend. This has got nothing whatsoever to do with the organisers of a forum and this type of question, along with details of your work, can serve only for targeted junk e-mailing. I strongly recommend that users never answer such questions, even if it means that they cannot join a forum.
Almost without doubt, the most popular group within our industry is Technet, run by the IPC. This belongs to the news list category. Registration is very simple and open to all. The only questions asked are your name and e-mail address. As with many list groups, you may have the choice of a number of options, such as whether you wish to receive the messages individually or in the form of a digest. This is a personal preference but I prefer the individual messages because it is much easier to maintain the threads and to post a reply. However, many users do not understand that the integrity of the threads is only maintained if the subject-matter is never modified: unfortunately, many of the threads are fragmented because they change them. What may not be commonly realised is that the IPC run many other similar groups covering a wide range of subjects. This includes design, legislative compliance, chips, a number of IPC matters, lead-free solder, computer-aided-manufacturing, training and so on. Of course, anyone may apply to be a member of any combination of these groups. They all work in a similar manner. To join Technet or any of the other IPC lists, go to http://ipc.org/html/forum.htm for full registration instructions.
The next most popular group is probably the SMTnet. This takes the form of a fully-fledged forum which can be sub-divided into a number of smaller forums or maintained as a single one covering all the subjects. It is quite a flexible system but a little heavy in its implementation with often very long load-times. Registration is optional and, quite frankly, I do not recommend it. Although some of the questions asked are not required, many of them are indiscreet. Assuming you do not wish a personal Web page on the site, the only advantage in registering would be the possibility of not having to type in your name and e-mail address when responding to a post. It should perhaps be mentioned that the site is frequently modified in its form, so that what is said here may not be valid by the time this journal goes to press. The SMTnet forum is directly accessible at http://www.smtnet.com/electronicsforum
Apart from these major groups, there are, of course, a host of smaller ones. These can generally be divided into two forms: those which deal with a specific sub-sector, such as cleaning, ECAD, assembly etc. and those which are run by a company and are broadly specific to that company's products or services. The former may be very valuable, even though they are sometimes so specialised that they have relatively few threads started. As always, it is quality rather than quantity that counts. Of course, company-run forums, relating to surface mounting or soldering, are sometimes within a general Web site but are more often separate: they are very specific and relatively rarely used, albeit very useful if they are managed correctly. However, there is a risk that if a "post" is negative towards a company product, someone may be tempted to remove it from view. It is my opinion that this would be a pity as it may provoke a good, heated discussion that would give the original "poster" a different outlook which will help him use the product much more successfully.
Forum "netiquette" should always be observed when writing a contribution. The obvious things like not using obscenities or other offensive language should not need to be mentioned. As far as possible, there should be no mention of product names, although this is sometimes inevitable. Such an example may be: "When using my XXX chipshooter on a multiple panel, it adds 0.1mm to the X co-ordinate on each of the second and subsequent circuits. Has anyone experienced a similar thing and how can I avoid it?". Advertising is strictly verboten on all forums. It would be an error to reply to the above, for example, with: "Throw away your XXX chipshooter and replace it with my company's YYY one: it is much better than the pile of junk you have.". Similarly, it would be a solecism to post a message stating that "the salesman of company ZZZ told me that I would absolutely need a gizmo on a machine he sold me and which is costing me thousands per month. In fact, my neighbour has a similar machine without a gizmo and he is getting better results without the expense". This is a matter between you, the machine manufacturer and the salesman and it serves no useful purpose to air one's dirty linen in public. Quite apart from this, in today's litigious society, you may find you tread over the thin borderline of the libellous. Another minor problem occasionally seen is the misunderstanding, either because someone does not have a perfect command of English or simply because he has hastily written something that has been misinterpreted. I have seen many long threads wasting time and effort on such a misconception. If wording is ambiguous, it is better to reply, asking for clarification, than to jump to the wrong conclusion. On the other hand, heated discussion-based on differences of opinion are always interesting to read! http://www.multicore.com
In the past, on two occasions, I have reviewed or mentioned the Multicore Solders site (Figure 1), which used to be one of the worst on the Internet in our field of activity. On one occasion, one of the Multicore managers e-mailed to reproach me for daring to give such a negative criticism. I am very pleased to say that things have changed drastically chez Multicore and, because the preamble here is fairly long, I propose devoting the rest of this article to the new site. Notwithstanding, although it is infinitely better than the old site, it is not perfect.
Figure 1A typical product page on the Multicore site. Note the downloadable data sheet and MSDS
Before criticising the site itself, let me say that the new, professional approach to the Web site conception extends to the matter of cookies. I have always been opposed to any site using cookies (as did the old Multicore one), although there may be a few cases where it may be justified. To remind you, a cookie is a short piece of sometimes-encrypted text which visiting a site forces on to your hard disk. Today, it is almost impossible to avoid them. One of the problems is that a cookie can be easily "hacked" by third parties who may learn your browsing habits and even some confidential information. In one case, I found a password in clear language on a cookie on my machine. Like many, I use the same password for many applications over a period of time, so that it would theoretically be easy for anyone to access confidential information with it. The new Multicore site has totally abandoned the use of them and for this, alone, I congratulate them for showing the corporate Internet world that they are not necessary or even desirable.
The Home Page is the one which is, by far, the most controversial on the whole site. Frankly, it is not really to my taste, but I cannot be negative for that, as it is something purely personal. It is composed of two frames with no option to use a browser that does not support frames (yes, they still exist!). In fact, if you try to use one, you obtain a message "This document requires a browser that can view frames. Go get one. NOW!", which some may consider rather too imperative or even arrogant. It would not cost anything to be a little more friendly. However, neither the frameset page nor the frames pages have any meta description or keywords. If Multicore wishes to have maximum exposure to search engine spiders, it should correct this omission as soon as it can. I find this very surprising because the site is obviously professional and, if my memory is good, the old site had them. The appearance of the page is fairly simple. At the top, there is a fixed 24 pixel-high frame common to all the pages, displaying a few navigational tabs. Below this is the main frame which, on the Home Page, offers a corporate-colour red zone with a number of specific drop-down menus, one for each of the main product sectors of the company. The right hand part has a black background with an "engineering drawing" of a five-core solder section, in red, grey and white. The "cores" of this offer hyperlinks to five locations within the site, other than those dealing with products. To my eyes, the overall aspect is one with a certain disparity, as there are three different places with menu links, each with its own style. There are two search facilities on this page: there is a tab entitled Quick Search and another form in the red sector entitled Product Search. The latter, as the name implies, searches only within the product database and will not find anything else. The other searches elsewhere, as well, but does not find any keyword within the site. For example, if one asks for reference to the name of a given distributor, it will not find it. Otherwise, within this limitation, both search facilities work well. However, my main reproach to the design of the Home Page is that there is absolutely no reference to even the name of the company (Multicore Solders Limited) or the address of its corporate headquarters. The nearest that can be found is a link to "Sales Locations". One should not need to search to find out where a company is situated or how to telephone or fax them. I guess that this omission is to give a clean, uncluttered appearance, but it would perhaps have been sufficient to present this information in a single fixed line, rather than have a distracting (in my opinion) marquee script. Downloading time for the Home Page ensemble is reasonable, but with no risk of overtaking a Ferrari.
Happily, the other pages on the site give a consistent aspect, much easier to read and navigate, more pleasing to the eye. The top frame with the tabs is a constant and underneath this are two other frames, the left hand one for data and the right hand one for navigation. They are slightly on the heavy side for the fastest downloading, but just acceptable. For example, the background of the data frame is an enormous graphical representation of the company's logo. This, alone, is 10,182 bytes of downloading, while the all-graphics menu on the right adds another 36,022 bytes. These, together with the top menu, give an aggregate of about 55 kilobytes before any data are displayed. The saving grace is that many of these graphics are repetitive from page to page, so they are partially held in cache. Notwithstanding, the right-hand menu could have been designed with the items in text, rather than graphics form, without losing anything.
The important part of the site is, of course, the dissemination of data. Here, it cannot be faulted and the considerable work that has gone on behind the scenes will surely pay off. Each product in the range has a reference page with a brief description, sometimes a photograph, and the possibility to download the relevant data sheet in PDF format (see Figure 1). I did not used to be very happy with sites requiring a proprietary software to view data sheets and suchlike, but with the new plug-ins (or should that be plugs-in?) for the latest browsers, it becomes possible to view and print these out almost as if they were HTML documents. They are legible, despite the appearance of having been scanned in from the printed document. Where appropriate, the oh-so-very-important Material Safety Data Sheet is also downloadable in PDF format, unlike some of Multicore's competitors: a big bravo for these new features.
Of the other pages, let's skim through the menu on the right not directly relevant to the products. What's Happening gives a list of current and future exhibitions at which one assumes the company will be exhibiting. It also gives the latest News Releases of which the only one at the time of this review is announcing the launching of this site.
Guess what Worldwide Helpline means! I was quite surprised to find that it was a fairly ill-frequented forum. I feel the title is unfortunate and may be better if it had been called the Multicore Forum or something like that. At least surfers would know at a glance what it is all about. I was a little surprised at the number of posts which are left without an answer. It may be that the organisation is still going through some teething troubles, as often happens at the start of a new forum and a daily systematic reading of the posts by each department head has not yet become the custom. This will no doubt improve as the engine is run in.
Sales Locations is self-explanatory. This is the only place where names and addresses are evident on the site. It is of the "click on a world map, click on a regional map" type. It suffers from a visible fault: if you click on a country without a distributor either you get a message stating that there is no representation there (e.g. Sicily) or there is no response at all (e.g. Cyprus). I would have thought that one would have been automatically shunted to the export department of the corporate headquarters if there were no representation. In any case, is not Sicily part of Italy or has it changed since I was at school? In addition to sales locations, I would have liked to have seen direct e-mail addresses of each of the departmental managers. I'm always scared that an e-mail addressed to sales@joe_bloggs.com lands on the desk of a young lady who hasn't got a clue what it is all about and is afraid to ask her superior, whereas if it is addressed to john_doe@ joe_ bloggs.com, one knows there is a reasonable chance it will be read by the right person.
I'm not sure that Multicore Yellow Pages, on a rather virulent yellow background, is, at its current state of development, very helpful. In most other sites, it would have been headed a more modest Links, whereas there is an implication behind the term "Yellow Pages" which is totally different. It lists a few vendors but they are mainly those who have been working closely with the company for some time. It would need to be much more exhaustive to be useful. On the other hand, the non-commercial sites section, if it included more international links, could be made very useful.
Again, the terminology of Reference Point is doubtful. How many would guess that it is a glossary of terms? What is wrong with simply calling it Glossary, so that everyone, at least, knows what it is?
A small detail: the Multicore site is hosted by a provider in Texas, presumably chosen as being local to the US Multicore plant. Access to this provider's server is reasonably good at quiet times but on a few occasions while researching this article, it did become slow, even timing out. Perhaps, now that Multicore has established its net credentials, it may consider establishing mirror sites in, say, the UK or, perhaps better, Germany and Singapore, so that if a surfer foresees a long session on the site, he could choose the server offering the fastest connection at that time.
To wind up, we have seen Multicore make a welcome quantum leap forward in the design of its Web site. This is reflected in the scores I have given the site, (see Table I) (remember what they had before?). I have mentioned a number of relatively minor points, which are probably mostly mainly teething problems, in the foregoing text. If I have mentioned these (before anyone angrily e-mails me, like the last time!), it is in a constructive spirit, to nudge the site a little closer to perfection, so that a set of straight tens in the score card would be merited. I make no apologies for my harsh criticism of the past: the site merited it. The very fact that the company has made such a radical change must have meant that it was thought that the old site was inadequate. Today, I make no apologies for either the praise I have tried to bestow fairly or the suggestions I have made.
Brian EllisMosfiloti, Cyprus
1 Sir Philip Sidney, The Arcadia, Book 3, First Eclogues, Latus and Dorus, c. 1580 (Ed: the quotation is taken totally out of context, as it is part of a steamy declaration of love!)