All you need is bandwidth

Given the Fab Four's legendary reputation, how were developers able to build an official Web site that could do justice to the Beatles name?

Answer: With a little help from their friends - not to mention industry-proven development tools and some custom software.

Officials at EMI Records Ltd. and Apple Corps Ltd. in London timed the launch of www.beatles.com last November to coincide with the release of "The Beatles 1" CD, a compilation of 27 chart-topping Beatles singles.

The result is a site built with state-of-the-art tools that engages users with quirky navigation, many interactive components, colorful graphics, sound and even gammes with live chat.

The site could offer lessons to developers of mainstream businesses that want to push their Web sites beyond HTML and simple graphics content to lure employees and customers or improve the cachet of the company name, analysts said.

Sending Help! In a Hurry

Web developer Dan Sayers built the Beatles.com interactive Help! game in six months with the assistance of a colleague at Web development firm Kleber. The game allows as many as 40 people to chat and play in real time and is found under the "Help!" song page on www.beatles.com and at www.helpgame.net. Sayers spoke with Computerworld's Matt Hamblen about the challenges.

Q: How did the development process go?

A: There were no problems in development, just a lot of hard work over six months. Probably the biggest blind alley or rethink was deciding to code my own chat server instead of using Macromedia's . . . Shockwave Multi-user Server. It doesn't, unfortunately, have the facility to manipulate information on the server side, which turned out to be vital for the project.

Q: How was the chat server built?

A: I had already been working on simple relay chat engines in Perl, so coding my own server wasn't as much of a leap as it might sound. But doing things this way did, in fact, cause problems later. We were unable to stress-test my code much before it went live Nov. 13. We had to rewrite a lot of the code on the fly when it went up.

As soon as it went live, it crashed almost instantly from all the people trying to get into it. The process of fixing the live server/game was one of the most intense periods of my life -- stressful and exhilarating, looking for bugs, panicking at the crashes, getting feedback. Even people inside the game helped me via chat with improvements.

Q: How did you get involved in the first place?

A: I had no real-world experience making a working chat server. My experience previously was coding Perl and [Personal Home Page] with databases for [Common Gateway Interface] applications, plus some JavaScript. I don't think Kleber would have even considered taking on such a job if it hadn't been for the client. Just the idea of doing something innovative for the Beatles' first official Web site seemed too good an opportunity to be missed.

Q: What were the technical and content criteria from the Beatles' promoters about your part of the Web site?

A: The only brief was very wide, really. They just said they wanted people to do the most cool and impressive things they could.

Even the way the Beatles.com site was built could offer a lesson in orchestrating a crash development process that brings together a variety of styles and content. Fifteen Web development companies were chosen to build the site, said Anthony Cauchi, senior new media manager at EMI as the site was being built and now head of development at Web marketing and production firm Outside Line in London. Given that the project needed to be done in six months, "this approach lets you develop a lot of things at once, which is very handy," he said.

The 15 developers also employed different graphic and interactive styles. "The Beatles' music and appeal stretches so far around the world, we felt the Web site needed to reflect this variety," Cauchi explained.

Like many sites on the Web today, Beatles.com has both low-tech and high-tech entry points to accommodate the different bandwidth connections and browsers of end users. The high-tech entrance requires Flash 5 and Shockwave 8 multimedia players, both plug-ins from Macromedia Inc. in San Francisco. High-tech access is possible with a 56K bit/sec. dial-up modem and allows users to play games and take virtual tours -- features missing from the low-tech HTML version.

High-tech users view moving graphical images on the site that are packaged with dozens of streaming video and audio clips, original animation and interactive online games. All users can also see original record labels and studio production notes for each song on 27 different pages.

One virtual reality feature allows an Apple QuickTime VR tour of Studio 2, where the Beatles recorded many hit songs. Users can stand where the Fab Four stood and played and see the other musicians in 1963-era black-and-white photos.

Another feature allows a user to pan around a 3-D animated city scene with the Beatles performing "Get Back" atop the roof of the Saville Row home of Apple Records on Jan. 30, 1969. Color photos of the Beatles from that impromptu live concert, which was their last, are combined with the actual song, street sounds and animation of the band.

In the Help! game on the site, four players assume the characters of Paul, John, Ringo and George. Using text chat over the Web, they navigate together through animated rooms and outdoor scenes to find three guitars and a drum. If they avoid being eaten by the Blue Meanies (the animated monsters first seen in the Beatles' Yellow Submarine movie), the players enter a stage and play a Beatles song piped in from a server before a live Web audience. Up to 40 people can simultaneously play Help!, a limit that was quickly reached when the game was unveiled.

Beatles.com Web site Cauchi said the site would have had to be built differently a year ago, because the Macromedia software authoring tools today are more efficient to use than earlier versions. Analysts predict that animations will be catapulted even further ahead with 3-D streaming animation rendering technology that's under development through the combined efforts of Macromedia, Intel Corp. and NxView Technologies Inc. in Cary, N.C.

"We used Flash 5 and Shockwave 8 to the limit. That's why it was a good time to bring the Beatles to the Web: because the Web medium is reaching mass market and the technology is getting very exciting," Cauchi said.

While the games and chat functions on Beatles.com may not seem important to mainstream businesses, the site's navigation with animated objects "is definitely where businesses on the Web need to go," said Rikki Kirzner, an analyst at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

Businesses selling products on the Web will want to take advantage of development tools to help customers rotate productts, walk through the products' features and explore how they work, Kirzner said.

For example, NxView Technologies specializes in providing businesses with the ability to show their products on Web sites from various viewpoints with walk-throughs users can navigate, she said. Several consumer automobile sites already let users rotate a camera view of the interior of a new car model using the same QuickTime VR technology Beatles.com employs for a Studio 2 tour.

The Beatles.com project wasn't without technical obstacles. One difficulty developers faced was sharing hundreds of Beatles images taken from different time periods across 27 different templates for the 27 song pages without a centralized database, Cauchi said.

The inability to share images over a common database is typical of problems for big retailers and manufacturers selling products to consumers and other businesses over the Web, several analysts said.

Web developer Dan Sayers at London-based Kleber developed the Help! game with colleague Hawken-Bright Roberts in approximately six months' time. They primarily used Shockwave and Flash, but Sayers found that he had to create a custom tool to make the chat functionality work when the Shockwave Multi-user Server couldn't do the job.

The use of online games and chat functionality like those in the Help! game is controversial on mainstream business sites. There's limited value in posting games or chat rooms on a business site, Kirzner explained, "unless you are trying to appeal to teenagers."

But some traditional businesses say games help bolster the image and visibility of the company brand.

For example, the Web site for Merck & Co. in Whitehouse Station, N.J., poses anatomy, pharmaceutical and other medical questions in an online knowledge test and offers winners free T-shirts. Moving animations are also used to show basic anatomy, such as how the heart functions.

"I think Merck makes good use of games and information archives to inform their potential clientele and make evident their expertise," said Scott Prentice, director of Web development at Montreal Media Corp., who has worked with many large corporations. "A good game creates a relationship of trust between the user and the company. It also helps to create community."

Not a lot of games and chat are used on traditional business sites, but they are starting to show up, especially to attract new employees or explain a business process, said Kipp Lynch, director of user experience at NerveWire Inc., a Newton, Mass.-based consultancy for business-to-business Web development. "Games and interactions can help if you are trying to attract cutting-edge recruits for your company and want to create the perception of 'We're not some old stodgy company,' " Lynch said.

"Yes, there's a place for games on traditional business sites, but it depends on how they are used and targeted," added Billy Pidgeon, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrics in New York. "Developers may use games to build brand recognition, especially if you have a young audience or a fun product like food."

But, Pidgeon warned, "the real danger is that people might go to your site and just play the game and not get the brand message. And while the new development tools are cheap and easy to use, they can cause a user's browser to crash . . . which can drive those users away."

This story, "All you need is bandwidth" was originally published by Computerworld.

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