28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXV

Users can play their own music on their own time.

When the internet was a little younger, its destinations more foreign and its designers less aware of what they were getting into, websites were full of splash pages and blink tags and animated gifs of spinning mailboxes that linked to webmasters’ email addresses. One annoyance in particular, which still rears its head from time to time, was the embedding of audio into web pages.

A decade or so ago, before broadband overcame dialup and bandwidth was a precious commodity, websites would embed MIDI files which saved load times, but sounded a lot like a Casio keyboard playing elevator-style renditions of radio hits. As technology improved, audio files could be compressed and included on sites, loading slower, sounding flatter and skipping if the connection couldn’t keep up. It wasn’t perfect, but we finally had auditory accompaniment to our blink tags and spinning mailboxes.

Around the turn of the century, music groups began sprouting up all over cyberspace. Most bands on the radio had some sort of web presence, from an offshoot of a label’s site to their very own domain. I used to type band names into my address bar, followed by .com, and see where I ended up. A majority of the sites welcomed me by sending the band’s most recent single through my speakers, at whatever volume they had been set to. Hardly a warm welcome, especially considering some of the stuff I listened to back then. And in many cases, there was no audio navigation to be found–no Stop, no Pause, no volume control– so I was forced to either sit through the entire song, leave the site, or turn off my speakers, and my own music along with them.

The very reason I thought to visit many of these sites was because I was already a rather loyal fan, and in most cases, I already owned the music. In fact, there was a good chance I was listening to the very band whose site I was visiting, so forcing the same music through the same speakers at the same time was a bit unnecessary.

There are several ways to embed an audio clip into a block of HTML, and while today the options have been whittled down to a handful of refined, browser-friendly choices, a few years ago this wasn’t the case: designers had to choose from QuickTime, Real Audio, Windows Media Player, a bunch of third-party plugins, and even dropping entire audio files into an HTML editor and hoping visitors’ browsers understood how to handle them. We also had CD players and radios that played what we chose to hear, especially during leisure time which we spent browsing the internet. So forcing a user to listen to a song–even by a band they would probably enjoy, given their decision to visit the site in the first place–isn’t the friendliest way to welcome new visitors.

Today we have sites like PureVolume and Myspace, both aimed (at least in part) at helping bands reach a larger audience. Myspace uses Flash Player to play songs on a band’s profile page, but also lets users play music on their own pages. By default, the music starts on its own, unless a user logs in and changes the audio settings. Essentially, browsing a dozen user profiles could lead to a dozen songs playing automatically. We also have iPods, Pandora and XM radio, offering a much larger selection of music we can play at any time, and the choice to listen to music while browsing is becoming cheaper and easier. Why disturb users with something they may not want to hear at the time?

People browse websites at various times of the day, in various moods, and in various settings. Computers are used in libraries, on airplanes, and near sleeping babies. As it’s so far impossible for a computer to determine whether or not it’s a good idea to put some music on, it’s best to leave it up to the user to press Play. And a Pause button is never a bad idea either.

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