The following guest review was provided by visitor Bill Tyler.
On March 31, 2000 PointCast, once one of the "darlings" of the (ill fated) "push" technology web craze, died. The announcements of its demise were posted with various comments about replacing it with, quoting "something better." As with the QuickTime 4 player, the new program EntryPoint is a questionable "enhancement."
EntryPoint preserves the basic features that made PointCast popular: news/stock ticker, news screen saver, and the ability to "browser" selected stories. It's clear that the change was driven by the desire to replace the old PointCast browser that often could not render some the HTML content provided (from sources like CNN). The result is a smaller, leaner program with fewer "push" demands than its predecessor.
It also includes many new interface problems, reduces usability and "quietly" eliminated many options and features with no comment (at least on their web site as of 28.March.00). Many of these are part of the trend to create "consumer product" interfaces others reflect what must have been a "new product." It seems clear little consideration of what PointCast did well or innovatively was carried over by the new design team.
Another "brushed metal mistake?"
Above is a side by side (OK, "stacked") comparison of the EntryPoint and PointCast "tickers." The ticker, usually displayed at the bottom of the user's screen scrolls news headlines, stock quotes, and other information on the desktop. Neither product uses a standard (Microsoft Windows) window, but it's clear the designers wanted to move to the "brushed metal," consumer interface with few concerns about the many problems this introduced.
A key EntryPoint feature (and probable revenue generator) is the addition of several menus to the ticker. These menus presumably ensure that the user is only a click away from the many services offered on them. Since the ticker is the "main application" this probably appeared necessary. Though there are "browsers" (discussed below) but they decided not to put the new menus into them. The result is often a very densely packed tool with a somewhat cluttered look. Though it may look cool, it has many flaws, including tiny text and graphics that necessitated that their own online tour include a magnifying function to highlight them.
The EntryPoint tool bar shown above is as "small" as possible. It is 733 pixels wide. Obviously the designers didn't consider it necessary to support old monitors at lower resolutions (such as 640x480). Though I haven't tested it in this mode, one can only assume that 800x600 is the minimum resolution required to use the ticker. If this is a requirement, it isn't mentioned as a system requirement. Neither is the elimination of support for Macintosh.
On larger monitors, things don't get much better. The example above clearly shows the problem with this design. The space between the "Info" menu and "Web Search" grows and does nothing. When expanded to full width at 1600x1200, approximately 30-35% of the ticker is "wasted metal." By placing the text into the lower half of the ticker it cannot use the added space, even for a second ticker or increase the font size.
Unlike PointCast, repositioning EntryPoint is considered important enough that a "grab area" was created under the "minimize" and "close" icons (note they're not buttons). PointCast's ticker was not relocatable, so this could be viewed as a feature, but in practice it may not be worth the wasted space.
Less and smaller text, "Now without context!"
To fit into the new design, Entry Point uses a smaller font to squeeze into the smaller "ticker." PointCast not only uses a larger, bold font, it has room for two rows of content so more headlines and information can be read.
Another feature considered unnecessary was identifying the news source by using icons. Headlines in EP could be from any of the (few) sources. The user might prefer to know if a financial story is from the Wall Street Journal instead or CNN (or E!).
A new kind of "minimize button"
Besides the "grab" area a couple points should be made about the minimize and close "buttons." First they're much smaller than standard size and much closer together. It is now much easier to accidentally close instead of "minimizing" the ticker. Next "minimizing" EntryPoint doesn't minimize it as a normal window, it minimizes into an icon in the tool tray. Now that's really minimizing. One wonders why they didn't consider following the precedents of other tools and have the tray icon work a shortcut and let minimize "minimize."
How not to improve text ticker control
One interesting interface element of PointCast is the use of "gesture." For example, you can grab the ticker text and "control it directly." Clicking a news story brings up the news (as it does in EntryPoint). Simply pressing down the mouse button on the ticker holds it. "Dragging" the text controls its direction --and speed. The latter is done by a little trial and error, but it's not too hard to learn to directly set the scroll speed by "nudging" or "throwing" the ticker text around. It also allows the user to "hurry up the ticker" to get at a story that may have caught out of the corner of the eye before it disappeared (or advance to the stock quotes).
This contrasts with EntryPoint. No direction control. No speed control. A tiny, almost invisibly "pause" button at the left edge if you want to (or can) read the headline. The difference, other than the obvious movement when "playing," between play and pause (as shown at left) is not terribly obvious. If a headline scrolls off, you can't drag it back as PointCast allows.
Also gone is the ability to select what news will appear in the ticker. "Everything all the time," unlike PointCast that has a dialog to select only "desired" ticker items. This extends to eliminating some items such as weather for multiple cities (as shown at above). EntryPoint does show a constant weather forecast graphic which saving time waiting for the "home forecast."
I'm a minor league baseball fan. I liked how PointCast collects the weather of all the cities in the league, as well as information about other configured cities. With that, I have the weather for MANY places I want to know about and travel (including internationally).
Now I have a quick glance at the iconic weather for home (a nice improvement), but gone are the handy, pre-loaded, forecasts for everyone else. The new "short cut" is selecting the "Weather Forecast" option and typing the name (or zip code) of the town of interest. That's fine when they're unique (like Sioux Falls) but a pain when they're not (like "London"). Apparently "Weather' is no longer a feature worthy of a browser, unlike "Fun."
Web page interfaces to customize applications
A major surprise with EntryPoint is using a web browser to configure the program, at least some of the time. For example, "Options..." displays a small, standard windows dialog, but "Personalization" requires a browser (above, scaled at 50% and only the topmost part of the page shown, not including the other pages). It's an interesting interface, and it works, but it
|An excellent example of problems when mixing control interfaces shows up when configuring a stock portfolio. Having used PointCast for years I was happy that it "would" import all my portfolio information. Problem is, it couldn't find it and just gave up! (as seen at right). It might be because I didn't install in the default location (probably on C:) since that partition is "full" of the usual system files.
Unfortunately there is no option to allow me to tell EntryPoint where to find it. There's no help either from the dialog or on the web page. And there's the conflicting "Congratulations!" message covered by the cryptic "PC Upload" (did I realize that my information was going off my computer to some server somewhere?). --and finally...
"No, it's not 'OK.'"
It might not have occurred to the programmers to check PointCast or its registry to see where it was since it was both installed and running while trying to import the portfolio. Clearly URL for the "Import" link (via ASP; http://main.entrypoint.com/personalize/PCNUploadConfirm.asp in this case) probably doesn't know where I installed PointCast. Unfortunately the developers didn't give EntryPoint a "recovery path" to "browse" to it.
After sending my flame to EntryPoint, the automated response pointed out that I was should use the "Edit Holdings / Set Alerts" link under the "Selected Symbols." For reasons unknown, they decided that should be a good old-fashioned HTML (blue underlined text) link. Though all other operations on this page use buttons (such as "Add" or "Remove"). This could be because the label would have been rather long or because the feature was added later.
After trying that... I was able to add the portfolio information (on another web page).
It may be fitting that the button (at right) shows the stock market going down, since the features for stocks and portfolios went downhill too. To access the "stocks" browser requires using the new static "Stocks" button. Unlike "News" or "Sports" menus, this sits below with the ticker text since it includes the Dow Jones Industrial Average. That's acceptable, but there are several things that are still annoying:
Then there's the first of many "super tool tips" EntryPoint provides. Hover over the stock or weather tools and you get a summary, not a tool tip. This information is handy and helpful, but it also neglects to tell you what the other tool tips do, namely that clicking the button will bring up more information. It also doesn't prepare you for the fact clicking "Stocks" launches the Stocks window while clicking "Weather" launches a browser window.
What can't you see or do with stocks today?
That brings us to the "Stocks" (Portfolio) browser...
This, of course, has to have a non-standard window presentation that matches the EP brushed metal design. It eliminates the ability to "minimize" the tool -- apparently we're supposed to just "re-open the window" (using the button on the ticker) instead of minimizing (or maximizing) this window.
This interface has a few interesting surprises in it. First we find our list of portfolio entries displayed as "web links" (blue underlined text). No, the tool tips DON'T provide more information here. Just the painfully obvious, "Click on the symbol to view the stock details." Click them and a browser window shows the "details" -- in a browser window.... unless you select the non-standard "Stock Detail" button on the lower left of the window. Then you get some information in that window pane and another "details" link in that window. The blue links in that window go to the web browser.
This "Details" window is interesting since one thing they chose to leave out was the "current details." Apparently we're supposed to read the small (unconfigurable size) text. A nice background graphic (behind the 52 WK high/low) indicates how the company did, but they chose NOT to (re-)display the stock information of the day in this window pane. Scroll your portfolio and you won't see it at all. Resizing the window expand the portfolio pane. But you can only see three news headlines no matter how tall you try to make the window so there's no reason to try to resize the "Detail."
A little design change and all the information could be displayed, including more news stories assuming that downloading them wouldn't add significantly to the "content push" to this browser.
How not to "improve" a news portal
I live in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota, U.S.A). Amongst the news options Point Cast is the local paper (Minneapolis Star Tribune). One of the "enhancements" of EntryPoint is to omit this option. I also lost "Wired News," another daily favorite. As a user lost a news browser I prefer to the actual websites (since they're periodically preloaded --remember "push," with smaller banners, simple headlines and simple text). I imagine that many other long time users may lament the loss of their local papers and other news sources.
And there's no explanation "why" this happened in this "better browser." PointCast had a very large collection alternate news sources, but apparently they weren't signed onto the move to EntryPoint and there's no explanation. Though it's not uncommon for websites to remove features, such a massive loss of choices (from several dozen to less than a dozen) that were a major feature of PointCast should have at least rated a simple FAQ response. In fact, the FAQ list is rather brief about the changes between PointCast and EntryPoint. Given how jarring the change can be, it might have been "nice" to provide some apologies or hint if favorite features might return.
As with Stocks, News has it's own non-standard window with non-standard buttons. Unlike the Stocks browser, the links (to the web browser) aren't the traditional blue underline; now they turn read as you move over them.
If you hover you get the get the "Mega Tool Tip" headline and first paragraph/summary. These almost certainly push the limits of what is acceptable for a "tool tip." Big bold headline and large text to read.
It's an interesting summary, but why didn't the News developer(s) tell the Stock developer(s) to do it? This feature is so inconsistently used it's easy to assume that the programmers saw mockups of the graphic look and feel but were allowed to experiment with the "cool tool tip" summary.
Apparently the EntryPoint developers didn't look much at the old PointCast or Windows interfaces. They could have learned a lot. First off, all subjects and stories are displayed in a long list. No tabs (as in PointCast allowing faster access), no expanding/collapsing sections (as in Windows or Macintosh). It's "all or nothing." Select a wide collection of topics and you're scrolling quite a ways between sections.
Are we using "Fun" yet?
The new "Fun" feature displays a browser as the others (News, Sports, Stocks) do, but its interface has some surprises. If you start, as I did, trying the "serious" browsers you think you understand the GUI affordances until you try "Fun."
Unlike the other browsers, "Fun" has very few options. Click "Comics" or "TV Listings" and you're off to a web browser. The affordance that doesn't stand out is that these buttons aren't in the "dark gray" box area like the other, nearly identical buttons. When comparing the four "browsers" together the "importance" of the "dark grey" box applies to "target" the resulting information (except for the blue text in the "Stocks" as mentioned above). At least the "Fun" developer talked to the News developer and we have the "Mega Tool Tip" summary.
Other "web fun" with EntryPoint
Now is a good time to mention some other problems with a blended interface architecture. PointCast cached all the information when pulled (should I have said "pushed?") from the web ready to read. It may not be current, but it is on your hard disk and labeled when it was last updated. You can control when it's updated, unlike EntryPoint.
The current state of the web can't ensure that any of EntryPoint's (web) buttons will work when clicked. For the (probably bewildered) user, knowing which buttons "always work" (display a local dialog) and those that may not work (due to no modem connection, busy servers, bad DNS lookup, etc.) probably makes for a busy customer service department. And then there's browser variation (Netscape, IE) that might influence operation. And what if the browser crashes?
Focus "fun" with "Mega Tool Tips"
Now is a good time to explore two more other surprises with "Mega Tool Tip"
Do you really need another media player?
A tool the folks at EntryPoint think you need is yet another media player. It's difficult enough to deal with RealPlayer and Windows Media Players you may need for websites, but you now have no choice but to have screen space dedicated to EntryPoint's. Unlike the rest of EntryPoint, it has a separate menu and "personalization pages" (not part of the "main" personalization web pages).
Another surprise is that it isn't downloaded with the rest of EntryPoint. The first time you click one of its buttons, it downloads itself and attempts to install itself. I say attempt, because I had some problems getting this to work on my NT. Interrupting the download, clicking more than one button, can cause EntryPoint to start multiple downloads and installs. These "stomp" on each other while processing.
Assuming you like this player it's great to have the CD controls in the ticker. If you don't, then it's a waste of space.
Trying it was difficult for me since it repeatedly crashed trying to load a CD. What it appears to do though is annoying enough. It displays a window asking to add tracks for the CD inserted. It dutifully does, that then presents a dialog indicated it did it. I can only hope there's some configuration option that allows you to tell it to do (or not do) this automatically.
Menus you can't configure
EntryPoint provides three new menus that will purpotedly link to sites associated with them. At present the last entries suggest "More..." but the resulting link is to an "Under Construction" page. What would seem useful here is to import bookmarks or a menu that the user could configure. The simplest way to do this is to enter a URL into the "web search" box and click "Go."
eWallet & Shopping
After all my frustrations, I didn't bother trying these features. What I see in eWallet is another "real world" metaphor, but I'll leave it to someone else to try it. @:^) Yes, the "Help" button launches a web browser. But can you find the close button?
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