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Websites (history)

Here's a rundown of some of the website's I've been involved in, starting right back at the beginning, Autumn of 1995...

Acorn Cybercafé

My first website was something of a rush job. One Thursday afternoon I got a call from ArgoNet, a company I'd done some design work for. The Acorn World show was coming up - in those days a large computer show held at Wembley. Could I design them a website, a cyber café, which would be used by many of the show's vistors? Oh, and could I get it finished by Monday? I took a deep breath and said yes. Two things that make this story a little more interesting:
  1. This was in 1995, when very few people knew web design, and
  2. ...this included me - I fibbed to get the work. I didn't even have Internet access at home.
I immediately ran to the nearest WHSmiths and bought up as many magazines on web sites as I could afford - in those days they published links to interesting websites, which came in handy. I got a package of blueprints for the stand on Friday morning, and by Saturday afternoon had finished the site. A whole seven pages! Woohoo!
Back in those days, Acorn were big enough in the UK market that the popular BBC kids TV show did an outside broadcast from there. And they mentioned the Cyber Café! I was so excited that my work was going to be on TV! So of course they filmed the café from the side, and only cut to the computer monitors when they'd followed a link to some other website. Bah! But I eventually got a full-time job out of it, so it wasn't all bad.
Cybercafe Cybercafe Graphics Cybercafe on TV Cyberzone
A screenshot of that first website, along with a larger rendering of the cental graphic,
the Cybercafé (almost) on TV, and finally the Cyberzone - version 2 of the site, for another show.

Some items to note: the background is a blurred-out mockup of the real cybercafé, hence the need to send blueprints of the stand; the TV link is a Blue Peter badge, which shows that there was prior knowledge of their filming (and an attempt to suck up that didn't get any screen time); Movies came on VHS-format video tapes, not shiny, shiny discs; and mobile phones were bigger and uglier.

Evolution of a Company

The "I do not work for Argo Group any more" thing put to rest. Try to keep up, because I'm only going to explain this just the once.
I started work for QD Enterprises, which traded as VTi/Eclipse, except by the time I started they were mainly trading as ArgoNet. QD Enterprises became Argo Interactive Limited after a selling shares in 1996 - one of the first online share offers? Argo Interactive Limited traded mostly as Argo Group, but retained ArgoNet as a separate ISP. Then Andrew Foyle, who had started QD in the first place, went off and started Imparo, which then bought ArgoNet back off Argo Group. So ArgoNet is/was owned by... Freedom2, which is owned by Imparo as well, and started off life as Passport2Learn, which was a breakaway company from the original Argo Group's ArgoNet. Got that? So ArgoNet is not owned by Argo Group. It's probably owned by Freedom2, but then again, by the time you read this, maybe not. [Edit: not. Freedom2 went bust, so the domain is now handled by Paul Vigay's Orpheus Internet. Paul used to work for ArgoNet as support dude, now he owns his own ISP. And hosts this server, so I'll be nice.]
Anyway, at some point I probably designed websites for all of the above, starting in 1996. Some of these have been screen grabbed and pinned to this web page like the colourful corpses of long-dead butterflies.
Very old ArgoNet Very old links Argo2 Argo3
One of my first attempts at an ArgoNet site... ...including a novel navigation bar at the bottom of some pages My first Argo Group site, so designed because Andrew liked the BMW site with a similar layout A more serious Argo Group design
Argonet Xmas P2L F2T
The current-ish ArgoNet site, which has been like that for ages. Not my fault! I'm a developer now! The alternative Christmas header (from an older version, hence more options) Passport2Learn... ...and the Freedom2Teach variation of the same site
F2ring1 F2ring2 Freedom2 Imparo
A groovy ring-based navigation... ...which kind of got ruined when we weren't allowed to use the Argo Group sail any more The current-ish Freedom2 site The current Imparo site


Futurenet Launch DSC0051
Medium 640x480, 65KB
Small 400x300, 21KB
Medium 640x480, 64KB
Small 400x300, 15KB
Futurenet was kind of interesting: an NC-based Internet system for a sales force in the Philippines (and not anything to do with Future Publishing). This was supposed to be huge - one of the images below shows the auditorium full of people during the launch. Then it kind of fell through - I heard whispers of the initials F, B and I. Oops. Anyway, apparently it's quite scary going into an auditorium that has a sign up asking for all guns to be checked at the door, so I'm quite glad I didn't get to travel on this project ;)
But here's an advertising banner that somehow got used in the random ad displaying test code...
Advert mabel

Area 51/Nevada/Restricted Access

No such problems with this secret project. This was to bolt Internet connectivity to a games console to test new features such as saved game swapping, chat, downloadable games and so on. "Bolt on" is a fairly accurate description - there was an Acorn NC glued to the underside of the games machine. The NC had a custom modem card - the software was completely updated with extra flash storage; and the modem part was removed in favour of two serial ports - one for an external modem, one for uplink to the games machine. Along with a fourway power supply the whole lot was then glued to a piece of wood! A couple of hundred of these were shipped around Europe. Of all the ISPs involved across the continent, BT were the most problematic - they'd make the changes necessary to get the service running, and then someone else would come along behind them and switch it back off.

Project images

area51 concept config config2
area51 concept config config2
throbber teamargo diagram diagram2
throbber teamargo diagram diagram2
I quickly knocked up a green-and-black site as a proof of concept, just laying out what pages were needed and paying as little attention as possible to the graphics. To fill the gaps I nicked bits from my image library and "greened" them for a blueprinty, old greenscreen monitor kind of vibe. Alas the company involved liked the look and insisted on a greyscale theme! I tried to sneak in some colour (concept.gif) but I guess they were more interested in what people thought of the features than confusing the matter with design. The customised hardware setup pages had a colourscheme based on a Duracell battery, at least for a while. "throbber" is the technical term for that animated deely that shows you when a web browser is fetching something. The team photo was sneaked into a few spare bytes on the flash ROM. And some diagrams from the project documentation, kept deliberately small so you can't read them :)


shot01 shot02 shot03 shot04

Groovy personalised home pages

Bigstars Dino Fire Flower
Grid Industrial Orange Stars

Freedom2 (News Service)

With ArgoNet originally specialising in supplying Internet connectivity to Acorn machines, they quickly got into small devices like WAP 'phones via the Acorn NC (Network Computer). I was put to work designing websites for NCs, and later WAP phones, and then multi-platform portal stuff.
Freedom2 (not the later company, but the original news service) was a sort of proof of concept that got touted around a few companies. As a test platform I also got to try out a bunch of new ideas. Not sure if a news site really needs a button to give you a random passage from Sun Tzu's Art of War, but we had one...
The site was basically one big-assed program that detected what sort of device was requesting data, and output customised information. There were four main categories - full HTML, simplified HTML, WML and HDML. These categories could then be sub-divided - PDAs would get simple HTML with big icons for touch-sensitive screens; ancient Macs would get simpler black and white pages; and TV devices had bigger text and images, with dark backgrounds and light text. A variety of WML variables had to be catered for, to be able to handle the wildly varying pages sizes and other capabilities (text effects, images etc.). A suite of subsiduary programs grabbed data from various websites to keep information up-to-the-minute.
As a testbed for various new ideas, it was also the first website I'd designed that changed colour according to the time of day. This one had a crude, fixed concept of "sunset" and "sunrise" time built in, and would display in different colours for day, night, sunrise and sunset. A simple site designed for a hair and makeup company introduced more fine grain control via JavaScript (and so showed the time of day based on the reader's own clock), and at the time of writing the website you're viewing has gone back to a more server-side solution with a lookup table of proper sunrise and sunset times for the area I'm living. It also does special occassions like turning green on St. Patrick's Day.
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Freedom2 colour animation

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