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Overview

 

Overview

Browsinform allows the publishing of lists and tables extracted from a database onto the intra/internet or a LAN/WAN, and lets users interactively search, query and sort the data.

See the Synopsis.

This entirely dynamic access to the information is provided through a standard Web Browser.

Publishing lists on the internet has been typically done in a static fashion, i.e., a developer generates an HTML page from a spreadsheet, a word processor or a database. The problem is indeed that these static lists cannot be searched, hence tend to be unpractical for the users especially if they contain a large number of entries. Also, tools that generate lists from word processors, databases and spreadsheets are limited in what they can do, and even more so, in how you can shape the presentation to your own liking.

In order to give users interactive access to the list, a programmer is generally needed to build a set of back-end functions, using ASP, ColdFusion, CGI scripts, or other techniques. Interactive access can also be achieved by using the database native forms and queries, but in this case, the application is platform dependent and may require a seat license for each user who wishes to access the list.
Both these methods have advantages and disadvantages, that tend to favor either the maintainers/authors of the lists, or their users but rarely both. Please also see the comparison table.

Browsinform also allows you to connect to a Web Server for truly dynamic real-time functionality: the data can be extracted from a live database everytime the user makes a query. You control when and if the data is refreshed from the server.

Browsinform allows a non-programmer to quickly build an interactive list interface, and distribute it over the internet, without any server programming, or browser configuration. The functionality offered by Browsinform is similar to that delivered by web server dynamic applications presenting data from a Database, in that it provides the user with full control over what to display and how to display it, without the set-up and maintenance costs associated with these types of programs.

The files that contain the data displayed by Browsinform are in standard CSV format, i.e., they can be created and updated with a spreadsheet program (e.g. MS-Excel) or a database (e.g. MS-Access). They can also be managed using the specialized Update tool that is part of the Browsinform download.

This results in a portable, platform-independent way of sharing data, designed to work in any environment, without taxing your MIS or IT resources (note: see Usage Tips).

 

Usage

Browsinform is both a Development Tool and an End-user Interface.

The Development Tool allows an author to define a search form and specify how the end users can search the table(s). It allows the author to:

  • Specify the data tables from which the list is constructed
  • Specify which fields of the data tables the user will be able to search on
  • Specify the type of search done on each field (e.g., numeric / text comparisons, complete / partial strings, etc.)
  • Organize the search form by field order, layout orientation, fonts, colors
  • Automatically populate list boxes from the data contained in the data tables
  • Specify how the records and fields are displayed and, for each field, the title, the sort characteristics and ornamentation (color, font, background, default value, etc.)
  • Specify if a field should be displayed as an embedded image or active HREF link
The author specifies all these criteria as text parameters, utilizing simple applet tags similar to HTML tags (the list of possibilities is rather extensive. Please check out the on-line documentation). Browsinform automatically generates a search form in the browser from the specified parameters, and populates the list boxes from the data tables.

When the search is executed, Browsinform automatically formats the result, adds sort links and page navigation buttons, and displays it as an HTML page.

Because the result is displayed as an HTML page, the user can use all the browser's 'normal' interface, such as links, print functions, back button, etc. The user can:

  • Search the data files by any of the criteria offered by the author, including multi-select list boxes, checkboxes, keywords, date / numeric comparisons.
  • Sort on any of the displayed columns
  • Navigate back and forth between sections of the list
  • Click on any of the links in the results table and go directly to the on-line URL, or display the image.

Note that the display of the information is not limited to tabular lists: Browsinform can generate menus, glossaries, table of contents, detailed record views, etc. Please see the Samples for more details.

 

Benefits of Using Browsinform to Display Dynamic Data

First, there are obvious benefits associated with publishing data in a dynamic rather than static fashion:

  • Ensure enterprise information is up-to-date by making data publishing easy
  • Decouple the presentation (look and feel, layout) from the content to allow easy changes to what is shown to the user and how it is shown
  • Make data access interactive -- place the users in control of what is presented by allowing them to search, filter, and sort the information.
  • Allow users, rather than developers, to filter or organize long lists of information

Furthermore, using Browsinform to publish your data has the following advantages:

  • Remove the web-page developer from flow of information since non-programmers can easily build their queries using Browsinform -- maintain changing content without depending on programmers to make the information available.
  • Use the browser without any other plug-ins or software to be installed on each user's workstation
  • Browser, Platform and Operating System independent (note: see Usage Tips)
  • The lists are published in the browser, giving the user a well-known environment
  • Ability to operate with or without a web server, i.e., from the hard disk or a CD-ROM
  • Fast execution of queries and sorts
Because of Browsinform's ability to perform similarly with or without a web server, you can develop your application in a server-less environment, then deploy it in a server environment for true dynamic access to a live database. The advantages are obvious:
  • The same application can be used either way, which minimizes the development cost
  • The same dataset can be used in both cases (for the server-less environment, you export the database that is used in the server environment)
  • The same functionality and interface is available to users in either case, which minimizes training, and promotes the idea of a seamless application
  • The users can use searches, sorting and dynamic display, even when they are operating without a web server

 

Dynamic Data Access and Presentation Methods

Most web sites are entirely static in the sense that they always display the same information, and that the presentation is always the same. Even when using Dynamic HTML, available with Netscape and MsIE 4.x and above, the presentation itself appears dynamic to the user, but the data itself is static.

A website (internet or intranet site) becomes far more interesting for the users when they have the possibility to dynamically shape and select the information, as they are viewing it. Dynamic data presentation also allows the user to filter out unneeded data, so that only the points salient to the question at hand are displayed.

Very frequently, a list of 'things' is presented on a web page. Such list displays can be greatly enhanced by considering the following:

  • if the list to be selected from changes often, it is important to determine how up-to-date the list presented to the user is. For example, the list of streets in a city does not often change, so a more or less static data set is probably OK. At the opposite end of the scale, lists of parking structures and their space availability changes often and may need to be extracted from a database on a minute or second basis
  • if the list is very long, it is important to give the user the ability to sort it, to refine the search, or extract sub lists. For example the list of all the pieces of equipment in a facility can number in the hundreds or thousands, and users should be able to trim the list based on equipment type, location or usage.
  • the list should be a selective view of the data, with the option to select an item in the list to display detailed information. Otherwise, the list itself may become so wide as to make it impractical to view (and slow to display)
For the web site contributors, the problem becomes one of maintenance. For example if all the assets in a facility are described in individual web pages (i.e. 1 file per asset), ensuring look and feel consistency can be a monumental task for facilities that have thousands of assets. Adding information to each page can be very time consuming: for example if the pages for each piece of equipment show the supplier name, adding the phone number to all thousand of these pages would be very time consuming.

Several approaches can be used to present dynamic data:

  • Generate static HTML pages directly from the database: both the list(s) and the individual detail pages are statically generated from the database. Several tools allow doing this more or less efficiently, with various degrees of flexibility and visual aesthetics.
  • Generate the lists and the individual pages using a web server, i.e., every time the user requests the information, the server dynamically creates the page.
  • Generate the lists in the browser, using Java Grids (applets that you insert in your page to display tables and lists)
  • Generate the lists and pages dynamically in the browser, using Browsinform.

Look at the Comparison of these approaches.

(it is also possible to use entirely custom-written Java and/or JavaScript programs to generate pages within the browser, but because of the high development cost of this method, we do not include it in this evaluation.)

 


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