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Evolution of UHINFO
by Ward Takamiya

In our lives, the Internet and the World Wide Web have been everyday terms for only a small number of years. However, in just a few human years, generations of change have occurred on the Internet. UHINFO, now the main home page for the University of Hawaii (UH), has itself done a lot of growing up over the years. Let's take a quick tour from its humble beginnings through what it has become today and what it will possibly be tomorrow.

Gopher It!

Circa 1992, the online information system known as UHINFO was in development at UH by Computer Specialist Iris Takamiya of the Office of Information Technology (OIT). She worked with individuals at the UH Computing Center (UHCC) and the ICS Department to put the system into production. In the educational community, this type of access to online data was being referred to as a Campus-Wide Information System or CWIS for short. Using a delivery method called gopher (developed at the University of Minnesota, home of the Golden Gophers), anyone in the world with a terminal and access to an Internet gopher client would be able to access UHINFO. Since gopher had a text-only, menu-driven setup, a simple terminal or terminal emulator was all that was necessary to look up gopher information. At this early stage, many UH users would telnet (or connect serially via the Starmaster) to any of the UHCC's general-purpose machines (UNIX, VAX, or IBM mainframe). After logging on, a user might type the following at the system prompt to access UHINFO:

    gopher gopher.hawaii.edu

A quaint menu of choices would then be displayed:

              
             Internet Gopher Information Client v0.7

Root gopher server: nic.hawaii.net
1. About UHINFO/
2. Administrative Information/
3. Around Town/
4. Campus Information/
5. Computing and Technology/
6. Employment Opportunities/
7. Library and Research Tools/
8. News and Events/
9. Other Gopher and Information Servers
10. Phone Directories/
11. Student Information/
12. University Services/

Press ? for Help, q to Quit, u to go up a menu   Page 1/1

Figure 1.

The University of Hawaii developed the above organizational structure for its gopher site and announced its release to the public in January 1993. The system proved useful to both the UH community and also to visitors looking for information about UH. Getting to information could be done quickly by just using the keyboard's cursor keys and traversing the menu. As most of the information was contained in short text-only files, the gopher system was ideal for finding what you wanted easily, even over slower modem lines. However, having this text-only interface also made it visually uninteresting. Images were not shown onscreen, but would need to be downloaded, saved to a file, then brought up in another application. Later versions of gopher clients that ran on a Mac or PC eliminated the download step for retrieving images, but text and graphics could not be shown on the same screen.

At this point in history, a vast majority of departments did not maintain their own information online so the UHINFO gopher caretakers used data from various sources of information -- often hand-keying in text from printed material such as the UH Manoa Graduate and Undergraduate Catalog and the Student Handbook. Other items of interest were maintained by the UHINFO gopher keepers, including some news, events, documents, weekly UH Bulletins (precursor to Ku Lama), career placement information, employment opportunities, Business Affairs Circulars, computer price lists, and site license (DEC UHTEI, Lotus Multiple Choice Program, WordPerfect) information. Also, other non-academic items were being maintained such as the Consolidated Movie listing, the bus schedules, the Campus Center dining room menu, and weather reports. There were links to online publications like Zen and the Art of the Internet and the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Internet. There was also something called an "Internet Hunt," a weekly "scavenger hunt" that asked people to find answers to a bunch of questions using only the Internet as a reference tool.

Dawn of the Web

In the first half of 1993, the first versions of Mosaic -- the grandfather of current Web browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer -- were released to the Internet community by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). At Honolulu Community College (HCC), Dr. Kenneth Hensarling of the Academic Computer Services and his staff quickly embraced the World Wide Web and set up what was to be the first Web server in Hawaii in May 1993. HCC's Dinosaur Exhibit, an online Web tour through the college's collection of prehistoric artifacts and replicas, proved to be a wonderful example of using the exciting new Web technology. Another early example included a campus map where a user could click on a building to see a photo of the building and obtain information about the departments and offices within the building. There were also early examples of sound and video on the site.

Reservations, Please?

The UHINFO gopher caretakers were, of course, very impressed by this newfangled invention. However, they felt that the majority of the University of Hawaii users would be unable to make full use of this new technology. Many did not have the requisite operating system or network connection on campus to run a graphical Internet client like a Web browser. The UH Computing Center suggested that users purchase 66MHz 486 PCs with 8MB RAM as the minimum hardware or 75MHz Pentiums with 16MB RAM as the "recommended" configuration. A very large number of users still connected to the mainframes and minicomputers through the Starmaster (PACX) serial connections. File transfers using kermit were still commonplace. PPP and SLIP connections for dial-up were only just becoming available through the new 14,400 bps modem pool. In addition, the UHINFO gopher had recently been mentioned in a Sam's Book and was rated as an excellent example of organization of online material. In all, since we could not alienate the current users and since Mosaic could also connect to the UHINFO gopher system, why do double work by creating and maintaining two separate information bases?

The proud Gopher was not ready to be abandoned -- at least not yet.

Kaboom!

In a short year's time, with Web technology and user awareness mounting, the decision was finally made to update UHINFO for the Web. Information Technology Services was formed (which combined OIT, UHCC, the Management Systems Office, and the Telecom Office); PPP dialups were firmly established and being recommended to the UH community; and more offices than ever were now wired to the campus Ethernet. Now, a variety of Web browsers were available with NCSA's Mosaic still in the lead. A text-only Web browser, called Lynx, was also available for those with less robust systems. So after a lot of thought and a flurry of hard work, UHINFO for the Web was announced in the fall of 1994. The first incarnation was simple and essentially a "webified" version of the UHINFO Gopher (see Figure 2), but as with any major Web site, there was constant improvement.

Figure 2. Original UHINFO in 1994
 Figure 3. Update in 1995
Figure 4. Update in 1997
Figure 5. Current look released in mid-1998

At this time, the Internet was still primarily a government and educational network and things moved along fairly quickly as more and more government agencies, universities, colleges, and schools around the nation and the world joined the network. Once the Internet went "commercial" in 1995 and traditional dial-up systems like Compuserve, America Online, and Prodigy began to provide Internet access, users demanded much more -- faster speeds, better looking and better designed sites, e-commerce, and better customer support. Educational sites, like UHINFO, also needed to become more customer-oriented in order to keep up and we learned both from our own personal experiences and the world around us about what makes a site good (or bad!). Fortunately, innovative companies and smart people provided the tools (Web servers and browsers, HTML editors, etc.) to help us do the necessary work a little more easily.

Today, most UH departments have their own home pages. Many smaller departments chose to use space on ITS servers for their home pages instead of setting up and maintaining their own servers. Forerunners who brought up their own independent Web servers included all the individual UH campuses and some of the larger departments with their own computer support staff, including the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST), Summer Session (now the Outreach College), and the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR). Web-based applications are prevalent. It is now possible for students at UH Manoa to register online with PA`E. The UH Bookstores sell merchandise from their site. UH Athletics now sells tickets for sporting events online.

What's Next for UHINFO?

The look of UHINFO has been constantly overhauled (see Figures 3-5) on the average of every year-and-a-half since the original release in 1994. Major top-level categories have been added (and removed) as needed and "must have" features such as the site search, campus map, and online phone directory make it easier to find people and things. A brand-new look and reorganization is currently being developed for release this year. Keep an eye out for it!

The Internet and the Web (and UHINFO!) are still in its adolescent stages, with a lot of maturing to do. There will be many exciting changes ahead in the way we work and play online and you can rest assured that UHINFO will be keeping pace with those changes. It should be interesting to revisit this topic a few years from now and see how much further we'll have progressed. There is no telling what UHINFO will become, but it will definitely be a fascinating journey along the way.

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