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CAN CYBERGRAPHIC emerge from its mysterious past to become a dominant system supplier in the Pacific area and the world? It has built a new system around Windows NT, captured key newspaper groups in Australia and New Zealand, and is gearing up to meet the challenges of markets in Europe and the United States. What are its chances of success in the turbulent world of newspaper systems?
We recently visited the company at its Australian headquarters to get a com- prehensive look at its operation, its products and two of its key sites.
Cybergraphic's two primary products are CyberNews for editorial applications and CyberSell (marketed as Cyber$ell) for advertising. Both have been released, but they are in slightly different states of development. CyberSell is a totally new and completed product, from its database to its client software. CyberNews, on the other hand, is only partially complete. The client application is ready, but it hasn't been connected yet to the SQL database. However, it is being installed connected to the older, VMS-based hierarchical file system, while CyberSell assumes a relational database and therefore the new host SQL database.
Both products are based on Windows NT (and support Windows 95 as well) and both are 32-bit applications.
In addition, at the Pantech show, Cybergraphic introduced CyberAd, a transi- tion ("bridge") product for ad booking. It provides an opportunity for exist- ing customers to modernize their classified system without going all the way to CyberSell. CyberAd can run on the hierarchical file system of the older VMS configurations and provides functionality that is roughly equivalent to the older Unix advertising products, but it has a modern graphical user interface.
CyberSell, next-generation ad module
CyberSell is Cybergraphic's next-generation advertising application. Although it is complete now for ad taking and selling, it later will include a contact and canvassing manager, a space-reservation tool for display ads and an accounts receivable and billing system with contract management. Based on what we were able to see in Melbourne, the class ad and display ad programs are near completion (see our visit to a beta test, below). The other modules are in varying states of completion.
CyberSell is truly a new system; it did not just incrementally migrate from the older Genesis products. Its client-server architecture uses NT at the client end while deploying the server-database on top of Microsoft's Back Office (which includes programs such as NT Server, SQL Server and Microsoft Exchange). Cybergraphic has discussed its product in much broader terms, sug- gesting that the database may be Oracle and the platform could be anything that supports NT. But for now, and until the first site is completely opera- tional, these basic components make up the system we reviewed as well as what has been installed at its beta site.
Friendly and flexible. One of the key functional requirements Cybergraphic established for itself early was a completely new, user-friendly and flexible environment. We believe it hit the target in both areas. However, it didn't come without some false starts. Back when we first saw the system in Melbourne in January 1995, the development team was using Visual Basic to build the entire client portion of the product. This made early demonstrations look great in a relatively short amount of time. But under the hood, things were working a little slower than they can in a product that goes to market.
The company then switched to a set of "homegrown" tools called Workbench. This too produced less than acceptable performance, so the third iteration of the client software moved to a combination of Visual Basic and Visual C++, and it appears that this is where it will stay. This provides a toolset that makes life a lot easier for Cybergraphic in two respects:
It can quickly and easily customize (tailor) the look and feel of its standard product for demanding customers, while retaining one real product beneath for everyone. This clearly makes it much more supportable from customer to customer. Not only does this support the tailoring of screens and windows from newspaper to newspaper, but the same tools can be used to tailor the screens from user to user. Therefore, the ad-taking screens for a typical classified ad taker could be much different from the screens for a display ad salesperson and vastly different from those of a supervisor.
For more adventurous newspapers with significantly greater needs for customization, tools are provided for a newspaper to customize its own pro- duct. This can get a little more dangerous, but at this point it becomes "buyer beware."
Beta site. We had a chance to see this in a real test case-the first customer for CyberSell. The beta site is the Melbourne Trading Post (see story, below). The Trading Post is not a typical newspaper. It is a publishing company that produces a series of pay-on-sale products and requires a considerably differ- ent look and feel for its product than a typical newspaper does. In fact, it is a clear intention to modify the user interface along the way as classified products are added to its portfolio.
The user screens at the Trading Post were very different from the system we reviewed in Cybergraphic's Melbourne office. In addition to the look and feel, copy routing was also considerably different-again reflecting the tailoring capability of the system.
Another strength of the system is its shared database. This allows different applications (most likely, but not necessarily, provided by Cybergraphic) to share database tables. In this way contract information, changes to billing records, and updates to ads and advertisers are all reflected and current since they update a single set of tables. Pongrass also showed this approach at PANPA. This assumes that all of the advertising modules are complete and tied to this set of tables.
Our only question in this regard has to do with speed and performance. Cybergraphic has already replicated the database for reporting purposes to eliminate performance degradation in larger configurations. We would therefore like to see if this remains necessary (for performance reasons), once the other modules are tied interactively in a live environment to this unified structure.
Using NT as its client foundation, CyberSell employs a series of screens and popup dialog boxes for data to be entered and filled in by the ad taker, as well as for information to be presented to the user. The trick for most sys- tems is to organize carefully both the information on these screens and the screens themselves to optimize the ad selling task for the user and eliminate confusion or extra steps. In many of the systems we have reviewed, important information from one screen has been hidden while other information was presented, when both needed to be viewed at the same time. In other cases, the screens try to jam in too much data, trying to fit almost everything onto a single screen. On still others, information was totally eliminated because it simply wouldn't fit on the screen in question.
Smart Desktop. Cybergraphic has done an excellent job in this area. It uses a technique it calls the "Smart Desktop," which automatically arranges and sizes windows in predetermined locations based upon which windows are currently open for viewing. For those wishing to modify the proposed arrangement, standard Windows tools are also available at all times. In addition to the Smart Desktop, Cybergraphic makes good use of tab conventions in Windows. Tabs at the bottom of the screen can be clicked to move the user quickly from a clas- sified advertising booking environment to an ad scheduling set of screens or to a "ticker-tape" screen (reflecting pricing details, per-insertion pricing, etc.). It can also be used to jump from class ad bookings to space reserva- tions (placement), or to production information or reports, all customized by the user from a "baseline product."
This helps eliminate confusion for the user, who can easily see what is important, based on the functions being performed, without having to open and manually rearrange windows to match the situation. It also solves (to some extent) a problem that always exists when a fixed placement or fixed sequence of windows is employed by the system.
Entering an ad. Like most other advertising systems, CyberSell allows ad sell- ing (or taking) to begin with a "locate ad" function. This is done simply by providing a name, telephone number or account number in the appropriate field provided on an input screen, which in turn queries the database for ads or advertisers that match this information. Results of this type of search are usually the last x number of ads booked for this known advertiser (where x is user definable). If it is a new ad record, the user can enter the typical data, including ad type, classification (scrollable with prompts) and style information from a popup list for such common style types as "first word bold," "boxed ad," etc. The system's approach to entering sizing and schedul- ing information follows the procedures of most other systems.
As mentioned above, an area is provided for text entry via Cybergraphic's own text editor, which is called Caf[Theta]. It is neither dynamic nor WYSIWYG. However, like many older systems, which utilize their own word processing editors and their own H&J routines, CyberSell provides soft previews of ads. This works better than most systems, purely because of the Smart Desktop, which con- veniently arranges the soft view of the ad without obliterating other key information. Upselling, rescheduling and other alternate formatting can be applied to an ad while the soft view is on the screen.
A couple of nice features are provided in this process. CyberSell has an integrated graphics browser that displays graphics in a popup window, based on classification. From here the user can select a graphic, which will automatically insert the graphic call and formatting information into the text portion of the ad and redisplay the ad with the graphic in place. This is not quite interactive WYSIWYG, but it is effective.
Prompts. Sales prompts are also effective. They are generally tied to clas- sifications and for now are only static prompts. In other words, they provide only a static display of user-customizable information (the contents of a text file) and don't automatically update the ad with any of its contents. However, you can cut and paste between prompts and the ad itself. The same prompt mechanism can be used also to prompt the user for zip code information.
Cybergraphic has another form of sales prompt that is a classier version of an old feature we liked in its Genesis system. The prompt displays various format options for the semidisplay ad in question. For example, it displays options such as an ad with a two-point box, one with a logo or one with a bold, centered head. These options are tied to classifications and ad types. Click- ing on an option applies the new style and shows the ad in WYSIWYG format. Eventually the price of the ad also changes to reflect the new size or added costs resulting from the formatting changes.
Pricing. Costing or pricing an ad is a separate function (keystroke), and here we found some immaturity in the product (mostly in the form of inconsistencies). The size of the ad was not always reflected correctly in the size field on the screen. The same is true for the cost of the ad. As we made various changes to the ad, which should have changed the cost (such as adding a logo, changing its size and formatting, and changing its schedule), the cost field wasn't always correct. We did get to see the final ad with the correct cost, but this was when we closed the ad and exited. This is OK, but a little late in the process; it makes changes more difficult and less dynamic than necessary. We are sure this will be corrected, but it is an area that probably needs some attention.
A nice feature of the costing process is the use of the ticker-tape window. Simply clicking a tab at the bottom of the screen brings up a window of detailed information regarding the cost of the ad. This can show the cost per insertion and the cost per publication (for multi-pub ads). Again, this was not always in sync with changes we made to ads we were working with during our review.
Scheduling. Scheduling is always a headache for advertising vendors. Cybergraphic does an adequate job in this area, but the final solution is not totally developed. You can select publications individually and then the run schedules for each pub. It uses the calendar approach for indicating the run schedules for each pub. However, we found it necessary to use a complicated syntax to enter some relatively basic items, such as to schedule an ad for Thursdays. The syntax of existing running ads could not be displayed, either. Cybergraphic told us that it is developing its own calendar to minimize this scheduling burden. We believe this will be critical before its first installa- tion at a daily newspaper.
Routing. Along with excellent facilities for customizing the user interface, Cybergraphic does a very good job …