Weather Report Suite

For those that have been around the World Wide Web as long as I have, there have certainly been a lot of changes.  Trends have come and gone and those sites that have not kept up with the times seem ancient-looking even though the “real” time that has passed is barely a blip in history.

While it has been nice to see many things improve design-wise on the Internet from the days when almost everything was nothing but text and hyperlinks, some things have been downright horrible.  This ranges from the overuse (or, any use) of Flash to those that believe it’s really a good idea to make their navigation links off-white on a white background because it looks cool to some silly hipster that thinks he is god’s gift to Web design.  Sometimes, it makes one wish for something more standard even if it ends up cluttered or clunky looking.

It is becoming more and more difficult to find a “live” website that uses some sort of older design.  About the only ones I can recall off the top of my head that are of any consequence are the Astronomy Picture of the Day site that probably hasn’t been redesigned since 1995 and some other sub-sites and pages deep within NASA.gov that might be even older.

Even most personal websites have changed greatly since they began to take off around 1996 when the Web really started going commercial.  Most have either turned into blogs with fairly basic designs (just like this site) or have taken advantage of professionally-designed albeit occasionally repetitive templates.

All of these things flooded back to me and came together in my mind when I made one of my regular visits to a long-running and somewhat historic website that, after being about the same since I first discovered it in 1998, finally got itself a new and very modern-looking design.  Adding more to my recollections of the Internet’s relatively brief history was that this website might be better remembered by many for its appearances on other websites, especially all of those plethora of personal home pages that cropped up through the late 1990’s on free hosts like GeoCities, Tripod, Angelfire, FortuneCity, TheGlobe, and so many more.

That is because anybody that bothered to surf anywhere on the Internet outside of Yahoo between at least 1998 and…oh, let’s say 2004 to be generous…has seen this little gizmo or its smaller version probably more times than they could ever count.

Click for Fontana, California Forecast

Yep, it’s none other than the good ol’ Weather Underground “sticker” (what we would now call a “widget“).  Even back in 1998 it amazed me how anybody thought that the readers of their personal website (no doubt also filled with a plethora of other animated gifs) would give even the slightest flying fuck about what the temperature was in the author’s home town.  Yet, these things were everywhere at one time even making it into those hideous, overly HTML-laden, MIDI-embedded e-mail signatures forced upon the world by the users of WebTV (now MSN TV).

However, in fairness, this was the era before RSS feeds, YouTube, and all kinds of other things including the National Weather Service (NWS) having a truly informative and well-updated website.  So, having some gizmo on a personal website that actually gave something resembling real-time information that was also free was a big step forward especially for those that were just barely learning how to cut-and-paste text much less learn basic HTML.  It certainly must have been a boon to Weather Underground as they eventually parlayed this attention into taking over the weather reporting chores for many major websites including those for television stations and newspapers and then even providing that information for their actual medium.

That’s a nice story for Weather Underground, a site that started before most of us had ever heard of the Internet thanks to the efforts of a few folks up at the University of Michigan (which is an even more wicked twist on the site’s name as that is where the original and much more infamous Weather Underground terrorist group came together).  It has developed into a nice little community over the years and has seemed to hold its ground even with the improvements in the NWS website (especially after being reorganized under weather.gov), the rise in popularity of The Weather Channel’s weather.com, and the advent of the Fox News-like AccuWeather (where no storm can ever be hyped enough until every man, woman, and child is cringing in their basement or hallway and praying to Jesus to spare them from the coming apocalypse).  While the NWS is best for warnings and Intellicast (the more technical version of weather.com) has a much less cluttered radar picture, Weather Underground still has the easiest and most understandable radar picture plus the added feature of taking reports from thousands of personal weather stations…allowing one to get readings close by that really mean something instead of from the nearest airport which never seem to match what is happening where people actually live and work.

While old and clunky, Weather Underground chugged along as it always had…until a couple of weeks ago when they finally unveiled their new design…much more open, less cluttered, and spartan than before but with all of the information still there…somewhere…got to relearn the whole damn thing now…kind of hard when the basic layout has been the same for at least 13 years if not longer.

And…even though their use has greatly declined, even the “stickers” got a major overhaul.  Gone on the new designs are the familiar rainbow and cloud with something more streamlined, modern…and boring.

Click for Fontana, California Forecast

The one nice thing I can say about the new Weather Underground designs — both on the stickers and of the website itself — is that they were kind enough not to do what pretty much every other big Internet website has done.  They didn’t force everybody to use the new one.  Finally, somebody took notice of how much hate and discontent happens at places like Facebook when they change the layout and don’t give people the option of using the old one instead (especially when most new layouts suck and do nothing but frustrate all of those people that aren’t educated enough to not use Internet Explorer as all of the Flash, JavaScript, and Silverlight crammed into new designs causes that piece of shit browser to run slower than Christmas or just plain crash).  Thus, people such as me who liked the somewhat cluttered but more condensed look of Weather Underground with its many plain old HTML text hyperlinks and the ever-cheesy but lovable smiley forecast icons can still use them all by clicking on the “Classic View” link.  New people get what they want, old people get what they want, and nobody walks away pissed — what a concept!

In this era of desktop widgets, free weather alert programs given out by local television stations, and services from a plethora of organizations that will call up one’s cell phone or send it a text message if threatening weather is on the horizon, perhaps it doesn’t mean much what Weather Underground does. Its “stickers” are hardly seen anymore unless one accidentally clicks on a link that goes to some abandoned page still up on Angelfire that was last updated on Saint Goatfelcher’s Day 1999 and, truth be told, it’s really mostly a site for weather geeks like me as most people get their weather from their favorite local television station’s website (although, in many cities, one of its four major stations gets its information directly from Weather Underground).

That being said, Weather Underground is still an important website in the history of the Internet, amazing that they held out for so long on their previous design, and stunning that they left the old design up to give everybody an option.  Whether one uses the site or not, it sets an example that I wish more companies and Web designers would follow in that keeping one’s long-time customers is just as important as attracting new ones.

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