Interfaces for distributed systems of information servers



Interfaces for information access and retrieval are a long way from the ideal of the electronic book that you can cuddle up with in bed. Nevertheless, today's interfaces are coming closer to supporting browsing, selection, and retrieval of remote information by nontechnical users.

This article describes five interfaces to distributed systems of servers that have been designed and implemented: WAIStation for the Macintosh, XWAIS for X-Windows, GWAIS for Gnu-Emacs, SWAIS for dumb terminals, and Rosebud for the Macintosh. These interfaces talk to one of two server systems: the Wide Area Information Server (WAIS) system on the internet, and the Rosebud Server System, on an internal network at Apple Computer. Both server systems are built on Z39.50, a standard protocol, and thus support access to a wide range of remote databases.

The interfaces described here reflect a variety of design constraints. Such constraints range from the mundane—coping with dumb terminals and limited screen space—to the challenging. Among the challenges addressed are how to provide passive alerts, how to make information easily scannable, and how to support retrieval and browsing by nontechnical users. There are a variety of other issues which have received little or no attention, including budgeting money for access to “for pay” databases, privacy, and how to assist users in finding out which of a large (changing) set of databases holds relevant information. We hope that the challenges we have identified, as well as the existence and public availability of source code for the WAIS system, will serve as a stimulus for further design work on interfaces for information retrieval. © 1993 John Wiley & Sons, Inc.