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Ptable: It’s all about the interface

Using simplicity to drag people into the 21st century

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With no insult to El Reg’s skilled and resourceful interblag guru Murray Walker, I have recently run across potentially the coolest and most useful site currently available on the web. It’s called ptable. It is everything you ever wanted to know about the periodic table of elements presented in an easy to navigate format and it’s done entirely in HTML and CSS.

Considering that this site has been around for well over a decade, I feel vaguely silly for only having run into it a few weeks ago. In that time however, it has managed to help me save some friends from wasting quite a lot of their time with outdated and vaguely terrifying IT projects.

The first is a friend who approached me wondering if some over-the-top 64-disc CD burning system costing somewhere north of $7500 would work with his old Mac G4. Apparently he had spent the past decade distributing updates about his products to his customers as PowerPoint presentations on CD. I took the time to investigate and it was about as terrifying as you could imagine. Each product had a truly awful presentation and half a dozen PDFs. These are updated for 100 products twice a year on average and then mailed out to customers.

When I asked why he didn’t simply distribute this kind of information using a website, he looked at me as though I had grown six heads and started to breathe fire. “The internet can’t do that," he informed me; apparently it was just “a big, gaudy phonebook.”

Stunned, I proposed a challenge. If I could prove to him the internet was fully capable of presenting all the information he required about his products in an easy to use interface, cheaply and in an easy to maintain fashion he would at least consider transitioning away from this wasteful and archaic distribution method.

I sat him down in front of ptable and showed him that not only can you display an awful lot of information in a very clean interface, but you can also have it easily link back to even more detailed information contained on a separate website such as Wikipedia. As an additional bonus, creating a website means that it will work not only on PCs with the correct software, but smartphones, tablets and more. After ten minutes of playing around with ptable’s various features, he was hooked.

Next up were a pair of individuals separately looking to undertake the creation of databases. The first wanted to tie Excel into Access and the second wanted to do something horrifying involving Visual FoxPro. After taking the time to determine their needs I realized that all they wanted to do was to take a fixed set of data and enter it into a database to be retrieved at a later point. It then needed to be printed onto something resembling a primitive invoice.

We did lunch and I bashed out a cheap PHP + MySQL site in about 15 minutes that looked ugly but did the job. I then sat them down with the ptable website and informed them that if they got a real web programmer the website front-end could easily be that sexy.

I took all three of these friends to meet a local developer who happened to have some pre-canned templates that could be easily and cheaply modified to their needs. The total bill for all three combined came to well within the $7500 that the 64 disc-at-time monstrosity would have cost.

These people had largely written off the web as a means of presenting information after their first run-in with it during the early 2000s. More modern experiences with the web continued to convince them that the web was a gaudy, flashy monstrosity largely unfit for purpose in the simplicity of their business worlds.

Good websites like ptable serve as excellent examples that this is not how the web has to be. It can be clean, simple and efficient. Having a list of these sites on hand can come in very handy sometimes. Please add your favourites to the list in the comments. ®

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