Back in the cold winter mornings of December 1999, I remember looking at the daily news announcement on our company intranet - and thinking, "Hmm, I wish my application had that".
The sheer thought of writing a few lines of code to automatically grab and display the latest company happenings excited me. It would keep users interested and gave the impression of a regularly maintained system (which of course, was totally untrue).
However after a little playing around, those 'few lines of code' turned into a few dozen lines of code - and then into hundreds - and then into thousands.
It wasn't fun.
Then just last week, a software company threw a pre-release version of WebZinc my way, a product they claimed could sort out my intranet problem in a jiffy - and that, they said, was only the beginning.
But can WebZinc really stand up to its marketing claims? Let the review begin...
Installation of WebZinc was a breeze, eating a mere 2MB of hard disk space. The core program consists of a lightweight ActiveX DLL of just 200kb.
According to its creators, WebZinc (www.webzinc.net) allows you to "automatically extract any data from any Web site, search any engine for anything, fill out and submit any form for any reason - all in code".
But was this $139 (#99) package any good? I launched up the help file in a bid to find out.
Within minutes, I was already deep into the plot. The product ships with a full tutorial, pictures and all, briefly explaining the core WebZinc concept - then getting down and dirty with a series of hands-on examples.
And I must admit, these were impressive.
The Visual Basic-based sample projects, which ranged from grabbing a rather corny daily joke from some community site through to extracting the latest world news headlines from the BBC, all seemed to work without error.
And that's not good. A lack of problems often makes for a rather boring review. So I continued looking for something to fault.
For my next test, I tried throwing together my own application, a process that usually results in a bug or three. I decided to create a program to solve my earlier intranet problem - and grab the latest company announcement.
I followed through the prompts from the help file - and was informed of the function I needed to use. Literally three lines of code later and I'd done all that was required to make a stable data-grabbing application.
Something that had previously taken literally hundreds of lines of code was now condensed to just three lines. At this point, I didn't know whether to be impressed at the product - or annoyed it hadn't been released sooner.
Slightly shocked at the smooth pace of my actions, I experimented a little further. I created an application that opened the Google search engine, filled out and submitted the search form, then filtered out the good results by using Rules. It worked.
I then built an application that visited a local weather site and extracted the forecast for my homeland, Scotland. It worked, dammit - it worked.
The program also includes a number of extra features. As an example, one tool called PageManager allows you to tell WebZinc what content you have - such as a news story - and it will automatically update all your local HTML templates and FTP them to your Web site server. All completely in code.
I was pretty darn impressed by the neat "General Editing" features too. These are a series of functions that perform complex string manipulation to make your life easier.
And I must applaud the thought put into this. As an example, one of the General Editing features allows you to give it two news story headlines - and it will tell you if they relate to a similar subject. WebZinc says it could be useful if you want to "ensure you don't have duplicate news stories on your site".
But will anyone ever use this function? Probably not. But it's very intelligent - and there, just in case - along with about a billion others.
WebZinc also ships with a bunch of ready-to-run code snippets, covering everything from daily astrological readings through to translating a sentence into another language. Diversity? I think so - but in a very good way indeed.
Much as I hate praising a product, pessimist that I am - in this case, I'll make an exception.
For years, I personally wanted to build this package. I wanted to standardise the way I could extract data from the Internet. But it was simply way too difficult.
Thankfully, the company behind WebZinc have managed it. You can extract data, search the Web or fill out forms - easily.
And you can run WebZinc from within your Visual Basic application, your Access database or your ASP page. It can even dial up the Internet for you, update your local HTML pages, then send 'em straight to the server - all completely in code.
Well thought out and worth much more than the $139 price tag.
This is one review freebie that's headed straight for my developers toolbox. Congratulations, WebZinc - a fine job indeed.
You can find out more about WebZinc at http://www.webzinc.net or purchase it direct:
Order WebZinc from ComponentSource