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On another planet

Periodic makeovers are a fact of life for magazines, and probably a more frequent fact of life for Web-borne magazines than for print publications. New Scientist's Planet Science, arguably Britain's leading webzine, has reinvented itself, and the result is worth a look.

If you've visited Planet Science before, you'll doubtless greet with a small cheer the news that there is no longer a registration hurdle to take on your way in. This simple mechanical change is in a way the most significant feature of the new zine, and certainly the one the people behind it will have agonised over most.

The theory of visitor registration is that it gives site publishers the information they need about their readers (for example, to sell advertising). Unfortunately, the information is largely unreliable, because people make things up. (I plead guilty myself, in similar circumstances: in registering for a certain medical site, you are asked to state your medical specialism, which I found an irresistible invitation to indulge in a spot of ER-style fantasy.)

The registration barrier also creates various problems. Planet Science's editor, David Brake, reckons that half the people finding their way to his fortified site were turning away at the gate, for a start. Then you have to invest time in responding to e-mail from people who persist but are having difficulty getting through the process. To cap it all, there is the drawback that inhuman search agents can't get through to find and index your material; for a science site, in particular, this is seriously bad news.

The next improvement, apart from a classy new visual style, is that there is a clear division between material that duplicates the printed edition of New Scientist and material that is special to the Web. Praise be. Time and again, I find myself wandering around the Web site of a paper magazine, unsure of which features I've already looked at (if I possess the paper edition), or of how well the site represents what I could get on paper (if I haven't yet paid the price).

There is new, improved content. The site climbs aboard the current bandwagon by offering "five channels and 18 main sections"; David Bracke says the practical meaning of "channels" is that there are separate, simple URLs for separate areas of interest.

You will have to look at the Planet Science site to judge the value of this academic-sounding development. What seems clear already is that this version of Planet Science is a rich publication that anyone with an interest in the scientific side of life can immerse themselves in for hours.

Chris Gill

Planet Science http://www.newscientist.com