May 24, 2004
Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the world wide web, recently published New Top Level Domains Considered Harmful in which he articulates succinctly the fundamental philosophy of the World Wide Web. I'll quote a pice of it in full to save you the trouble of fining it. I tried to find particularly salient points to emphasize, but I couldn't. It is all particularly salient.
The Web must operate independently of the hardware, software or network used to access it, of the perceived quality or appropriateness of the information on it, and of the culture, and language, and physical capabilities of those who access it [WTW]. Hardware and network independence in particular have been crucial to the growth of the Web. In the past, network independence has been assured largely by the Internet architecture. The Internet connects all devices without regard to the type or size or band of device, nor with regard to the wireless or wired or optical infrastructure used. This is its great strength. From its inception, the Web built upon this architecture and introduced device independence at the user interface level. By separating the information content from its presentation (as is possible by mixing HTML with CSS, XML with XSL and CSS, etc.) the Web allows the same information to be viewed from computers with all sorts of screen sizes, color depths, and so on. Many of the original Web terminals were character-oriented, and now visually impaired users use text-oriented interfaces to the same information.
For a time, many Web site designers did not see the necessity for such device independence, and indicated that their site was "best viewed using screen set to 800x600". Those Web sites now look terrible on a phone or, for that matter, on a much larger screen. By contrast, many Web sites which use style sheets appropriately can look very good on a very wide range of screen sizes.
Designing and developing for the web requires many skills, but until someone has really really internalized the above philosophy, you may be a web developer, but you are not a world wide web developer.
May 23, 2004
Who is this guy?
As you might be aware, my article on web standards got slashdotted, which to me is pretty exciting.
Clearly the article touched a nerve as it had the most comments on any article on the front page last time I checked.
One question I saw pop up a couple of times is "who is this guy"
One comment asked
I'd like to know a little bit about the guy who wrote this article. He links to some of the usual standards gurus in his sidebar (Eric Meyer, Jeffrey Zeldman, CSS Zen Garden) but I can't find any background information on him. I'm not saying that his musings aren't valid, but I'd like to know where he's coming from and what sort of relevant work he does that involves web standards. This would give the article more context and help me to understand better why he says what he does.
So a short summary might be in order
My name is John Allsopp
I live in Sydney, Australia, Bondi to be precise
For many years, through my company Western Civilisation (the 's' in Civilisation is the Australian British spelling, and the name is supposed to be ironic) I have developed Style Master and Layout Master.
Style Master is the only Mac OS X and Windows CSS Editor. it supports all of CSS 2.1, and is far too detailed to go into here. Take a look if you are interested.
Layout Master is a dedicated CSS positioning page layout tool.
I have also written many articles, tutorials, guides and CSS, HTML/XHTML and related web standards courses.
Most of these are free, some of the courses you can purchase.
These are brought together at the House of Style which was one of the earliest dedicated CSS resource sites.
Currently along with the web standards group, westciv is organising
Outside of this I am quite involved in LifeSaving. There are a number of posts on this blog about that.
Thanks for the interest, and don't forget to subscribe to the RSS feed
May 20, 2004
Plus ca change
In a recent post I reminisced about the early days of CSS, and a few of the people I recall as influential and important in the development of a standards based web.
But usually I am the kind of person who looks to the future. In the last few months Microsoft made a couple of very significant announcements with possibly quite negative implications for the future of a standards based web. Which has me thinking about that future, and wondering whether there even is such future.
Since the release of Netscape and Internet Explorer 4, there has been a steady movement toward the idea of standards based web development. In some respects the innovation both in the underlying standards and their implementation has been quite extraordinary. But as the kids in the back seat are always asking "Are we there yet"?
In a sense, there is no "there". Perhaps plateaus or way stations along the way, but no final destination. Right now it may seem like we are at one of those way stations. A reasonably large subset of CSS2 (soon to become CSS2.1) is quite well supported by most browsers.
CSS and xhtml support are markedly improved since the early parts of this decade.
But is it a way station, or are we just stalled?
Microsoft has in the last few months both discontinued IE for the Macintosh altogether, and let it be known there will be no new IE for today's generation of Windows based computers. The next iteration of IE will be solely for "longhorn" based systems (longhorn being the code name for the successor to Windows XP). Any such systems are unlikely before 2006, leaving a several year hiatus between major upgrades for IE, the single most pervasive web platform by a long way. And at present the platform with the most web standards "issues".
Which makes wonder - will we see standards based innovation in future?
Who cares about standards?
When it comes to commercial competition, standards are the friend of those without market dominance. The dominant player sets the "industry standard", as companies who dominate their niche tend to describe their software.
I believe that during the second half of the 1990s, during the most innovative time of the development CSS, commercial considerations did not play a significant part either in the development of CSS or in its implementation in browsers. CSS flew below the radar at Microsoft and Netscape/AOL/Time Warner. That won't happen again.
So what might the future hold? Let's turn the browsers for a moment. What happens here will determine what happens with CSS and standards more generally.
Where are we now?
Internet Explorer 6
When Microsoft did not dominate the browser market, open standards leveled the paying field for them. But now with IE dominant, will Microsoft be so supportive of standards?
Internet Explorer 6 is for Windows only. It supports much of CSS 2.1 though support for attribute based selectors, and more sophisticated selectors in general, such as the child selector is limited. It has some serious issues with the box model and positioning which cause many developers considerable frustration.
As noted before, IE 6 is the last version of IE which will be available until probably mid 2006, perhaps later, and the next version will never work on today's computers, not even on XP.
It's the end of the road for IE as we know it.
So, if things stay as they are, with Internet Explorer the benchmark, then say goodbye to CSS innovation for a long long time.
There are number of things which may affect this. First, CSS's design to allow forward compatibility means the user experience for more advanced browsers can be enhanced without compromising the experience of IE users. And there is even a simple way of hiding things from IE, using the child selector, which no version of IE on windows supports.
If not IE, who will innovate?
Opera? Mozilla? Anyone?
The more important question is who will innovate on the web? Not Microsoft, not at least until 2006 or whenever "longhorn" is released, with its new browser, possibly no longer called Internet Explorer.
Maybe then we'll see renewed CSS innovation from Microsoft, as they will want a "driver" for people to upgrade to their new OS. Afterall, the web is a big reason why people buy and use computers, especially away from the office, so surely Microsoft will want to give users a compelling reason to upgrade their web experience. Whether web standards support is the way, we'll have to wait and see. I have my reservations about that.
Will Opera be the innovators then? While technically Opera are doubtlessly innovators, will users adopt Opera? Perhaps in the embedded market where Opera may well shine, but I doubt it on the desktop.
How about Mozilla/Firefox? It's open source, it has a relationship with AOL, meaning that should AOL/TW wish, it could be installed on every AOL user's desktop in a matter of months, though sadly that seems increasingly less likely. That would give it some clout. But will it, even with continual improvement, on top of what is already a fine platform, be sufficiently compelling to have Windows users replace IE 6 as their browser of choice? Some certainly, but enough to worry Microsoft?
People as shrewd as Steve Ballmer and Bill Gates at Microsoft don't think so. Otherwise they would not have said to the world, "if you want browser innovation on Windows don't look at us". These guys have given the rest of the world a 3-4 year window in which to have the playing field all to themselves. Sure they might have made a huge strategic mistake, but they clearly aren't too worried about it happening.
As a brief aside, if I were Google (which I am sadly not, because they are at least 11 orders of magnitude smarter than me), who are rumored to be working on client side technologies for managing information, I'd put a lot of energy into Mozilla, and release a Google branded browser, as suggested by Anil Dash among others.
A better mousetrap
Microsoft has also abandoned IE for the Mac. Stats are hard to come by, but in the year or so since this announcement, Safari appears to have come to dominate the Mac OS X browser market.
So it's not impossible to supplant an incumbent, but you need something more than simply "a better mousetrap".
Mac users look to Apple first. They upgrade more, there is still something of the enthusiast in them. And coupled with that, Safari is more than a little better. It is markedly better.
But being even a lot better alone did not drive people to Safari.
Is that all there is?
So that's that then? Nothing new except for non Microsoft users until 2006 or later? And then what? Total dominance by one browser, so maybe nothing new even then? Certainly nothing which they don't want you to have. Sure there will be innovation outside the framework provided by the W3C, but would you go to the trouble of implementing all the complex stuff like multi-column layout, text shadow (which Safari does by the way), and all the other CSS 3 goodies that it is far from trivial to do, when you have a near monopoly?
Or would you set your own agenda?
I thought so.
Oh well, that was nice while it lasted.
RIP the Standards Based Web
born circa 1995
died circa 2005
She left us so young, with so much promise
The once and future king?
But I see some small hope. And it is 1984 all over again. Plus ça change.
What a browser would need to ignite the imagination, to get people downloading and upgrading is something new, something unique. Not just a tabbed interface, or faster rendering, or lots of CSS stuff that appeals to developers but users wouldn't care less about.
Have you used Safari for Windows?
Do you have iTunes on their Windows machine
Literally millions of people use a big chunk of Safari on Windows. It's the browser built into iTunes. It works today.
So arguably the quickest, most standards compliant browser around, which by the way is based on the open source KHTML rendering engine, is available right now on Windows. And to use iTunes, you need to use it.
Apple contributes to the KHTML project, so many of its innovations will find their way into that browser. On the Mac, Windows and UNIX variants.
Apple, along with KHTML, Opera and Mozilla, may have 2 or 3 years to innovate on the browser front, without any competition from Microsoft.
And Apple might just have found the killer app to drive people to adopt a new, lightweight, fast, open source based, standards compliant multi platform browser - mainstream commercial online music.
We can only hope to see Safari for Windows, and maybe other platforms. And with it thriving browser innovation based on the open standards of the World Wide Web.
And if that happened, you can be sure Microsoft would get in on th act as well, as they did when IE was not the colossus it has become.
plus ça reste la même chose
May 19, 2004
The more things change
For the moment I am ignoring this idea of the web standards community being full of "zealots", "fascists" and other such nonsense. As an aside, though - words have meaning, language has power. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then surely we have a responsibility of choosing our words carefully?
But I am reminded by all this wasted energy on tables of similar debates now dead and buried regarding other aspects of presentational HTML, particularly font tags.
Yes these same debates have been played out before, shift happens and they become irrelevant.
Most of the people who advocate standards strongly have been round a while, and have done it other ways, and have seen these shifts occur and an have come to realize that things change, and we must adapt to those changes.
Or we will really become redundant.
May 18, 2004
The right tool for the right job
The edifying if somewhat disheartening discussion which ensued from Andy Budd's recent post regarding tables and CSS layout threw up a lot of "pragmatic" and "realistic" talk about "using the right tool for the right job". So here is my take on that.
Let me tell you a little parable
There was a man who hung paintings for a living. He was highly sought after, because of his eye for color, for position, for light. Paintings hung by this man, agreed everyone who saw them, always seemed better, brighter, of greater impact, greater beauty.
One day one of his clients was moving to a new house, a bigger house. Thy would of course need to have their paintings hung in this new house, and as it was a bigger house, they would have many more paintings to hang. Who else to hang them but the maestro?
As they prepared for the move, the owners were aghast. Behind each painting the plaster of the wall was cracked and discolored, where a nail had been hammered into the wall. Of course they had never seen it, and once their paintings were hung in the new house, they would not see them again, but what if they wanted to move the paintings? What about when they sold their house and moved to an even bigger and better house? Would this decrease the value of their property? Sure they could plaster the cracks, but that cost money, and time, and effort, and there was the risk that their precious hardwood floors would end up with plaster on them.
So for their new house they investigated the options, and found a hanging system, invisible to the naked eye, that allowed painting to easily be moved, and which did not affect the walls at all.
Yes, it cost quite a bit of money, but once it was up, it even added value to the property.
So they went ahead and purchased this system, and used the services of someone who knew how it worked, and could explain how to use it to them. So they had their paintings hung for them, but were now able to move and change them to suit their moods. And of course they had always had many more paintings than they could hang at any one time, so now they could easily change paintings, putting some in storage, lending some of the more sought-after ones to friends, or even galleries who sometimes asked for a Boyd or a Williams, a Whitely or Lloyd Rees.
And they told their friends about this fabulous new system, which cost a bit more to start with, but once it was in meant that ongoing costs were much much lower, and didn't damage the walls, and opened up all these new possibilities.
The maestro stuck to his tried and true methods. After all, it was his eye they wanted, and his was the quickest and easiest way to hang paintings. It took but a few moments, just a hammer and a nail. Almost no cost at all. They paid so much more for this new system, and the people who installed it and hung the paintings, well frankly they did not have his experience, his eye, his ability.
I don't like sad stories, so I won't end it for you. You can write your own ending.
Yes, it is about choosing the right tool for the right job. But first you need to know what the job is.
May 17, 2004
The three scourges
Both related and unrelated, there are three scourges of the web that have increased significantly for both me and westciv in the last couple of months. Spam, illegal software copying and blogspam.
Westciv now receives in the order of 5000 spam emails a day. A year ago it was probably less than 1000, three months ago, 2000.
A year ago I still largely manually handled spam. I had a number of hand made filters which seemed to reduce the level to such that the rest I could take care of by hand.
A year ago I switched to a mail application with Bayesian filtering. This keeps the amount of spam I actually see to a very small fraction of the amount I receive, but that email still needs to get onto my machine. At the beginning of the year, when I got maybe 1500 spams a day I still had a dialup connection, and particularly when I connected of a morning, after only a few hours disconnected, it would take me an hour or more to download those emails. Today even with a cable connection, the email of a morning is starting to take this kind of time to download.
Thank god there is a solution. Online spam catching services. Today I am finally going to sort one out. Otherwise, at this rate of spam increase, my fearful prediction is that even full time fast internet connection would be swamped with spam within the next few months.
Illegal software copying
I've written about piracy a few times, and I am still working on a major (several thousand word) article about it, but it continues to be a significant issue for westciv. It sucks bandwidth away from legitimate customers and visitors of our site, costs us bandwidth money, costs us time and effort attempting to minimize the impact on our business, and costs us karma. When thousands of people a week are ripping you off, it is hard not to feel a little negatively effected by it.
Many who have blogs provide a means for commenting on them. I think one of the great promises to the blog as a medium is to create "mediated" discussions. Free form discussions, as found on newsgroups, mailing lists and forums are great, and I have been involved with them for more than a decade. But mediated discussions seem to maintain the vitality of free form discussions while increasing the signal to noise ratio in many cases.
As with Wikis, forums, and other online forms of shared communication they are prone to abuse, and rely on the community mindedness of their communities. Unfortunately, search engine rankings throw a spanner in the works. It i widely known that your ranking at various search engines is in part a function of how many people link to you. And to some extent the comment mechanism on blogs is like an open relay for search engine spamming. Anyone can come and leave "comment" including their url.
We get this a lot at our blogs. Almost invariably from extremely pornographic sites.
We delete them as soon as we can, but they still will be there for some time, an affront to our readers and to us. And they cost us time and effort to monitor and remove.
Is there a pattern here?
I think there are many, some clearer than others.
One is that anonymity is a cloak under which people will clearly do unethical, illegal and unsavoury things that they would largely not do if identified.
But that is unlikely to change.
Some attitudes can change. I believe that many forms of "piracy" are committed by people who feel that it is justified by any number of factors, whether it be the high price of software, the poor deal that musicians get from recording companies and so on.
These kinds of attitudes can be addressed, not just by "spin" but by addressing their underlying justifications. I address this in some detail in my long promised magnum opus "Pirates of the CyberAeon" coming soon.
The real problem
But there is a deeper issue. Many of these processes operate at a meta human level. Spam is not something directly human. It is a highly automated process. It involves the legitimate abuse (yes that is what I meant) of existing systems and networks. In essence, the systems enable the behavior, the behavior is potentially beneficial, therefore the behavior occurs.
There are two vectors here. One we usually address is the motivation of the doer. We pass laws against spam, targetting the motivation of the spammer. Many proposed anti spam solutions focus on upping the cost of spamming, (and emailing for the rest of us) by making email have a cost which scales. Send more email, pay more in "postage".
But the "real" problem (that is one for which there is a feasible solution) lies in both the intended and unintended features of the underlying networks and systems.
Is their a legitimate reason to send millions of emails to millions of different addresses almost simultaneously? And yet the underlying email systems and networks allow it.
A great deal of spam emanates from everyday computers like yours and mine connected to the net via relatively high speed connections, like cable. The very very (almost criminally so) poorly designed systems and applications which these computers run enable the ludicrously easy infection by viruses and other such applications which turn these computers into open relays for spam, and the propagation of themselves and other viruses.
At present there is a tendency to blame the victim - you should have anti virus software installed, you should have your firewalls on, you should not open email attachments from people you don't know, you should turn off the ability of your email client to auto open attachments and on and on. Sure you could, and many of us do, but many people really don't understand this kind of thing, and why is it the users responsibility anyway?
But imagine if when you bought a car, it came without seat belts, indicators, headlights. Imagine the brakes would work if you were traveling at 40, but increasingly less well at higher speeds. Serious accidents would abound. Would they be the drivers fault? In many ways yes. You should take more vigilance, yo should install safety features, then there would be fewer accidents and when they occurred the consequences would be less serious for all involved.
Over the century or so there have been automobiles on the public roads, we have moved from seeing safety as being the responsibility of the driver, to much of it being a systematic issue. It's about roads, about the manufacture and design of the vehicles. As well as the skills and attitudes of the driver.
It's time to grow up
It's time for the computer industry as a whole to grow up. Hardware, software and networks designers and builders, whether commercial, or Free/Open Source must take responsibility for the almost catastrophic lack of security in our networked world. In some quarters this is already a fundamental design consideration. In others it is a bolted on afterthought, with PR lip service paid to its importance. For many it's an after sale extra.
So the next time you see calls for a tax on email to make spam go away, realize that this is like a tax on petrol to make the roads safer. It's passing the buck. It's time to get real about security and for those who are responsible for it to take that responsibility seriously.
The internet depends on it. Seriously.
May 06, 2004
Hopefully you'll hear a lot more about this, but just a quick announcement.
I'm very excited to be able to let you know that Westciv along with the the Web Standards Group and Webboy will be bringing you Web Essentials 04 a major two day conference in Sydney Australia September 30 to October 1 2004, dedicated to web standards and accessibility.
The lineup includes Dave Shea (CSS Zen Garden), Doug Bowman (StopDesign) and Joe Clark (no introduction required), with many Australian experts, including Russ Weakley, author of listutorial, selectutorial and more, and my good self.
Details are all at the Web Essentials site.
We've just opened registrations, with a special early bird rate 'til July 1.
Look forward to seeing you there,
May 05, 2004
Message To The Messengers - Props to the old school
Of late, with the latest version of Style Master released, bedded down, and well received, I've been a little nostalgic about the old days of CSS. So I thought I might try to ride that wave a little, cast my mind back over my experience of CSS, and talk a little about some people you really should be grateful to if you work with CSS and web standards. Particularly some you might not have heard of.
Sometimes, as I read blog entries, articles and such like on the web, about web design and CSS I am reminded of the wonderful track by Gil Scott Heron "Message To The Messengers", a rap from the old old school to the new school of hip hop, asking that we remember those who went before, and building a bridge from the old to the new.
In the world of CSS and web standards more generally, I remember the early days, and a whole heap of pioneers, many of whom are not the household names that Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer have become (no disrespect to those guys at all by the way, big up to you both). I can only admit to being something of a bit player compared with Sue Sims (now at Opera) and Jan Roland Eriksson who were the main force behind css.nu, the first (in my memory) really focussed CSS site.
These guys, along with a few others, were also real driving forces in the style sheets newsgroup in the late 90s, when belief in css was, in hindsight and to be honest, probably a little optimistic at best. They and people like Alan J. Flavell, Liam Quinn, Braden N. McDaniel, Todd Fahrner, Daniel Glazman, David Baron posted tirelessly on the newsgroup, started sites like the Web Design Group's CSS reference and css.nu, formed the CSS Samurai at the Web Standards Project and basically created a community that continues to this day.
Some of those names may be familiar, some more than others. Some won't be familiar at all. Some even have CSS techniques named in their honour (possibly a dubious honour I'd suggest, no disrespect to Todd at all.)
Look up some of their names at Google. Daniel Glazman is doing some very cool things with editors at Mozilla, from what I can tell. I feel I should, but I don't, know whether Alan is the Alan J. Flavell, professor of Astrophysics (something I wanted to do as a youngster 'til I realized I just wasn't smart enough). Liam Quinn was a founder of the WDG, and is disturbingly younger than I realized :-)
I don't know whether Todd needs any introduction. You've no doubt heard of the Fahrner Image Replacement technique (FIR), named I believe in his honor by Douglas Bowman, well known for StopDesign, and his Wired redesign a little while back. Not sure what Todd is up to now, but back in the day he was a professional designer at one of the big design firms, while many of us were hobbyists, students, interlopers and so on. I believe he may have worked with David Siegal, famous for foisting table based layouts on us with his "killer web sites" series. But the memory gets foggy after a while.
But the biggest respect has to go to Hakon Lie and Bert Bos, together the developers of CSS. Bert is at the W3C, still nurturing CSS, while Hakon is at Opera. And if you think they are just some bit player with a pretty cool browser, try loading your pages on a Sony/Erikssen mobile phone. It uses a version of Opera and it is a revelation. Do that and you'll understand, if you don't already, that the web is about a lot more than browsers on PCs.
Others came later, and did great, and really important things. A couple of people at Microsoft deserve much praise for going ahead and implementing CSS, Chris Wilson with IE3 for Windows, and Tantek Celik with IE 5 on the Mac, probably the first browser to show the real promise of CSS. Maybe he too should have got the box model wrong though :-)
And I'm sure I have missed many with this very potted and personal recollection.
But all you out there who read, write and care about CSS and web standards, stop for a moment and give some quiet thanks to these people, and all the many midwives who helped bring the possibility of web standards into the world. Sure that's gushing, but you know, CSS is something close to unique. It's a powerful, profoundly valuable addition to something wonderful, the world wide web, and its success, unlike say flash, and many other technologies is not due to a company promoting it, marketing it, making it happen. It's due to a community of like minded people. And these people I've mentioned were among the first.
So I thank you all. You have done something special.
If you have any stories, people to add to the list, or anthing to say at all, please just add a comment. Love to hear it,
Jeffrey and Doug have since written to me pointing out that it was Jeffrey who named the FIR, not in his honour but because Todd actually invented it.
May 04, 2004
It may come as no surprise that in my youth (say 14-17) I read a lot of science fiction, and a bit of that "fantasy" stuff. No snickering ok?
On the SciFi front I devoured the classics, but Asimov and Clarke were the ones I read most. I guess their work was largely rooted in science, compared with say Heinlein, who was definitely a bit more "out there". No mention of others, so out there they started their own religions.
In the years after, though I officially studied science and law at University, I gravitated toward what might be called the "liberal arts" or in Australia the "Humanities."
My tastes these days run more to Michael Ondaatje, author of the justly famous and wonderful "The English Patient", but whose prose poems, like "Coming Through Slaughter" while challenging, are profoundly beautiful. Or Vikram Chandra, whose Red Earth and Pouring Rain I re read every year or so, a rare thing for me.
It must have been a long while since I have read anything you might call science fiction. Recently, a lot has been written about Neal Stephenson, whose Cryptonomicon has long been a geek classic.
Something about it appealed to me, so I wandered into my local second hand bookstore which rarely lets me down, and lo! there was a copy.
I've only read a third, but even so, I have to tell you, do yourself a favour, grab a copy, and get stuck in.
Stephenson's ability to make complex mathematical concepts comprehensible is a rare gift, so if the going seems to get a little complex at times, stick at it, because it pays off. This is no Goëdel Escher Bach, much more accessible.
Above all it is genuine science fiction, where the science and technology are in a sense characters, as much as the people.
Let me know what you think,
May 03, 2004
On the very off chance
Should you live in Bondi, or surrounds, and like to meet up with some other web types in the area, then tomorrow evening [Tuesday May 4], at 700pm or so, a few Bondi web types will be getting together at the Beach Road Hotel.
Upstairs in the newish non smoking back bar (how cool is a non smoking bar? I'd go out more if all pubs were non smoking, but I digress).
You'll have to work out who we are, but that should not be too hard.