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April 27, 2005

Style Master 4.02 Windows released

We've just released Style Master 4.02 for Windows. There are a raft of fixes, detailed at our thriving support forum.

Mac users, rest assured, a new version is coming soon, which addresses some minor issues with Tiger (Mac OS X 10.4 due out at the end pf the week) (so called perhaps because it makes developers go "grrrrr"?), as well as a few issues that have arisen since 4.01 was released.

And for those confused by version tracker. 4.01 is the version you already have, for some reason version tracker just announced we had an upgrade, when we in fact have not.

News soon on my speaking in Chiba, Japan, at WWW2005 in a couple of weeks (very excited to be going to Japan), and the return of Web Essentials for 2005. Be very excited, this will be a big big show.

John

Oh, and don't miss Maxine's great new tutorial on building complex photo galleries with floated elements instead of tables.

April 27, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 21, 2005

America

I've been to the US twice. In 2000, during the Sydney Olympics (swapped apartments with a New York based journalist and got to stay on 34th Street for 2 months in a very nice place.)
As readers will know, I was there again last month, this time in LA, Austin for SxSW, San Francisco, and then the coast road (Highway 1) to LA from San Francisco.

Both times I returned with a tremendous energy and enthusiasm, my head full of ideas and projects. And to tell the truth, this surprised me.
In short, there is a lot to like about the US. The optimism, the "can do", "give it a go" attitude. That's not to say that everything about the US is great, but often times, we outside the US focus on the not so great stuff (look, its not hard to do that sometimes).

The world would be a better place if more from the USA travelled to other countries, and got to know them a bit better, and similarly if more of us from outside the US went there, and saw what the real place and people, not the movies and TV shows and other stereotypes, are like.

Mindful that I can be a bit of a critic, I'll more or less leave it there for now.

But web people from outside the US, put South by Southwest (March 10-14 2006) into your diaries now. Even traveling from Europe is reasonably affordable (there were a load of English people there this year), and I'm looking into making it more accessible to Australian developers next year.

Just start saving your pennies, because its worth every one.


April 21, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

April 18, 2005

Well this is going to light it up like a Xmas tree

Adobe has announced the purchase of Macromedia (subject to regulatory approval, interesting to see how that pans out, with a number of high profile overlapping apps).

Implications? Really don't know at this stage. How will flash versus SVG pan out? Adobe has long been quite a strong supporter of SVG. The Flash tools with SVG as the file format? Adobes support for SVG to wane markedly?
I imagine GoLive, which has never quite ignited the passions like Dreamweaver might be for the sale yard. Or the chopping block.

A good move by Adobe? I'd say so, for them. Their web plays, with the exception of PDF (which I know is not really a web technology) have never done as well as Macromedia's. SVG versus Flash, GoLive versus Dreamweaver both springto mind. 0 for 2. Adobe still has a big lock on print and digital imaging, but never translated it into the web. Well $3.5 billion seems to have done that.

But big mergers never seem to go as well as people hope. HP/Compaq, Compaq/Digital, and many more are a testimony to that. Cultures are different, allegiances differ within the new companies. A few hours ago, there companies were fierce rivals in web and digital imaging. Now they are one.
Plus there is a tribal nature to many customers. There are Mac people and Windows people. Ford people and Pontiac people. And Dreamweaver users, flash users, and ColdFusion users, in my experience, often feel very strongly about Macromedia in the same kind of way. It's a great asset. Will Adobe get their allegiance for free (well,$ 3.5 billion)?

Good for the web? I think its really too early days for over consolidation on the web. It's still so young, I think we need the flux and dynamism of many smart people doing lots of cool things. I think at least in the short term the implication of this will be that we see less of that.

But you never know.

April 18, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 15, 2005

Moronic online business practices number 678 in a seemingly infinite series

For some reason, McAfee's anti virus package throws up the following warning when running Style Master for some people

"A Suspicious Script Has Been Detected! The file C:\Programs Files\western civilisation\Style Master 4 Demo\St... contains suspicious scripting activity and has been stopped."

Now, I have some very serious problems with this. It's a load of bulls**t. If I were rich, I'd be on their ass so fast with a posse of lawyers for product disparagement, and to be quite honest, I'd look at defamation while I were at it.
But I am not rich, nor particularly litigious. So, I thought I'd get a demo version and see if I can get to the bottom as to why, and perhaps clear it up, or at least be able to advise my users how to stop it happening.

I thought they must have a demo version. OK, I was right there. Then the fun started.
First up, rather than simply downloading an installer app, running it, and have an installed version, we had to go through the rigmarole of buying the application, for free. That's right, use their overly complicated, self contradictory shopping cart system to "buy" a free demo.

Think that's bad? In order to do so I had to be using IE. Now I rarely use IE anymore but for testing. So I fired it up, visited the page, made my order, went to checkout only to be told I had to enable cookies. They kindly gave me complicated instructions for enabling cookies, which seemed to work on the third attempt (like I have to live with your choices about my security? The only reason I even got to second base was the need to fix this problem they were causing to my software). If I were in the market for this application, there would be zero chance of me purchasing it. Zero.
So, having screwed up my security for their benefit, I tried to checkout, only to be told now I needed to create an account.
So I created an account, saying no to three separate checkboxes about them sending me crap. And then I had to go back to the beginning of the whole process once I checked into the account.

Now, I checked out, to be told that I couldn't purchase this product because I didn't have a subscription, and a nice "click here" link (that's all it said "click here"). This seemed to lead me to a product info page.
I tried the process a couple of times (like I said, I really had a need here), and finally, found some backdoor way of downloading by (I think) going to the shopping cart after trying unsuccessfully to buy, where there was in fact a link.

Great say you and I. You'd be wrong. So very wrong.

Now, I need to click two certificates to agree to download stuff from McAfee. Yes, I guess I could always accept anything from McAfee, but after this experience I never really want to accept anything from them.
Eventually we get to the download part proper, where a popup window opens and something should happen. Only thing is, the window opens, and then freezes. If I go to the download page it tells me to turn off popup blockers (which I don't use because I use Firefox). But there is a Start button, so I think , well, maybe it will work this time.
Click start, new popup window opens, freezes. Nothing happens.

So right now I have to abandon the project of working out how to fix a problem that McAfee has caused me and my company because after 30 minutes, and finally getting through the tortuous maze that they have created for their users, I can't get the download anyway. Thank god I did not pay for it.

A word of advice for McAfee. You are losing 99% of your customers due to your genuinely diabolical business choices and their implementation. Fix your anti virus application so it does not flag legitimate applications as "suspicious", and sack every person involved in the development of your disgraceful web site, unless they can demonstrate a strong opposition to its design and implementation (though I imagine those people left in disgust or were sacked by the morons who are responsible for it).

Strong words. You bet. But absolutely deserved.

April 15, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 13, 2005

Lessons Proprietary Software Can Teach Open Source

[Rereading this just before publishing, I became aware that it is full of generalizations. And that it could be read as a strong criticism of Free/Open Source Software (FOSS). There are generalizations certainly. But it is not meant as a criticism of FOSS. Rather an attempt to answer the question above, and think a little more about the differences between what I do (develop commercial software products) and what many far better coders do (write open source software).]

At Slashdot today someone asked what lessons proprietary software can teach OSS.

Now, despite being involved with commercial software, I don't have anything against OSS. I'd have to say that on first reflection I only use OSS peripherally, say Firefox a bit (Safari is still my main Mac browser, though on windows Firefox is my default browser). But of course many many sites I read are served by Apache, using PHP, on Linux or BSD boxes, and other open source solutions. Indeed westciv.com is served from a BSD based server, using Apache. In fact the more you look, the more you'll find OSS - Safari relies in part on the open source KHTML, and the underlying OS in Mac OS X has much to do with the open source BSD version on UNIX. Similarly in Windows, aspects of the operating system use OSS, as far as I am aware.

So open source software is a fundamental part of our computing experience, whether we choose to use an open source application or not.

What is interesting is that so few people, outside the technological "hard core" explicitly use an OSS application, even though we all use OSS. What's going on here? By answering that, I think we get an answer to the question at Slashdot.

See, people don't use software, they don't even use applications. They use products. Whether at a price, or for free, people are looking for a complete solution to a need - what Geoffrey Moore, hi tech marketing guru (author of "Crossing the Chasm") calls a "whole product".
What's telling about the Slashdot discussion is that the term "whole product" does not appear once in the several hundred responses to the article. Which does not necessarily surprise me. Engineers and coders often are quite hostile toward, and generally at least indifferent to, marketing.

OSS has produced many great pieces of software. Whole operating systems, web browsers, networking technologies. What it has yet to produce is many, if any, great "products".
What about Linux, or Firefox? These are certainly great technologies, and Firefox comes close to being a product (I'd even be happy to admit that it is), but certainly Linux is yet to be a "plug it in and turn it on and forget about it" solution like Mac OS X, or Windows. They are whole products. Some Linux distros are getting there, but in a way this just illustrates my point. What companies like Red Hat do is take the technology of Linux and turn it into a product. How? By adding support, by making it "just work".

So, to be shorter than usual, the lesson that OSS can learn from proprietary software is stop just building technologies and start building "whole products".

At westciv, like any remotely successful software company we do a lot more than just write code. We spend a lot of our energy (I'd say the significant majority) on our support forum, on documentation - our manuals and tutorials, on add ons like our CSS templates (available under a creative commons license). We directly support our users when they are having problems. Not to mention user testing, thinking and rethinking about our users experience and so on.
OSS projects, by and large, revolve around writing and testing code. And as a methodology OSS approaches produce an enormous amount of high quality code.
But as yet, it does not look like a great approach to building whole products.

My guess is that companies like Round Two, which Bart Decrem, longtime Firefox dude is associated with will find a business model, as Red Hat has done, in turning open source projects into whole products.
What the OSS community thinks of it, remains to be seen. My guess is that the Stallmanesque "hard core" may not necessarily be positive toward it, perhaps even hostile in parts. Which would be entirely to the detriment of the success of OSS.

But therein lies a difficult problem for OSS. Philosophically, there are those, like Richard Stallman who are opposed to the idea of software as property. And there are those, like Eric Raymond, who are much more pragmatic.

The very idea of a product is part of the culture of proprietary software, a culture toward which many "free software" advocates are quite hostile. Is it possible to adopt tactics and strategies from a culture toward which you have fundamental objections? Philosophically it would strike me as quite difficult. But strategically, it is vitally important, if FOSS projects want to go beyond their current roles as important parts of the plumbing, largely hidden out of the way, and to take center stage on the average user's desktop.
And that will need marketers, writers for documentation, designers who will make these apps look world class (appearance counts for a lot among many many software consumers). That will take user interface experts, all willing to work in the open source model. Firefox has managed something of this, so it is not impossible.
But, the free software philosophy and culture started in the hacker culture. Can it cross over to other communities of practice that are vital to building a whole product? That is FOSS challenge. And it is a significant one.

April 13, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

April 10, 2005

Information wants to be free (as in speech)

I know when this blog started life it was meant to be about writing software. But I write software so much that writing about writing software doesn't always have as much appeal as you might think. So I write about other stuff.

Often stuff that annoys me. Is it me, or is there no shortage of that?

From the particularly clueless department comes the US Congress (why is it parliaments keep generating so much nonsense?) which is considering enforcing a standardized DRM (digital rights management) scheme on the music industry. Why is this suddenly so pressingly important? Well apparently, because of "inconvenience for consumers". Frankly, that looks to me to be a load of cobblers, it seems consumers have no inconvenience buying an iPod and using iTunes :-). Rather, all of Apple's competitors who have missed the boat would stand to benefit. How convenient.

Meanwhile, proprietary document formats, not least of all Microsoft's Office formats show, show where real inconvenience (and far worse) lie not simply for consumers, but for entire industries.

So where is the US Congress interest in mandating that document formats used for government business, or required for public purposes (such as the common legal requirement that records be maintained for a period of time) must be in an open, published format? The US state of Massachusetts appears to be heading in this direction. Surely if moves are going to be made to enforce interoperability (which, of course, I am entirely for) then rather than addressing a minor aspect of an emerging market, it would make much more sense to address a genuinely important aspect of interoperability, namely office formats.

Why is this important? Two reasons really. One impacts on the creator of documents. In essence, when using a proprietary format, use of that content even by its creator is ultimately determined by the developer of the piece of software used to create it. Sure, the license terms of that software, or its fundamental operation are unlikely to change from day to day. But try opening a 10 year old word document in the latest version of word. Does it open an utterly faithful version of the document as created? Chances are that it won't. Is this really important? I'll let you decide for your own purposes.
And in another 5 years will it open at all?
No problem you might reply, I'll just run the old version of the app I used to create that document. While that might be feasible for the next 5 or 10 years, is it feasible for the next two or three decades?

Open published standardized formats provide a guarantee which no software developer (none, not even the very biggest) can. That your work will be accessible (in essence continue to exist) in perpetuity.
As documentation becomes increasingly electronic, this is not simply a luxury, it is fundamentally important. Our culture is really what we create. If we lose the ability to read, to listen to, to experience our cultural creations, we lose much of that culture.

There is a second reason why open document formats are profoundly beneficial to the entire online world, and increasingly the entire developed world. They provide a platform for innovation. By standardizing document formats, users are able to exercise genuine choice over the software they use, rather than being locked into whatever choice they or someone else made at whatever point they made it. We are all then much less dependent on the choices software developers make which might have more to do with their strategic advantage than it does about our needs as users.

OK, so how in theory do open formats benefit this? And in practice is there any evidence that this is not so much smithsonian (invisible) hand waving?
Right now if someone sends you a word document, how do you view it? You use Word. OK, some applications will translate Word formats and make the accessible, even editable (Apple's TextEdit and Pages are an obvious example). So we have interoperability right? Only on the most trivial level. Complex aspects of any document format, particularly when it is both unpublished, and liable to change are extremely difficult to make work properly. Even Microsoft has had reasonably well known difficulties when upgrading file formats, and this involved the team who actually developed the file formats in the first place, with full access to the existing file format documentation.
Stable, published document formats allow much greater and more reliable interoperability of applications like OpenOffice with your Office documents, as well as enabling smaller developers who might wish to specialize in providing particular functionality, say a useful grammar checker, that would work with whatever Word processing application a user chose to work with to develoop such software. This is not to say that this is impossible now, simply very difficult, and risky for a software developer on two fronts. One, because there is no guarantee that the underlying document format won't change at any time, and two, because the US DCMA (Digital Copyright Millennium Act) might actually make reverse engineering those file formats illegal (regardless of your opinion of that, I'll tell you the reality of small software developers. We steadfastly avoid any situation which has even the slightest whiff of potential legal issues like this. There are several features we have no developed for Style Master precisely because of this kind of issue).

But is this not all simply hand waving and theory? Well, let's compare two significant areas of software use over the last decade.
A decade ago, the web was a niche game. While emerging in popular consciousness, few people really used it. There were few published standards, and a large number of very small developers developing browsers, editors, servers, and other web software. Microsoft launched IE with Windows 95.
Over the next decade, while we might focus on the growing and until recently seemingly complete dominance of IE as a browser, looking at the web as an entire ecosystem, we find significant flux in almost every aspect of that ecosystem. There is no one dominant server app for the web (with numerous open source and commercial applications in this space). No web editing software dominates - several applications from large companies like Macromedia, Adobe and Microsoft remain viable, while hundreds if not thousands of small developers (like us) develop viable, in many cases innovative software which interoperate with one another and with the big players, because of the stable published underlying formats like HTML and CSS.
Even among browsers, several browsers remain more than viable, despite Microsoft's seeming dominance for most of this decade. And thank goodness for that, as IE has essentially been unchanged since the release of version 6 nearly half a decade ago.

Let's compare this with the space of Office productivity software.

In 1995, while Microsoft Office was certainly a commercial success, it had far from the almost complete dominance of Office in 2005. Today, Word Perfect Office and Lotus Smart Suite and OpenOffice between them haggle over at most 10% of the Office market (accurate figures are difficult to come across). The entire decade has seen a concentration of Office's market dominance.

Why the difference? There are many, from abysmal business decisions by competitors to users familiarity with their existing application, to Microsoft's enormous marketing budget (literally billions of dollars a year).
But above all else, once you start using Office (this is largely true of other such apps too) you are locked into the product because of all the content you create in that application's proprietary format. It is a huge risk to transition to another platform, regardless of any other benefits, for the fear of losing access to your existing documents.

So, in one field, despite the enormous marketing and R&D budgets, despite their ability to attract and keep the best and brightest people, Microsoft is one player among many (dominant in browsers, but in no other aspect of the web) while in another, the utterly dominate.
The difference? In both cases all the variables are almost identical And you can't accuse MS of not trying to dominate the web the way it has Operating Systems and Office apps. The difference is that on the web there are open, standardized document formats (HTML/XHTML, CSS, JPEG and so on) and other open standards (protocols like HTTP) while in the Office space there are no such levelers of the playing field.

There is a third and possibly most important reason than either of these, why open document formats are profoundly important.
The network effect.

Google alone indexes in excess of 8 billion web pages. Increasingly Google indexes not just HTML based pages, but many other kinds of format, among them Office formats. But this indexing suffers from, in the case of closed formats like office, similar problems as faced by developers of applications seeking interoperability with Office documents. Formats can change at any time, and Google must reverse engineer them to gain access to their content (my guess is they most likely index the plain text available in Office formats, with reference to little if any structured markup, like headings). This diminishes the value of content in such formats, and will increasingly so as search engines get smarter at using document semantics to help boost result relevance.

If, like me, you believe "information wants to be free", then this is about much more than the ability of markets to function as they should to provide us with solutions. Using proprietary formats constrains the freedom and value of information that is at odds with the world of the web.

So what can you do if you care?

Simple really. Use open published document formats as much as is feasible. Don't lock others into your file format choices by sending them proprietary formatted documents (this goes for any document format, not simply Microsoft's). Where feasible, send back any proprietary formatted documents to whomever sent them to you, asking they simply send them as plain text, or the appropriate open format.
Investigate alternatives to your current software which will read and write open standard formats.
Make this an issue when making decisions in future about system choices.

Many of us however have significant investments in proprietary formats, so making the change will require an effort, there is no doubt. But the benefits to us individually, and more importantly to the world of information will be profound.

Plus it is going to happen. Depend on it. You may as well get on the train early and get a good seat.

April 10, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

April 06, 2005

What do you use to edit HTML?

Quick quiz. What tool or tools do you use to work with HTML? Either Mac or Windows, I'm interested in people's tools of choice,

Thanks,

john

April 6, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (43) | TrackBack

April 05, 2005

more web jobs

Sitepoint do some really good web developer books, and run interesting articles forums and blogs on subjects close to all our hearts and minds. They must be doing ok, as they have 4 jobs open at present, down in Melbourne Australia (that's down for me in Sydney, and down for just about anyone else in the world too, I'd guess).

Among them are:

  1. An office manager
  2. A managing editor for their print newsletters
  3. A marketing role
  4. A technical editor for their technical publications

So if you are in, near or would like to move to Melbourne (look, its not Sydney, but its a great city any ways, and what would I know, I never leave Bondi) head over, check it out, and drop them a line.

Great to see things picking up. The vibe I got in Austin at SxSW and in San Francisco on my recent trips was things are looking much better than they have for some years. People I know in Australia also feel similarly.

John

April 5, 2005 in Positions Vacant | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 01, 2005

Web Standards Jobs!

A few months back, I promised that if you had a web standards developer job going, I'd happily post it here. Well out of the blue this morning someone wrote taking me up on my offer, with not one but two jobs.

Campbell Ewald, a full service advertising agency in Warren, MI are currently seeking to add 2 full time web standards developers to their existing web standards development staff.
This individual will work on interface development for various b2b, b2c, extranet, and intranet web sites and web applications.

The ideal candidate will have the following characteristics:

  1. Ability to learn. Candidate must show they can adapt to the rapidly changing web technology landscape.
  2. Ability to communicate. Candidate must show that they can express ideas with clarity and effectiveness, both written and verbally.
  3. Mature technical ability. Candidate must understand how the web works from a low to a high level. Candidate must also understand how quality software is designed and constructed.
  4. Flexibility. Candidate must be comfortable with the pace of multiple projects.


Other required skills:

  • Four year degree in related field or equivalent industry experience
  • Familiarity with basic concepts of Information Architecture
  • Expert knowledge of CSS, (X)HTML, Javascript and web standards
  • Experience implementing standards-based web application user interfaces
  • Experience with the W3C DOM
  • Knowledge of differences between browsers, their implementations of CSS, DOM, and other standards
  • Ability to cleanly reproduce interface elements and user experience across different browsers
  • Ability to spec out and communicate designs and user interaction, working with Information Architects, Creative, and other engineers from prototype through implementation and testing
  • Experience with both MAC (OS X) and Windows platforms
  • Proficiency with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe ImageReady software applications for image manipulation and optimization

Preferred:

  • Experience with accessibility (WAI, 508)
  • Experience with internationalization
  • Experience integrating rich web interfaces with server-side code (JSP).
  • Experience in UI design and engineering for content management systems
  • Experience working with and developing RSS feeds
  • Experience with Source Control/Versioning systems (CVS)
  • Technologies: JSTL, XML and XSLT

If you are interested, drop Ken Burbary a line

Looks like things are looking up for those with web standards skills.

Good luck,

john

April 1, 2005 in Positions Vacant | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Firefox Hacks

Some months ago I wrote a "hack" for Nigel McFarlane's O'Reilly Book "Firefox Hacks" (actually, Maxine had a fair bit to do with it too, and also wrote her own hack).

It look like a great book, but if you'd like a look at the Hack I wrote, about using Firefox and some cool extensions for tweaking and trouble shooting CSS designs using Firefox.

O'Reilly actually have it available online in PDF, so take a look, and let me know what you think,

More soon,

John

April 1, 2005 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack