Whither W3C? | June 17, 2007

I’ve been a strong proponent of web standards since first being introduced to them back in 2000 by Jefrey Zeldman. I started discussing standards on my local mailing list, then on my blog, and finally at conferences and events. I even wrote a book on the subject.

Over the last seven years I’ve seen web standards go from relative obscurity to industry best practice. Browser support is now extremely good, and I can’t remember the last time I saw a job advert for a front-end developer that didn’t require a thorough knowledge of CSS. We no longer talk about them with such fervour on our blogs or at web conferences, preferring to talk about design, typography or user experience instead. Like all good standards, they have started to become invisible.

This invisibility is partly due to their widespread adoption. However it is also down to their slow rate of change. A few years ago we were seeing new CSS techniques appearing almost weekly, as developers tried to push the boundaries. However we’ve now reached a plateau with what can be achieved with the existing technologies, and need to look towards the future. Towards the people building the next generation of web standards.

The W3C has come under quite a bit of criticism of late for the slow development of CSS3, the wrong direction it took with XHTML2.0, and the mess it made with WCAG2.0. High profile developers have called into question everything from the organisational structure and decision making process through to the lack of transparency and the way it engages with the wider community.

To help address these issues, several people have set out on their own paths with greater or lesser success. As a response to the bloated and unworkable XHTML2.0 specification, the WHATWG set out to create something more relevant for today’s web application developers. Operating as a benevolent dictatorship, the WHAT working group was open to the views of the community, while managing to avoid getting bogged down in endless political discussions. While I’m not sure the model could work for other projects, the results have been pretty impressive. The working group has now become an official W3C working group, and the draft specification has been renamed HTML5.

Unlike other W3C working groups, anybody can join the official mailing list as an “invited expert”. From what I understand the list is very highly trafficked, and the technical level of the discussion is quite difficult to follow by your average web developer. However this willingness to engage seems to be baring fruit, and many of the less palatable ideas like reserved class names have been dropped. Apart from the working groups insistence on keeping the font element, everything else I’ve seen has been pretty impressive so far. In a recent post, Ian Hickson suggested maybe doing the same for CSS.

Taking a different approach was Joe Clark and his WCAG Samurai. A relatively secretive group of individuals, the Samurai were tasked with amending the existing web content accessibility guidelines. These guidelines were written a very long time ago and have been showing their age for years. With WCAG2.0 in development hell at the time, amending the existing spec seemed like a very sensible idea. The resulting guidelines have recently been published along with two “blind” peer reviews. While I doubt WCAG1.0 +Samurai will ever become an official guideline, it makes a lot of sense on first examination and I applaud Joe for his persistence and hard work.

I’m not sure if WCAG1.0 +Samurai has had any affect on the official accessibility working group, but they seem to have addressed most of the original concerns with WCAG2.0 which is very positive.

My own personal bugbear is CSS3. We’ve been waiting for CSS3 now for seven years, and while some of the modules are nearing completion, others may never see the light of day. I’ve listened to a lot of the arguments why CSS3 is taking so long, and I do understand. It is a very complicated project being developed primarily by volunteers, so is bound to take time. One of the most illuminating articles on the subject comes from invited expert, Elika Etemad, and is well worth a read.

I recently proposed an interim specification called CSS2.2 which would include all the CSS3 selectors, properties and values that had at least one existing browser implementation. This would include things like multiple background images, border images, border radius, web fonts, text shadows, box shadows and multi column layout.

By concentrating on already implemented features, this should be a relatively easy specification to produce. The documentation has already been written for CSS3, and the test cases and implementations are in place. Any extra work that needs to be done on these new features will need to be done for CSS3 anyway, so it seems like the job is more editorial than technical. Unless I’m missing something crucial it should be as simple as transposing these new features into the completed CSS2.1 spec and creating a new point release.

This interim spec would then give browser vendors something to aim for, and provide developers with the features we need to innovate. We could then start thinking about what new, as yet to be implemented features we’d like to see in a future point release. This would make the whole standards process much more iterative and get the popular or easily implemented features out in the wild faster.

Reaction to the idea seems largely positive. Most of the developers I’ve spoken to welcome the idea of an interim specification, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear Hakon Lie promoting the concept at both Reboot and @media London. In fact, it seems to have provoked some interesting discussions inside Opera. I’ve also had people contact me suggesting we start up some kind of grassroots movement to promote the idea of CSS2.2 or even draft a specification ourselves. However specification writing is a complicated process that requires specialist skills, so is best left to the experts.

I’ve heard that reaction inside the CSS working group is mixed, but with a closed internal mailing list and little in the way of external communication, it is very difficult to tell what they are thinking. They recently launched a new blog to help improve communication, but the first post doesn’t fill me with confidence.

The argument I always hear from the W3C is, “if you want to get involved, you should join one of our public mailing lists”. However this seems more like an avoidance strategy than a real desire to communicate. The W3C must know that signing up to a high traffic technical mailing list provides just enough of a barrier to entry to put the majority of people off. I actually joined their CSS mailing list a few years back, but quickly left after every suggestion I made was brushed off with instructions to check the archive or read a three year old thread.

Mailing lists may still be popular amongst academia, but I think it shows a distinct lack of understanding about how people use the web these days. Rather than being critical about people posting their thoughts to their blogs, if the CSS working group really want to elicit feedback they should embrace the developer community. Do what the WHATWG does and set up watchlists for common terms like CSS3 or CSS2.2, post regularly to their blog and set up an official wiki. If the CSS working group really want feedback, they need to start by offering more transparency and make it easier for people to contribute.

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dConstruct Workshops | June 14, 2007

Just a quick heads-up to let everybody know that dConstruct workshop tickets are now on sale. We’ve got some great sessions planned, all with a user experience or information architecture theme. And the best news is, if you book a seat at any one of these workshops, you’ll automatically get free entrance to the dConstruct conference. As this event usually sells out in a couple of days, this is the very best way to be guaranteed a place.

On Wednesday we have Leisa Reichelt doing a workshop on, er workshops. More specifically, Leisa will be looking at various hands on techniques IA and UX professionals can use to capture ideas and communicate with clients. I had a lot of fun during Leisa’s “Design Consequences” session at BarCamp London, so expect lots of scribbling on sticky notes, sketching interfaces and generally getting your hands dirty.

For the more developer minded, we have a full day workshop with Mr Microformats himself, Tantek Celik. Along with his trusty sidekick, Jeremy Keith, this dynamic due will be taking you on a whirlwind tour of the most exciting thing to happen with semantic mark-up since death of the <font> tag. So get your text editors at the ready, and be prepared for a day of geeky fun.

Thursday sees Thomas Vander Wal, tagmeister extraordinaire, run a session on how to build the social web through tagging. The man who put the “folk” in folksonomy will look at the social and managerial issues behind tagging, and help you design your own tagging strategy. This session will be perfect for anybody dealing with large collections of data, like museums, galleries or even online pet stores. Just don’t mention dogging.

Lastly, we have Peter Merholz, one of the “big guns” from Adaptive Path, running a workshop on experience design. Peter will be drawing from his years of experience as a consultant to explain how to analyse problems and develop solutions. This is already looking like a very popular workshop and one we recommend doing in conjunction with Leisa’s workshop.

Place on these workshops is limited, and already selling out fast. So if you want to learn from some of the best people in the industry, I recommend you go check them out.

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@media07 | June 9, 2007

I’ve just come back from another incredibly enjoyable @media conference. This year had a very design oriented feel and my highlights included talks by Jason Santa Maria, Mark Bolton and Jon Hicks. However the best part of @media for me is always the social angle. It’s an opportunity to hang out with friends from around the world that I only get to see on occasion. People like Dan Cederholm and Joe Clark. It’s also a chance to hang out with London locals like the lovely Hannah Gordon and Mike “The Dude” Stenhouse. Mike was incidentally sporting the best porno moustache I’ve seen in quite some time. Move over Stewart Colville, a new sheriff is in town.

Other people I enjoyed hanging out with included the elusive Simon Collison, the enigmatic Mark Bolton, the animated Simon Willison, and the Internets Drew Mclellan. I also got to meet few new faces including Peter from the CSS3 website, and Laura, who set up the amazingly successful Bristol SkillSwap. Respect.

I was pleased to see that the idea of CSS2.2 is gaining some traction. Hakon Lie mentioned it in his talk again, and it also came up in the Q&A. It’s a shame I didn’t have chance to speak about it at the conference, but I hope there will be other speaking opportunities in the future. In the meantime, I’ll be talking about the idea in more depth on this site soon.

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Rebooted | June 3, 2007

Ever since hearing about Reboot three years ago, I’ve wanted to attend this Scandinavian conference. I was supposed to speak last year, but fate conspired against me. However Jeremy went, and by all accounts knocked their socks off with a love letter in praise of the hyperlink. Jeremy came back all enthused, so I set a reminder iCal as well as a mental note to attend.

I’ve been doing a lot of conference travelling recently, so when Reboot cropped up, I was faced with a dilemma. Rich was off on holiday that week and I felt obliged to hold fort and do a spot of work for a change. I was all settled on missing the event this year, when a potential client contacted me to discuss a couple of projects they were planning. It turned out they were also going to Reboot, and it would be one of the few opportunities I’d have to meet them. That was all the excuse I needed. I got hold of a ticket, booked my flights and desperately scoured trip advisor for a hotel.

Reboot is a different type of conference to the ones I normally attend. If XTech is one end of the spectrum, then Reboot is most definitely the other. The first thing I should mention is that Reboot isn’t a web design conference, it’s a conference on digital culture. As such the sessions were largely blue sky presentations, with speakers philosophising about the nature of the web and what it means to be part of an always on, digital society. Consequently the talks were full of discussion about continuous partial attention, ambient intimacy, portable social networks and the concept of flow.

I largely enjoyed the sessions, but despite all the philosophising, I couldn’t help feel that the talks lacked substance. A lot of the sessions were little more than a series of loosely joined concepts with nothing in the way of narrative or conclusion. Like separate blog posts rather than a single, well thought out argument. It was as thought the speakers spent so much time trying to sound clever, they forgot the point they were trying to make. Now I enjoy a pretentious talk as much as the next man. After all, I work with Jeremy Keith. However even when Jeremy turns the pretension level up to eleven, you still come away from the session feeling smarter than you did when you went in. I felt many of the reboot talks were like eating at a fancy French restaurant. You know the chef is probably a genius by the delicate nature of the food, but you’re left feeling hungry and slightly unsatisfied.

My stand out favourite session was a talk by Tom Armitage called the uncanny valet. Tom gave a great presentation about manners on the web, and how web applications can and should be treating their users better. He gave a couple of excellent examples of rude behaviour by Facebook, something I’ve been struggling with of late. Conversely he highlighted the exceptionally good manners of moo.com, something I’ll be stealing for my next presentation.

Jeremy gave a good, although somewhat disjointed pretension, that was at once the most pretentious and also the most practical talk of Reboot. Not a mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. Other favourites included Leisa Reichelt on ambient intimacy and Matt Webb on the personality of products. I gave Anne van Kesteren an undeservedly hard time after his excellent presentation on HTML5, although I still maintain that re-introducing the font tag is a VERY BAD IDEA, and sends out all the wrong signals.

Like most conferences, the highlight for me was hanging out with the other attendees. There were some extremely smart people in attendance, and it was great shooting the breeze with everybody. I was somewhat surprised by the number of Brits around, and rather shamefully spent most of my time hanging out with my fellow countrymen. The event had a reasonable number of female attendees, and even had a crèche which I thought was a nice idea. Sadly, there were far fewer women speakers that you would have expected of a conference that size, which was a shame. On the whole, the event had a nice, slightly disorganised feel about it, reminiscent of the first d.Construct. As such it felt much closer to a community driven un-conference than a big, commercial event.

One of the big factors for me was location. I’ve wanted to visit Copenhagen ever since a romantic interlude with a lovely young Danish girl while travelling. The city she described sounded amazing, and I have to say it didn’t disappoint. Copenhagen is a beautiful city, very reminiscent of Amsterdam. The city is clean, characterful and extremely efficient. The architecture is a lovely blend of traditional and modern, and the legendary Danish design culture is very much in evidence. I loved the fact that city provides free bike rental for just a £2 deposit, and the fact that they don’t all get stolen, which I’m sure would happen in the UK. The subway also works on the honour system, with no ticket barriers to check that you’ve paid for your fare. The people were extremely warm and hospitable, and possibly some of the most liberal minded people around. You only have to look at the hippy heaven of Christiania to see that for yourself. I really enjoyed my time in Copenhagen and look forward to going back next year.

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