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2005-05-29: local portal adopts standards-based design

ourbrisbane.com is a high-profile community site for my home town (run by the city council), which has just launched a new-look site - probably to coincide with a tv ad campaign. While the look and feel is really just an evolution of their old design, the real success is under the bonnet. Some key points:

  • Gone is the old table-based design, hello DIVs and CSS.
  • The design scales nicely when you increase the text size - many sites still fail this check.
  • There's a skip link to avoid the (quite long) navigation in screen readers.
  • The flyout navigation uses real links, not hash links; so if you disable javascript or can't use the flyouts you can still click through to the sections - which have all the flyout options.
  • Works in Opera 8 and Firefox 1.0.4 - this should not be a separate item, but considering sites like news.com.au actually launched designs that crashed browsers other than IE... it gets a tick.

It's not perfect though...

  • Sub-pages still use layout tables.
  • They've made the old classic mistake of forgetting to explicitly set their white background colour. UPDATE: They've now set the background. Either they noticed themselves, or they read their feedback emails :)
  • The page doesn't validate, mostly due to a missing quote in an IMG element and a stack of javascript triggers (invalid attributes).
  • Some link colour combinations fail contrast checks (tested using the AIS Colour Contrast Analyser), most notably the bright orange What's On section.

All up? Well there are things I'd do differently and a few errors that need fixing, but realistically this is a huge step forward for ourbrisbane.com. It would have to be a high-traffic site, so they should be experiencing faster load times and lower bandwidth usage. Based on a brief evaluation, I'd expect an assistive technology user would be able to use the site quite well; whereas I'd expect they probably would have given up on the old one.

So while it may not be a pure-standards exemplar, ourbrisbane.com is miles ahead of most government-funded websites we have here in Australia.

anything can be standards-compliant

People seem to think that some things just can't be done in a standards-compliant, accessible manner. They think only boring things can be done with XHTML. I'll be as nice as possible.... that's crap! Let's look at a couple of examples.

Let's start with rock'n'roll. Wild, crazy, loud. Has to look great, so surely it can't be accessible too? Not so, check out RAMMSTEIN... their website both rocks AND validates. Yes, we have a standards-compliant website for a band that regularly uses flame throwers and explosives in their stage show.

Next up, we have a web comic: Volvo vs Astra. I find this particularly amusing since my first car was a Volvo and I traded to an Astra... so I can tell you, all of the points made are true. Including the one about playing chicken (merging in a dinted Volvo is fun!). So anyway, we have a panel-by-panel comic like any other; yet it's XHTML+CSS (ok, so it doesn't validate due to some URL encoding; but we'll look past that).

The speech balloons are text+CSS; and the images have ALT text. Each panel is in its own table cell, grouping them together (ok, a DIV would have worked too). I can think of some display: none tricks to attribute the speech bubbles but that aside it's still an impressive job.

Next... probably the biggest one: drag and drop. Can't be done without a mouse? Think again! [brothercake] Docking boxes (dbx): Docking boxes (dbx) adds animated drag 'n' drop, snap-to-grid, and show/hide-contents functionality to any group of elements. And ... in what might be another world-first for brothercake - dbx is fully accessible to the keyboard as well as the mouse, an action I've dubbed 'press 'n' move'

So there you have it, folks. Three things people probably thought couldn't be done with web standards.

2005-05-27: web typography linkfest

2005-05-24: brisbane WSG meeting

If you're in the Brisbane area and interested in web standards, you should come along to the Web Standards Group - Brisbane June meeting on Tuesday 14 June, 2005 (note the meeting was originally advertised for the 7th, but it's definitely the 14th).

There's this guy, talking about this stuff. It might even be me, talking about advocating web standards and accessibility within your organisation!

Self-promotion aside, WSG is a great group and well worth everyone's attention.

2005-05-18: musical batons are the new black

It seems the web standards world is taking time out from the usual witty banter to partake of a musical meme. Andrew Krespanis passed the baton to me earlier today. So, although it's not web related I am going to indulge :)

Total volume of music on my computer

We don't have fair use legislation in Australia just yet, so none. Yes, that does mean iPods have few legal uses in Australia...

Actually now that I think about it, there's quite a few megs worth of songs by local band Tycho Brahe on my hard drive. All entirely legal since I run their website and the website has them up for free download :)

Last CD I purchased

VNV Nation's new album Matter+Form.

Playing right now

Nothing at this precise moment, so I'll have to backtrack to the last thing I played at home (where I am now): Man With No Name's Earth Moving the Sun.

Five songs that mean a lot to me

Only five? :)

  • We Stand Alone by Covenant (the industrial band, not the metal band). We Stand Alone is the song that I remember most from our interstate trip to see Covenant play in Sydney last year. I pushed forward through the crowd in anticipation and was only a few rows back from the stage when that awesome lead-in started.
  • Honour (Juno version) by VNV Nation. I had to choose from a stack of dancefloor anthems and what the hell, this song kicked off the DJ set I played once that kept the dancefloor packed for the entire timeslot. Now that is a rush.
  • Peter Gunn off The Blues Brothers soundtrack (edging out several others). You can't deny it's a great piece of music; with that driving bass line and fat horn section. The Blues Brothers is my enduring favourite movie and the music was a major influence in my choice to learn saxophone at high school.
  • London Calling, Rock the Casbah and White Riot by The Clash. I refuse to choose ;)
  • Homesick by The Cure was my favourite song through high school (oh the angst, hand-forehead-nail!). It's a beautiful, wistful track which is musically very rich.

Five people to whom I am (not) passing the musical baton

To be honest I'm not going to pass the baton at this stage, since so many people have already answered the quiz. Instead, I'm going to link to five responses I found interesting. Memes evolve and mutate, after all.

  • Random Banter: A Musical Baton. Jason Klein apparently had the same immediate thought as me - did the record companies start this meme?
  • Jeffrey Veen gets a link because I'd only heard of one of the artists he listed.
  • Selfgratification: Meme me up, Scotty! For fooling with the meme and liking Cat Empire. Oh, and for passing the baton to me as well :) [BTW Cam... my first CD purchase - I think - was Songs of Faith and Devotion by Depeche Mode. Next purchase is undecided, I actually keep an entire list of planned purchases.]
  • The Man in Blue - Musical baton, purely for thinking of Dave Brubeck when I didn't.
  • You know it's driving me nuts, there was a particular response I liked when I read it earlier today but now I can't find it amongst all the webdev sites I've visited. I'd like to observe that half the people who have answered the meme are also planning to be at WE05. Maybe we should all get t-shirts made with our responses on the back.

I'm also wondering if Nick and I are the only web developers who like industrial? :)

update on VoiceOver

Following up on my earlier post about VoiceOver...

First... VoiceOver and Safari: Screen reading on the Mac | 456 Berea Street, which gives a first impression from a (sighted) developer's point of view. The article also makes the point that buying a Mac Mini (with OSX Tiger) is cheaper than buying a license for JAWS.

The cost comparison glosses over purchasing a monitor and other transition costs (eg. other software) if you were leaving a PC environment, however it does highlight just how expensive screen reader software is - development is expensive and the market is small. Does a screen reader user need a monitor? Well, yes, unless they are 100% blind AND nobody else uses the machine AND they do all of their own technical support, they still need a monitor.

Second... Jason Wong | Voiceover - Day 1, which details the experience of setting up the author's blind father with VoiceOver. If nothing else, read this to be reminded that blind users are just as smart and computer savvy as anyone else. By necessity, they also have to have good memories (blind people can't just grab a writing pad, scribble notes down and refer to them later).

The article concludes that more audio support material is required for new users; as well as observing that many programs and websites are not friendly to visually impaired users.

2005-05-11: office documents are not web documents

I often see sites which provide MS Office™ documents as 'content'. Really these sites are providing offline content downloads, instead of providing the content online. Many sites claim they are providing content online by doing this... but realistically, they're just acting like a download resource and not a website. The user has to wait while the file downloads, then move their attention away from the website to view the document - assuming they have MS Office.

"Doesn't everyone have MS Office, though?" I hear people ask. Well, no - many people use alternatives like OpenOffice, or they may be using a public terminal or handheld device which is not loaded with Office. Ultimately though that's not really the point. The main point is why should they use MS Office to view 'websites' anyway?

Imagine for a moment that you are sitting in bed reading a book; you are comfortable and happy. You turn to the next chapter, then suddenly that book forces you to get up and move to the couch in the lounge room and watch TV for ten minutes. Not long enough to set up properly on the couch. After that, the TV isn't needed anymore so you may as well try to get comfortable in bed again.

It seems ridiculous, really; basically because it is. So why expect users to do the computer equivalent? If the user is browsing your website, why make them break stride to load a word processing package?

Now I imagine people thinking "OK smarty, what am I going to use instead?" It's simple - XHTML will suffice in most cases:

Is there an alternative to Powerpoint (.ppt)?
Yes - S5 Presents - An open-source web-based slideshow application. Be honest with yourself about the value of Powerpoint as 'content'... after all, they are slides created to support a presentation. They shouldn't (and generally don't) provide the full information presented by the speaker.
Is there an alternative to Word (.doc)?
Yes, XHTML documents. If you generate them directly from Word... well, don't. But if you must, run it through Textism: Word HTML Cleaner and/or use Dreamweaver's 'Clean up Word HTML' command.
Is there an alternative to Excel (.xls)?
Yes. For presenting static results, use tables in XHTML. Do not attempt to export XHTML from Excel. Create the table from scratch, or use delimited data files to import the data into Dreamweaver. For online processing, you are looking at a full web application - but then, providing an Excel download didn't accomplish online processing either.
Is there an alternative to Publisher (.pub)?
Yes, XHTML documents. On those occasions Publisher documents find their way online, they usually contain a newsletter or some other small-scale publication originally intended for print. The amount of content is unlikely to be more than a couple of pages, so it should be entirely feasible to recreate an XHTML document without undue hardship.If all else fails, a tagged Adobe PDF file is better than a Publisher document.

So what about the less popular formats like Visio and Project... Realistically, they are not suitable for web content. They are specialised formats for specific forms of output. You may be distributing them via a website, but it's unlikely that anyone would attempt to present their content to users/customers this way. They certainly shouldn't! However, human nature being what it is...

Simple flowcharts and project diagrams can be reproduced using tables in XHTML documents. However anything too complex probably isn't going to work very well that way. Visio can export web graphics like GIF or PNG, however you'll need to do some work to provide a text alternative for the information. Again, there is the fallback of a tagged Adobe PDF.

New formats like SVG will probably become fine replacements for Visio flowcharts and Project charts, but that technology is not quite here.

So, there you have it. For the majority of MS Office formats you can simply use XHTML. For those situations where it just won't work, you can use a PDF (the lesser of two evils). You do not need to distribute MS Office documents on the web.

2005-05-10: critical bugs in firefox

Firefox Vulnerabilities: The Official Word: "The Mozilla Foundation is aware of two potentially critical Firefox security vulnerabilities as reported publicly Saturday, May 7th. There are currently no known active exploits of these vulnerabilities although a 'proof of concept' has been reported." ... As of this writing, the organization is still working on a fix.

Firefox users have been advised to change browser settings (disable Javascript, disable remote site software installs). No doubt a patch will be issued soon.

UPDATE: A patch has now been released - Firefox 1.0.4.

2005-05-09: reality check: blogs, wikis and forums are not new

Apparently blogs, wikis and forums are the 'next big thing' for corporate and educational institutions. People talk about these tools 'changing the way they interact with clients' as if they are some kind of silver bullet which will put them in web nirvana. I'm sure these same people work in a Paperless Office, too. Two points spring to mind...

  1. These things are not new, they're just new tools for old tasks.
  2. The audience has been using them for ages, you're just playing catch-up.

Let's have a reality check about blogs, wikis and forums. None of these things are new, it's just the way they are created that's different. The tool might be new, but the purpose and result are the same as always. If you're suddenly 'interacting differently' or 'communicating differently', then a little bit of honest self-evalution will probably reveal that previously you weren't communicating or interacting at all.

Blogs are just linear websites, like every other news or press release page ever published. If your organisation has started giving out friendlier or more readable content via a blog, then hooray for you - but you could have done that without the blog. Chances are you used to have a bland, boring website with nothing to attract anyone to the site unless they had no alternative but to use it.

Meanwhile, your users have been off publishing their own blogs. These days they know exactly how much effort is required to post information to the web. They expect you to be as open about your business as they are about their lives. They may give out 'too much information' but that doesn't change their expectations.

Forums are just newsgroups. In fact, no matter how you slice them, forums/newsgroups have been around since the internet was 'new' at DARPA. Even the more modern web forums are old news, having flourished since your average newgroup was spammed into oblivion. The only thing that has changed is that large organisations have decided to host their own forums, instead of leaving it to third party sites. Users have been discussing your organisation whether you like it or not, on their own servers.

Wikis feel new, but they're not. Wikis are just collaboratively-maintained websites, they are just bodies of information no different to an encyclopedia or a simple newsgroup FAQ. In a more corporate environment you might look at your network drive or intranet full of corporate documentation. These documents are maintained by a group of people, all of whom can edit, update or delete information. A wiki is just a web-based information management tool which strips away all the hype surrounding knowledge management.

Not surprisingly, this open approach to information management scares the hell out of senior management; since they have an illusion of control over their own organisation's body of knowledge. It seems insane to let 'anyone' edit 'anything', even though that's often the reality of daily operations. Also unsurprising is the fact that daring and ambitious groups of users have already had great success with high-profile projects like the Wikipedia.

So where does this leave us? Those three silver bullets turned out to be websites. The real difference is they have inspired people to communicate in different ways. What large organisations should be thinking about is not whether they need a blog, but whether they need to communicate regularly with their customers (via a blog). Perhaps their customers want a place to talk to other people who bought the same product (in a forum). Perhaps their staff need a single source of information that anyone can update, to make it easy to keep accurate information (via a wiki).

It's all about communication and knowledge. You won't communicate any better just because you have a blog. You will communicate better if you have a real need to do so; you have real information to give out; and you can make it interesting to the target audience. The old saying is true: the medium is not the message.

If your message is good, it'll work just as well on a 'website' as it will on a 'blog'.

Opera 8 now free for university staff and students

Opera extends site license offer for schools: Opera's free site license for schools now includes students and staff for their privately-owned computers. [Remembering that 'school' means 'university', in this context.]

When Opera announced the free-for-universities deal, it didn't take much further thought to realise that if staff and students wanted to use it at uni they'd want to use it at home as well. It's smart for Opera to extend the deal to allow this, since it enables staff and students to have consistency between their home and work computers without any cost to themselves.

Opera represents the best of both worlds between open source and commercial sofware. It's free and innovative like open source, but it comes from an established development path and has formal technical support available. While most open source software is supported via online forums, this is not really enough to satisfy most enterprise-level support requirements (read: the red tape won't allow it).

Previously Firefox had the edge over Opera for students, since it was totally free as opposed to free with ads. Now, for students of participating universities, there is no cost for Opera either.

2005-05-03: apple raises accessibility stakes

Apple - Mac OS X - VoiceOver: Mac OS X Tiger introduces VoiceOver, an accessibility interface that gives you magnification options, keyboard control and spoken English descriptions of what's happening on screen.

For some time, Microsoft was actually doing more for disabled users than Apple. For a company which generally tries to retain (or at least market) a "warm and fuzzy" relationship with its users, it seemed odd that Apple didn't seem to care much about accessibility. As a result, most disabled users are stuck on Windows machines (using IE, to boot) since that was basically their only option.

Now it seems Apple has decided to play catch-up; and in fact it seems they've leapfrogged Microsoft. VoiceOver includes keyboard controls, screen reader and vocal controls; while Windows really just feeds information to third-party screen readers like JAWS.

Does this mean disabled users will be flocking to Mac workstations? Unlikely; given the cost involved in switch to Macintosh. However it does at least give users a choice when they look at buying a new system. Previously Mac simply wasn't an option.

If nothing else, Apple's move might prompt Microsoft into making some improvements on the Windows side of the fence.

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