Conquer the command line with a hands-on bash workshop!

2006-12-24: happy holidays

The web (standards) industry has been a great place to be this year. I've met a lot of new people and cemented friendships despite the vagaries of distance and timezones. The blogroll simply hasn't kept up :)

So to all of you... whatever you celebrate at this time of year, I hope it's a happy and safe time. I look forward to seeing you all again in future!

2006-12-21: linking now illegal, google on "to sue" list

Australian courts have just delivered another pearler, with wording so broad that linking is illegal and everyone from bloggers to Google is in the firing line. Copyright ruling puts hyperlinking on notice - web - Technology - smh.com.au.

A court ruling has given the recording industry the green light to go after individuals who link to material from their websites, blogs or MySpace pages that is protected by copyright.

...

Ms Sabiene Heindl, general manager of Music Industry Piracy Investigations (MIPI), said similar action could be taken against individuals who, like mp3s4free, used the internet to link to copyright-protected material.

...

Ms Heindl said that this could apply even if a person had embedded a copyright-infringing YouTube clip in their blog or MySpace page.

...

"Mp3s4free was different in the sense that it actually catalogued MP3 files that were infringing copyright material - Google doesn't do that," she said.

"There is, however, action that is being taken against Google in other jurisdictions, and we're awaiting that eagerly."

Well, the internet was nice while it lasted.

2006-12-05: money is choking australia's communications future

The future has arrived, it's just not evenly distributed. - William Gibson

In the past few weeks I've seen two presentations about the mobile web and the future of mobile phones. Both presentations talked about the need to educate the user, particularly as a way to increase adoption of new features/technology. Neither presentation discussed cost as a key factor, which seems odd to me.

I think people don't use new technology because it costs too much. In Australia, telecommunications of all kinds are a classic case. Consider mobile phones for a moment:

  • Sure, you can get a great phone that does everything and even has an MP3 player and 3 megapixel camera in it. It will just cost you anything up to a couple of thousand dollars (for a phone)..
  • Sure, you can do video calls and picture messaging; but you'll regret it when the bill turns up.
  • Sure, you can browse the web; but you'll be paying by the kilobyte.

That last one is a kicker. I'd use mobile web content all the time, except for the fact that more or less on principle I refuse to pay for any form of "web" content that is charged by the kilobyte (and it's slow).

the total spend

When you consider the total amount being spent on communications, you find that in some ways new technology is being sabotaged by the old. The cost of landlines keeps people from spending more on broadband or mobile content.

The calls made on my landline could easily be switched to mobile or VOIP calls. So why keep a landline? I have to maintain a landline to get ADSL. No way around it, particularly when your average unit block's body corporate won't let you install cable.

With caller ID enabled my landline costs as much as my internet connection. So actually I spend quite a lot of money to get basic broadband. If the landline was cheaper, I'd spend that money on better broadband.

An average person can be easily be paying AUD$100 every month just to be connected with a landline, mobile and internet - then you pay for calls and data. The telcos do offer bundles for these services, but the so-called "broadband" is generally pathetic so they're not a good option.

how pathetic is the broadband?

It's 2006 and Telstra is still selling a $29/month plan with 200megs of included data. Megs, not gigs. Even at 256k speeds that's a joke. After you burn through 200megs, you pay $0.15/MB for the rest of the month. If you go through 20 megs a day - hardly a stretch - you'll have a $90 bill at the end of the month. Hope you didn't plan to update your operating system or download some podcasts.

Meanwhile Optus charges the same amount for just 100megs (300megs if you bundle it with other products), after which point your connection drops from 256k to 28.8k. That's right, after 100megs you'd have a better connection with 56k dialup. But at least you're not paying for extra data.

These plans are far worse than my first broadband plan (256k/3gigs), which a co-worker once described as "ghetto broadband". To really put the icing on the cake, the TV commercials for both telcos tout the benefits of "lightning fast" broadband, letting you download music and videos at broadcast quality with no delays. Some even made a big deal of how cheap it was for this amazing experience.

The reality is the connections are slow and expensive... and that's in the cities. Don't even get me started on Telstra's TVCs showing people using broadband and standard mobile phones in the outback.

wifi?

Wireless access in Australia is rare and usually expensive. There is some talk of wireless coverage for major cities, but those cities who have run trials all seem to have ditched the plan after the pilot.

Nobody seems to want to pay for bandwidth... probably because it's so expensive.

what about other media?

It's not just phones and internet. Australia also has a low adoption of digital TV and pay TV.

Digital TV was greeted with hostility - nobody could recall asking for digital TV, yet suddenly we were told our TVs would stop working and we had to spend several hundred dollars to buy something called a "set top box". There was no incentive, it was just free-to-air TV with an added cost.

Unsurprisingly, takeup has been so bad that the date for analogue switch-off was pushed back from 2008 to 2012. We finally have a couple of extra channels; but I still don't have a set top box and in fact few of my friends have them either.

Meanwhile pay TV is priced firmly in the "luxury" bracket, then to add insult to injury you get commercials anyway. That's right, you pay for it; then they take money from advertisers as well and make you sit through ads.

Even so, most people would still love to have pay TV - maybe some sports, movies, comedy and music channels. Right? Well they saw that coming so each of those options is in a separate, additional package. To get that selection you have to buy everything, at a grand cost of around $92 per month.

That's on top of the $100 you're already coughing up for your phones and internet. Feeling broke yet?

digital radio?

No, we don't have that. Next!

education vs. cost

Getting back to mobile phones, there is a plan afoot to run an advertising campaign to explain How Mobile Stuff Works™. People buy expensive phones yet don't really know how to use them; and the industry thinks that telling people how to use their phones will have them MMSing and video calling like mad. The Shareholders Will Be Appeased.

The thing is, people will learn even the most arcane of interfaces if their level of motivation is high enough. Think of SMS - the interfaces aren't great, yet it's wildly popular. People haven't complained to mobile phone companies that it's too hard to send an SMS - they've developed ambidextrous thumbs.

So why aren't those same users going wild for MMS? Well, SMS seems cheap and MMS seems expensive. The motivation just isn't there.

filthy lucre

Everything boils down to money. We could all have fantastic experiences with available technology if things were cheaper, but then various companies wouldn't make so much money. So we drag along with slow broadband, overcharged mobile phones and landlines which continually degrade in value and quality.

It costs so much for our phones that most people can't seriously consider pay TV even if they wanted it. It simply doesn't make financial sense to pay all that money, unless you have a large family that won't leave the house ever again if you get pay TV (thereby replacing your entire entertainment budget).

The Future™ is already happening - if you have enough money you can have it right now. But for most of us, we're cancelling pay tv and hoping this month's phone bill isn't too high. As long as the tyrrany of price continues, Autralia will remain a communications backwater.

2006-11-10: support joe clark

Patronage: It ain’t just for the Medicis anymore

Some people lead, some follow; some do the inspiration, some do the perspiration. Then there are some people who think big, keep the faith and manage to do the lot.

Joe Clark has a big idea and deserves our support. The work he does is important yet particularly thankless... now we have a chance to change that with the launch of Joe Clark Micropatronage.

Joe's worth a fiver, in fact he's worth a lot more than that but it's all he asks: donate a little, making it possible for him to raise a lot. We're not funding the project, we're funding Joe so he can do the big stuff. If you have questions, Joe has probably answered them - see "Additional Facts" (scroll to the end). You can't buy honesty like that :)

Go on, you'll feel good about it. Joe will keep you informed about where the money went. If you can't donate, then you can support the effort by pimp...err....promoting it with banners, diggs or whatever floats your boat.

thoughts about html

So, there's a coordinated call for feedback on the WHATWG's activities. There's a lot to cover in the call to action, so I'll just start with some thoughts about HTML...

I haven't read the WHATWG HTML 5 and Forms 2 specs "properly", so much as skimmed them. Forgive me, they are big specs with draft status from an as-yet unrecognised group. I don't read W3C specs for fun either ;) So this is mostly off the top of my head, you'll have to excuse me if something is already covered and I've missed it.

Headings and sections

I rather like the XHTML 2 version of headings and sections, as opposed to HTML 5's current system which seems to inherit all the problems of HTML 4 and none of the advantages of XHTML 2.

  • Why limit things to just six heading levels?
  • Why not declare hn as an extensible set of headings?
  • Why use specific headings if you're using sections - just set a heading for each section and let nesting take care of the rest.

I'm not a fan of the W3C's specific example though, since I feel that each section should start immediately with a heading. I'd like to see the strong sections removed. But otherwise this system seems simple and elegant to me (although maybe I'm just weird - I'm aware that's a possibility!):

<body>
<h>This is a top level heading</h>
<p>....</p>
<section>
    <p>....</p>
    <h>This is a second-level heading</h>
    <p>....</p>
    <h>This is another second-level heading</h>
    <p>....</p>
</section>
<section>
    <p>....</p>
    <h>This is another second-level heading</h>
    <p>....</p>
    <section>
        <h>This is a third-level heading</h>
        <p>....</p>
    </section>
</section>
</body>

In anticipation of the argument "documents shouldn't be so big they need more than six levels", I'll simply suggest you go and convince all the world's lawyers and legislators then get back to me :) Besides, it's entirely possible to have more than six levels in a short document that would not be suitable for presentation in multiple web pages.

Better lists

I think <ol>, <ul> and <dl> should all have a <caption> element or a way to explicitly associate a heading. We're grouping information together after all, I think it makes sense to be able to explicitly state what the grouping is all about. It's one of the really useful things you can do with tables.

I also think ordered lists need more sophisticated numbering systems - we should not have to resort to CSS or use invalid code! eg. we should be able to start an <ol> from, say, 11; because 1-10 were on another page. I'm specifically thinking of search results which are commonly split into multiple pages, yet each page should not restart the list count . Currently it's only valid to set the value of each <li>, which is absurd - so the HTML 5 spec's .

Labels for radio button groups

I don't think HTML 4.01 provides a satisfactory method of labelling/captioning a group of radio buttons. Each radio button gets a label; but really the group needs something to describe the purpose of the set of inputs.

You can use a <fieldset> + <legend> combination for short descriptions, but it feels like a hack (not to mention the practicalities of hacking CSS to get browsers to display long legends!).

Captions for images

I'm not quite sure how this could be approached; but I think a visible caption for images would make sense. Hidden text could then be more akin to longdesc than alt. The <object> element provides an excellent model for alternate content, but not a caption.

The cite attribute

While this is ok, I do wonder at the requirement for a URI. How do I choose a URI to cite Shakespeare for example? What one single URI makes sense? Plus long experience shows us that URIs don't live forever - who remembers to check their cite URIs?

So why not an attribute for the name of the person and an attribute for the title of the work they are being quoted from? Sure, there's potential for ambiguity, but don't try to tell me a URI could not lead to a document which talks about ten John Smiths.

<p creator="covenant" work="we want revolution" cite="http://www.google.com.au/search?&q=%22we+want+revolution%22+covenant+lyrics">we want revolution<br />
constant evolution<br />
start your engines blow your fuses<br />
burn the bridges for the future<br />
this is our solution</p>

The <cite> element

<cite> doesn't make any sense to me either, since there's no explicit association with a quote. Take the example from the HTML 5 draft:

<p><q>This is correct!</q>, said <cite>Ian</cite>.</p>

So long as there is only one Q/CITE pair in the entire document, we're ok. After that, we're just guessing - and while a human might guess fairly well, an indexing system has no grasp of human context. So, perhaps a for attribute is in order:

<p><q id="ians-assertation">This is correct!</q>, said <cite for="ians-assertation">Ian</cite>.</p>

The <iframe> element

Why keep <iframe> in HTML 5 when the spec also includes <object>? Straight question. From a quick read, <object> seems to take care of everything that <iframe> can offer.

More...

The HTML 5 spec includes quite a few all-new elements such as <nav>, <x>, <m> and <progress>. Some are relatively logical, but others like <progress> just seem very odd to me. A progress bar is not a permanent content item, it's a temporary state. However I'll save real discussion of these elements for another day.

So what do you think? Join the discussion!

2006-10-07: wd06: the aftermath, the tribe

So, Web Directions South 2006 has been and gone. Workshops done, speeches made, drinks drunk, geeks very drunk and hundreds of photos on Flickr to prove it. My email inbox has been inundated with messages from various systems informing me that I'm connected, shared, tagged and released :)

Those of you who were kind enough to drop by and see Cheryl and I speak may recall me talking about "being part of something". The point is, we are part of a worldwide group of people working hard to make the web a better place. I encourage everyone to take part, leap in and get involved; and to seek comfort within the community when the job hands us a bad day.

Less formally, some of you may recall Molly and I at the Pump House extolling the virtues of our wonderful tribe. Tribe? Well, yes. Modern life is tribal - we find ourselves in huge cities but associate ourselves with smaller groups within that population. Tribes, in other words. Online, we can associate with like-minded individuals from around the planet. Occasionally at events like WD06 we are lucky enough to get large numbers of these people into the same room.

The only downside is that so many of them have to leave again afterwards :)

You really can't sum up an event like WD06. As Nick has observed, talking about it requires name-dropping and worst of all you might miss someone. Part of the wonder of the event is the fact there are no barriers between the punters and the speakers. That simple fact was probably the most important thing I learned at WE05.

So best of all this year was the excitement of knowing I'd be catching up with friends. You know who you are and you don't need XFN, tags or connections to know it :)

2006-09-29: wd06: Mark Pesce - You-biquity

[Semi liveblogged]

Right now anything is possible. Right now the energy is there...

Part one: the human essence. I'm studying what it means to be human in the sense of how we interact with technology, or when they're in groups.... so to do that I want to get to some basic ideas about humans. So I have to peel back some layers.

Humans are social animals. Why are we social? If we are social you will live longer - you are less likely to get eaten by a lion if there's someone else there yelling "look out, there's a lion".

We model all social interactions, which is not easy - it takes us years to learn how to do it. We have bigger brains than earlier primates so that we can hold a bigger social network in our heads.

Here's the dark secret of social networks: they are a lot of work. Who has the time? People just can't keep them really current. The systems are passive - they wait for you to feed that information to them. If you don't feed them, they die.

What could be going is so much more profound than what is actually going on. Time is the new non-renewable resource.

If I have a serious social network, why am I not using that information to filter SPAM?

We all create a data shadow every time we're online - email, URLs, IM, Skype... all this information could tell us who is important and why. But we don't use this information - it all gets poured on the floor.

Aside: Mark mentioned that you can't get SMS and call information off your mobile phone. Actually, my Motorola V3 lets me connect with USB and dump my text messages onto my hard drive. I was keeping SMS messages long before by transcribing the important ones, now it's easy. SMS messages have too many precious messages from friends! I don't want to lose that.

Mark points out that while we might think we don't have an emotional relationship with our mobile phones, but if we lose them we're really upset. We lose our social networks!

Enough talk! Mark developed a way to collect information via Bluetooth to capture the data shadow of someone carrying a Bluetooth mobile. They set it up for a week at a conference and they were able to show relationships for each person.

"The street finds its own use for things, uses its makers never intended." - William Gibson

This is not a bubble. This is not hype. This is where we're going: you-biquity!

wd06: Derek Featherstone - Designing for accessibility

[Semi liveblogged]

Being aware of verbosity settings in screen readers - it's the setting which controls how things like punctuation are handled. Some users will turn off brackets - ie. brackets aren't read out. With that setting enabled, page links may get missed - really it's a bug, but you have to be aware of it.

Best practice is to make links make sense out of context; but at the same time users know they can "go back one line" to find context.

Screen reader users often get much more information from their UA than sighted users - the status of links may be read out "this is a visited link, this is an unvisited link..."

"Back to top" links... do we really want to go back to the top? Or do we really want to go back to the start of the article we just read? Where exactly should the link take you? This is not just an accessibility issue, it's a usability issue as well. If you don't have a skip to content link, they have to listen through all of your header and navigation content...

Regarding skip to content and skip navigation links, Derek believes the browsers should be handling things like this.

Derek: "As a keyboard user, Opera is the best browser out there right now." Yay Opera! ;) It's very powerful and lets you jump between forms AND links; or through headings; or you can ensure the accesskeys don't clash with anything.

You know the way we only use about 10% of our brains? Well it's the same with our software - we only use about 10% of the functionality.

Russ Weakley: we found that source order didn't really matter so much to a lot of screen reader users.
Molly: what about other disabilities?
Derek: Did you see CSS Naked day? That day was hell for me! Nothing worked for me! I lost all my context. "I couldn't read blogs that day and that's my crack man!"
Molly: I do think that it's a concern; that we shouldn't be too quick to give a message that source order isn't important. For screen readers it's not so important...
Russ: One thing we did in that test was to label each content section - structural labels were really useful. [Helped context]

Derek: on source order... what about things like sidebars? Do they go at the end, or the start? We need to research this stuff because we don't know what we're doing.

Andrew Arch: Visual order... there are plenty of people out there who can get very confused if the visual order doesn't match the source order. Tabbing through content can suddenly get way out of order compared with the expectation set by the visual design.

Derek: we think we know it all but we need to do more actual research.

Andy Clarke: What do you think about microformats and using them to set up labels for content areas?
Derek: I like the idea, but how do we get everyone to adopt it and implement it?

John Allsopp has started a design pattern to explore this issue.

"I know we can do this... I'm getting goosebumps again!"

Example: a login screen example where the page gets modified based on input. Notifying the user is an issue because they've moved away from the relevant inputs; so you should update other things like the LEGEND, TITLE, or status bar.

Status bar - screen readers can access the information in the browser's status bar. How appropriate! Put status messages in there. Needs full testing and probably depends on screen reader settings as to whether it's read out or not. But you could also alert the user that they should check the status bar before they submit a form.

wd06: Andy Clarke - (Transcending CSS) Creating Inspired Design

[Liveblogged]

Jeffrey Veen: "Art is design without compromise"

But there are limitations in the medium we work in, not just technical issues but also having to unlearn the habits based on past limitations. The biggest limitations are the ones we impose on ourselves. We need to remember that the web is only ten years old and we don't especially know what we're doing yet!

With all the web 2.0 buzz there's a huge amount of material out there which looks good but it's terrible under the bonnet.

Aside: Remembering where we came from - Andy showed us the old favourite, blue robot. It reminds me just how much the blue robot grey leaf design inspired me. I love that design, the simplicity and minimalism...

How can we get people to engage with the sites/apps we're creating through the use of imagery and design? Look at CSS Zen Garden - it's not so much about proving that standards work, so much as showing that we need to have great design.

With the standards community's focus on code, sites with great design haven't always been appreciated.

We (WD06 attendees) are the majority - hopefully a vocal, passionate minority but still a minority. "The job is far from done." We need to keep going and perhaps try to be more inclusive and try to get more web workers into the standards world.

Why use magnolia instead of delicious? Well, hey, it looks nicer and it was designed by Zeldman and Jason Santa Maria.

"The web is not a power drill." Andy "...it's a series of tubes!" (Cam? via John Allsopp)

Developers working with designers... do they work together or does the designer just throw Photoshop mockups at the developers? Does it make sense to split everyone off to different areas? Well, no... we're all working on this together; Andy would encourage us to work on things together.

Andy tries to get the client into the creative process from the start. Get them thinking about the mood they want to create with their sites, what perception do they want their visitors to get when they come onto the site? Well, we should do that for ourselves. Andy keeps a scrapbook of things he likes - from magazines, flyers, whatever.

Just because the web isn't print doesn't mean we should learn from it. We shouldn't use the conventions of print but we should look at it. What's the semantic meaning of what we see on magazine pages? We don't see typography online that looks like magazine typography... shouldn't we be thinking about what we should bring onto the web?

Examples: discussion of the wonderful architecture in Sydney which preserves the old and combines with the new. Typography on buildings next to brickwork... "all of this is going on a few feet above your head"

Andy: No matter what it is you're doing on the web, what I'd like to see is us really thinking more about moving things forward now. Looking for inspiration from around the world, and looking in unrelated areas. The next time you're walkin gout and about, just find something - doesn't matter what it is - find something that inspires you. See how you can bring that back into the work you're doing that day or that week. Out there is this mass of opportunity for inspiration.

Q&A

Q: As well as print influencing web design, what about the fine arts?

A lot of the three dimensional stuff might be a bit hard to visualise..... to be honest we should probably be asking them.

my feeling is that we shouldn't be limiting ourselves just to what we know, and the idea of collaboration is really important. We should get people involved who are doing ceramics or jewellery or whatever; get them to bring in some of their process to the web.

Q: Should content drive design? When should it come into the design process?

I think it is completely wrong to come up with a design and pour it into the design. The content should drive the the way the design comes together. Content is absolutely vital right at the beginning - how can you select the right markup if you don't know what the content is going to be? Work with the document first, then we can do the dressing and create the emotional layout that can best describe it.

Q: What's your balance between inspiration and practicality? Balance between creative design and usability.

Yeah... if I want a power drill I want a power drill... I pull the trigger and it drills things. It's not a fashion statement - "I don't walk around with my big tool!" We should remember that even a drill is designed though.

We're not just limited to functionality, we can create objects of desire too. It's all a balance.

Q: IE7... how long is it going to be before we can forget about IE6?

I believe... it doesn't matter to me, because I don't take the view that things have to look the same across all browsers. My benchmark is standards-savvy browsers that work well. Set a level where things get simpler, ultimately resulting in plain text sent to browsers like Netscape 4 and IE5.2(Mac).

Final thing.... prize giveaway

"Andrew Krespanis.... I'd like to give you my pants!"

Andrew has won a pair of union jack boxer shorts signed by all the speakers.

wd06: Gian Sampson-Wild - Taming the accessibility monster

[Semi-Liveblogged]

Eight steps for taming the accessibility monster

  1. Step 1: Choose the right developer
      • You need people who really do know what they're doing, who know how to build for accessibility.
  2. Step 2: Don’t outlaw anything
    • Work to fix the problems, don’t just blanket ban things
    • Try to say "yes" instead of "no"
  3. Step 3: Disseminate knowledge
    • help get people on side by sharing the knowledge
    • ran lots of training sessions
  4. Step 4: Keep trying!
  5. Step 5: Be the good guys
  6. Step 6: Put it in writing
    • get accessibility into contracts
    • make sure you can hold people to a standard
  7. Step 7: Test, test, test
  8. Step 8: Listen
    • Listen to the people who are testing, listen to complaints, listen to everything…

At one stage Gian actually heard a site owner claim "disabled people don’t use our site". As it happens, Gian had a friend with a vision impairment who had used the site in question just days earlier...

Q&A

What are the top priority actions to start moving towards accessibility?

  1. Alt attributes for images
  2. Ensure the site works for keyboard users
  3. Code tables properly
  4. Degrades ok without CSS
  5. Equivalents for js flash etc
  6. Forms – really important. Labels, etc

What is the state of accessbility-related litigation in Australia?

There have been three HREOC claims since Maguire vs. SOCOG, all three were mediated out rather than going to court.

Re: litigation; is the problem having an inaccessible site, or refusing to fix it once there’s a problem?

HREOC are required to try mediation first, so you don't suddenly get sued with no recourse.

Is there a big gap between WCAG 1.0 and testing with real users?

Yes – the guidelines are really old and reality has moved on. That’s why you need to do real testing.

What is your position on alternatives that take more effort to use…?

No, it’s not fair; but life’s not fair. Disabled users also tend to be more used to dealing with less than perfect situations.

2006-09-28: wd06: Derek Featherstone - Accessibility 2.0

[Semi-liveblogged]

Real subtitle should be 'Where do we go for beer?'

Checklist syndrome: bringing down accessibility
Leads to a compliance/QA impersonal approach

But accessibility is personal, it’s about user testing and it’s about removing barriers.

“What if screen readers could access microformats? How cool would that be?”

Where should we be looking for inspiration for web accessibility?

  • How about the gaming industry? Gamers have some crazy keyboards and input devices.
  • The physical world - eg. pedestrian crossing buttons which vibrate as well as click/beep. "How cool is that?" Or the braille/raised lettering sign that put the tactile signage on a comfortable angle for ease of use. It doesn't just comply, it creates a good user experience.
  • How about the car industry? They solve all kinds of issues, maybe they've got ideas we should be taking on board.

Discussed the accessibility features being created for Blackberries. Also admitted he sleeps with his Blackberry; said he wouldn't tell us where on Flickr you can find the image, but "hey with tagging no doubt you'll be able to find it...". Well, yup: http://www.flickr.com/photos/glsims99/14020019/

Cognitive disabilities: people don't seem to know what to do, although some companies are starting to work on it. Some new phones are being built with simple interfaces; consistent toolbars and uncluttered menus. The obvious thing to note here is that making things consistent and easy to use helps everybody, not just people who would identify themselves as "disabled".

Let's make things easier for everyone. Thing about tagging - "these are the same people I tag on Web Connections, d.construct, Flickr, Cork'd... we all tag each other, that's all we do now!!!"

What if we let users define their own access keys so authors don't have to do it? Not to mention they interfere with people's existing key profiles. Why not create a microformat which stores this information? Think of the power of that. What if we get to a point where we don't supply any CSS any more? Users set up their global stylesheet and have their preferred styles applied to everything! "...the power! POWER TO THE PEOPLE! That's what this is about."

What if the browser could learn? It could recognise that the last three times you visited a site you bumped up the text size, then just do that for you.

What if we replaced all the browser controls with a button that says "I can't read this page", which launches a wizard to help you change it so you can read it.

Q&A

How to convince people that it's important?

One thing - show people assistive technology users. "It's a life changing experience. I don't know anyone who didn't find it a life-changing experience to see a screen reader user or a mobility impaired user with speech recognition software."

wd06: John Allsopp - Microformats

[Semi liveblogged - patchy network today]

How do we get information?

Example: trying to find out what movie is good to go see.

  • Who do we trust to review a movie?
  • Can we trust centralised systems like IMDb?
  • Who owns the reviews?
  • Can we verify that the reviews are real?
  • Can we verify that they haven’t been modified since the author created them?

We want to tap into the wisdom of many people.

  • Try google? No, too many results and no reviews in the first few pages anyway.
  • Try aggregators? Blog searches? Not really working.

So we could write a review search engine, but how to identify a review? How do you get a consistent review scale?

People are really good at getting information from a surrounding context, but software is really bad at it.

Do we wait for the W3C to deliver all this and more with XHTML2? Do we invent new XML languages?

Microformats can provide this structure and allow search tools to access and index the info.

Microformats:

  1. simple
  2. html based
  3. data formats
  4. based on existing standards
  5. based on current developer practice

...their purpose is to bring richer semantics to today’s web:

  1. it doesn’t break browsers
  2. it doesn’t break pages

“Great technology needs to be adopted. But it’s chicken and egg. So we do have a chicken – no, wait, which one does come first?”

They are in use – technorati is a really big, well-known user of microformats but there are many more out there.

Get the Tails extension for Firefox and check out the web directions sites.

John finished with an example of using hCard, to show how easy it is.

“I’m always really scared when I type URLs in directly on screen… I’m not sure what you’ll see in my history!” – JA

“Sure I’m a geek but that’s COOL

What are you waiting for? They’re out there, get involved. Use them!

John just won “first person to pimp their book”…

Q: What’s the process for getting from idea to microformat?

There’s a detailed process on the microformats wiki; it starts with logical questions like making sure there’s a problem to be solved.

wd06: the hot toy

The coolest toys I've seen this year so far: tablet pc. I really wish I had the cash for one of those!

Certain readers might be amused to know that I'm getting along with the Macbook better than last time I tried to use it :) Mostly because an open network has been installed, getting around the requirement for a VPN client (none of which seem to work yet on the intel macs). Not saying I'm ready to switch, but it hasn't been especially painful this time.

wd06: Jeremy Keith - is AJAX hot or not?

[Liveblog - liveblogging may continue depending on batteries and wrists ;)]

Jeremy Keith is running through 'am I AJAX or not'. Good points about the definition of AJAX - it's such an abused term; people tend to equate it directly with 'Web 2.0' (another abused term!).

I guess ultimately from the point of view of the user, they simply don't care. It's not about whether something is AJAX or not, so much as 'does it work'; and AJAX techniques (used for good and not evil) can create that sensation. Users can get small bits of information back quickly without waiting - people like the feeling of speed and the page hasn't triggered boredom responses.

Jeremy goes on to suggest that the way to choose when to use AJAX is to get into pattern recognition - what user behaviour and expectation will benefit from AJAX? For example adding a product to an online shopping cart - the user doesn't want the whole page to go away and reload just because they added something to the cart. When you don't need to update the entire page, then it's a good time to use AJAX.

But, a bad time to use AJAX might be to have entire pages of search results - you're keeping less than you're changing. Traditional paradigms hold true and the user's experience isn't disrupted.

A great way to illustrate the principle of 'keep the user informed': Jeremy (like me, as it happens) likes the window seat on planes so he knows when the plane is about to actually land. The moment of impact is scary if you can't prepare, but really not too bad when you know it's about to happen.

Jeremy echoes somehing that Derek discussed yesterday in the Accessibility 2.0 workshop: if you emulate an interface feature, you must emulate it completely. Which is a great argument to support being a bit more choosey about when to use certain UI features. Do you really need to have drag and drop in a web app? Will your users expect it? Have you emulated every possible outcome of the drag/drop motion? You need to be aware of all the implications of what you're doing.

A big reminder: if it's not accessible, it's still no good! Things must still be accessible and usable. You don't get to dodge the accessibility requirements just because AJAX is 'new and shiny'. The good news is that AJAX does not preclude accessibility, but you have to be really aware of what you're doing and what will happen in screen readers.

In closing, Jeremy once again quoted Tim Berners-Lee: The power of the web is in its universality... In my opinion, I don't care if it is cliched to use that quote. For me it never gets old. It is and will remain an incredibly important statement about what the web should be.

I think it's a great thing for our industry that a talk on AJAX finished with a discussion of accessibility.

web directions south 2006 - kelly goto keynote

WD06 just kicked off with a keynote from Kelly Goto. This session really sums up the reason I was so excited to be coming (let alone speaking here!). If you rocked up to this conference with no intro, you'd be caught by surprise - it was not head-buried-in-the-code. It was about humans and the way we interact with machines.

Discussing deep hanging out; discussing how you should try to create ritual and not addiction. It's a perfect way to sum up the successful nature of systems like Flickr, journals, etc. If something is usable, fun and it can be easily integrated into your life; then it's a winner.

This conference is not the average. If you're here, awesome. If you're not here, get ready to download the podcasts.

2006-09-22: directions and connections

So it's just a few short sleeps to Web Directions 2006. Or, as it's been called for a few days now, Web Directions South. That'd be the green one. The orange one will be announced on Monday :)

After Web Essentials 2005 many of us did wonder what the organisers could come up with in 2006 - WE05 was a hard act to follow. So far we have Tshirts and a microformat- and API-driven networking system. Web 2.0 is nothing more than a slogan to many people; but WD06 is living the dream ;)

So if you're heading to WD06, get over to Web Connections and sign up. Sure, you'll probably get tagged by weirdos, but that's all part of the fun!

On a quick personal note; you may notice my Web Connections profile lists my new employer: News Interactive. I didn't mention it in the previous post since I felt like it was a little silly to talk about it before I was actually here. So, there you have it :)

2006-09-02: the joy of bandwidth theft

Hotlinking (aka bandwidth theft) is generally more annoying than amusing. But this time I had to chuckle: bandwidth theft and copyright breach by a company with ties to the legal industry (InTouch Legal). Good thing they help the lawyers, I'd be worried if they were lawyers.

Screenshot of photo being used without authorisation

You know, I'm pretty sure Eric is ready to go mobile. [View the original post if you're curious.]

The mission statement is definitely amusing: The Mission of InTouch Legal is to provide outstanding technology and management solutions to the legal community while developing extraordinary client relationships through integrity and accountability. Integrity and accountability, eh?

So what do you do when you find that someone is piping your image out on their newsletter? The temptations are endless, but in the end I've opted for simplicity.

Screenshot of photo replaced with copyright notice

I think prospective clients of InTouch can make up their own minds about their integrity and accountability.

2006-08-28: taking this show on the road

Web Directions 2006 Although it's been quiet here, it's been an intense couple of weeks offline. I've resigned at Griffith and accepted a new job down in Sydney (more on that later, no doubt). I will in fact be living in Sydney by the time Web Directions rolls around - yes, even though it's just weeks away!

So not only will I be a speaker, I'll be a local. Albeit a local whose feet have barely touched the ground...

At this point all I can really think of to say is 'moving interstate is an utter pain in the arse'. Not the most eloquent sentiment, but true nonetheless :)

2006-08-07: the current state of browsers

Browser School Daze - Yahoo! News sums it up in an amusing way:

So, it's time for teacher to hand out the grades, and some final words.

Opera 9.0: You're doing fantastic work—it's good to see you back in form. Grade: A+.

Firefox 2.0 Beta 1: You're not working up to your usual level. You're still looking good, but I would like to see you try harder. Grade: B+.

IE 7 Beta 3: Great job. It's good to see you applying yourself, finally. I knew you had it in you. Grade: B.

2006-08-03: blackboard patents 'learning stuff online'

I've already said it on this Digg post: digg - Blackboard wins patent for LMS/e-Learning technology Learning Management System vendor Blackboard Inc has been granted a patent for ...well, just about anything resembling an online learning system or student-focused groupware solution. Coupled with Bb's acquisition of WebCT in 2005, this fuels concerns over Bb's dominance of the education market. (Digg users feel free to go Digg it :)).

Blackboard's press release says the patent is for technology used for internet-based education support systems and methods ...which is broad language, to say the least. The US patent (6,988,138) is, if anything, even worse: A system and methods for implementing education online by providing institutions with the means for allowing the creation of courses to be taken by students online, the courses including assignments, announcements, course materials, chat and whiteboard facilities, and the like, all of which are available to the students over a network such as the Internet.

Just in case there were any doubts as to what they might do with the patent, Blackboard has already launched a lawsuit against a competitor (Desire2Learn).

Keep in mind Blackboard already acquired its biggest commercial competitor, WebCT. In addition to suing their remaining competitors, there's some speculation that the new patent might be used to attack open source products like Atutor, Moodle and Sakai.

This is a major concern for accessibility and web standards in the higher education sector, since Blackboard (v6) doesn't validate and isn't accessible. There were some noises that the WebCT merger would result in an all-new product which does meet industry standards, but people in the know don't seem confident that it's going to happen any time soon.

Anyway, there are already some coordinated efforts to collate information about prior art (and there's a lot of it). Stephen Downes has posted a raft of links to the various reactions to news of the patent. A series of tubes has already turned up :)

As with most overly-broad patents, I guess we'll wait and see what happens.

2006-07-27: spam, spam, spam

It has been a bad day for spam. In one day, the first of my formerly pristine 200ok emails started receiving spam (I feel so violated, it was never even publically posted); then this weblog got a sudden influx of comment spam.

My options with blogger are to moderate all comments or enable the CAPTCHA. I've gone with the CAPTCHA as the lesser of two evils (it has an audio alternative so it's not too bad - not perfect, but not too bad).

Occasionally I wonder how the net survives under the extraordinary weight of spam that clogs it at every opportunity. If we got 15 telemarketing calls every day, we'd unplug the phone. Why do we endure email spam?

How do we keep in touch with friends when we have to abandon email addresses due to spam? How do we do business when our email gateways are being hammered by spam? How do we have meaningful comment threads when we have to put in CAPTCHAs just to filter out the morons trying to sell stupid stuff?

Does everyone just get used to wading through spam? I guess I was lucky. I had a year off after getting my own domain. It was awesome. I guess the honeymoon is over.

2006-07-21: google accessible search isn't

The latest product of Google labs shows Google managing to do the right thing and the wrong thing at the same time: Google Accessible Search. It's kind of spectacular that Google can produce a search specifically for accessible resources and still not make a best-practice search form or results page.

It's a pity to see Google miss such a great opportunity to prove they understand accessibility. The pages are a mass of tables and font tags just like any other Google product (ok, so the FAQ does at least use semantic tags, even if it skips the DOCTYPE). Then to cap it off, they promote "accessibility" but only talk about vision impairment. A trap for young players, perhaps; but Google is not a young player.

The service does at least show that it is possible to rank accessible sites higher than tag soup; perhaps we should by lobbying Google to add this to their general search. Creating a separate search reinforces the perception that disabled users should be segregated; or that accessibility is somehow incompatible with "normal" sites.

doesn't it work anyway?

Now, I know that Google's search page is so simple that effectively it's probably "accessible enough". Similarly, the results pages are probably usable despite being sloppy markup. The problem is that it's only by accident that these pages are still accessible. If you're doing something wrong, getting away with it doesn't turn it into doing something right.

To really compound the problem, people use Google's non-compliance as "evidence" that accessibility doesn't matter. They say If Google doesn't do it, why should I bother? That's about the time when accessibility advocates think briefly of belting them one, then instead smile and do their best to explain their point of view ;)

do no evil

I have no doubt that individuals at Google understand accessibility and web standards. However Google the corporation can only be judged by its actions.

Google's refusal to use web standards or meet accessibility guidelines helps perpetuate bad practice across the web. Regardless of cute slogans that may have been scribbled on a whiteboard at Google once... through inaction on standards and accessibility, Google does a little evil every day.

2006-07-20: opera and acid2

It's likely that you've already caught this one, but just in case you didn't here's a quick rundown:

During the debate - make that 'comment wars' - things tended to dissolve into Opera vs. Firefox rather than actually discussing whether Opera 9 passes Acid2. For what it's worth, my opinion based on the Acid2 documentation is that Opera 9 does pass the test. The only remaining doubt is whether one or two lines should be left when you scroll the test. If the Acid2 page is scrolled, the scalp will stay fixed in place, becoming unstuck from the rest of the face, which will scroll. The documentation only discusses one line - that's an omission, not a failure condition.

Frankly, I think the intention of the test was to see if the smiling face would render in the first place. It does for me on all systems I've been able to test. My personal suspicion is that most of the failures are resulting from buggy installations (eg. final release installed over the top of a beta) or the page is zoomed or minimum text size is overriding the test - whether the user realises or not (it's easy to forget). Or possibly some other system glitch - there are lots of variables. If Opera 9 itself failed the test, I would have expected a more consistent result across the user base.

2006-07-15: just how big is the big picture?

privacy, and other lost concepts

During my postgraduate study last semester I had to use an online collaboration tool. No big deal, right? But as soon as I signed up, this system asked me to answer a personality profile; then followed up by asking for my phone number and residential postcode.

I resisted the urge to answer the personality profile with entirely neutral responses (or by channeling a nutcase), but drew the line at giving out my phone number. Frankly, the postcode was more than I am comfortable with and that only narrows things down to a couple of suburbs.

It made me ponder the Doug Bowman presentation I re-watched around the same time: Zooming Out From the Trenches (I read the notes and listened to the podcast). During the presentation he said kids today are far less bothered than adults about giving up their privacy, if it means a system works better - particularly a fun, cool system. Not that a university's course reading database really qualifies as fun and cool... but it makes me realise I'm already a generation behind!

The IT world moves so fast, it's stimulating but it can be absolutely terrifying. A sort of technical vertigo can strike if you ponder the speed of development.

internet can change the world

Bowman's presentation was a defining moment for WE05 and certainly a presentation that caught the audience by surprise. After a day of technical splendour we were suddenly presented with some really Big Picture questions. After talking about the incredible rate of growth of the internet and the rise of accessible technology, he reminded us of a huge aspect of the web's "universality" (in the words of Tim Berners-Lee).

Universal access means access for everyone.

We talk about equity of access to the internet, yet we have no real idea how to bring information access to the world's poor. One of the most tangible efforts is the $100 laptop project (One Laptop per Child), in the spirit of the wind-up radio. As Doug says during his presentation... if we could give blogs to children in the third world, what would they have to say? How would it change their lives if they could communicate with other children across their country... or even just the next village? How would that empower them?

Occassionally, we have to dare to say that yes, the internet can change the world. Not just in the obvious ways like banking online and chatting about our hobbies; but in the powerful ways summarised by the hacker adage knowledge is power. Getting information to people who need it can create massive social change. Decentralising news outlets makes it harder for regimes to control the media.

If children in the third world gain access to the internet, what will happen? To a great extent I think it's a question we can't answer and shouldn't answer. How can we possible imagine what these children want to do? Why should we try to guess? The greatest reward might actually be to find out - to watch it happen.

It's also a little scary. Not all governments want their citizens to have unfettered access to information (consider the great firewall of China). It's almost the ultimate form of content management - massive control over information flow. Giving internet access to children in the third world may have consequences beyond the caring, sharing thoughts of building a global community. It could start wars. We don't know.

So just how important is the internet, really? Here in Australia we frequently trivialise it as the domain of nerds, porn and inane chatter. We forget what it really means to have open, global communication.

Email, the web, chat... these are powerful tools. We should remember that.

Tags: , , , , , .

2006-07-10: interface adventures

Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the stylus

Most people in IT are exposed a lot of different web-enabled devices, but we probably don't pay enough attention to their interfaces. Many web developers have a tendency to just think about desktop PCs running Windows, or perhaps they'll think about Macs too. But what about all the other devices?

I've been pushed into thinking about this over the last few days, mostly because I've been using a borrowed tablet PC while my desktop was having some niggly hardware problems. The way I've used the tablet is substantially different from any other device I've used before.

devices and their interfaces

Let's take a look at a few of the devices people are using. I won't dwell on desktop PCs of any flavour since they're reasonably consistent: keyboard, mouse, full size monitor. Walking across a university campus, you're increasingly likely to see any and all of the following devices.

laptop pc

Usual inputs

  • keyboard and touchpad/joystick/trackball
  • when docked, full size keyboard and mouse

Gotchas

  • a lot of people are slower when using touchpads and joysticks

tablet pc

Usual inputs

  • stylus and on-screen keyboard when undocked
  • any combination of stylus, keyboard and mouse when docked

Gotchas

  • forms with no submit button - the stylus "clicks" so you have to pull up the on-screen keyboard and use the enter "key"
  • precise clicks - the stylus tends to drag a little when you're trying to click, so very small click areas and close-spaced links can be irritating
  • links with no "active" style - when you're not completely sure if the click has registered (or if you clicked the right thing), you'll really wish there was an active style on the link

Notes

  • absolutely awesome for any interface which uses click+drag (play Solitaire or Bejeweled to see what I mean)
  • if the interface is sensitive enough, great for drawing
  • users far more likely to switch between portrait and landscape orientation

mobile phones

Usual inputs

  • keypad, sometimes joystick-style buttons or stylus
  • some models have extras like little keyboards and so on, but they're not especially common

Gotchas

  • apart from phones with Opera, the embedded browser is likely to be pretty limited with unpredictable support for standards, plugins, etc
  • almost none of the browsers properly support media="handheld" ....yet, hopefully
  • most phones have low bandwidth connections and/or can't load big files
  • some interfaces forget the "enter" key and can only submit forms with the stylus (or the user won't know how to find the enter key, which is effectively the same)
  • very small screens (relatively speaking)

pda and handhelds (including game devices)

Usual inputs

  • stylus which is also used to enter text with graffito or on-screen keyboards
  • many PDAs have addons like keyboards or mice, but they're not universal
  • game devices often have cross-pad devices, some have joysticks

Gotchas

  • all stylus-related limitations of the tablet pc
  • all browser/UA limitations of mobile phones
  • relatively small screens or even split screens (eg. Nintendo DS)
  • some screens have glare/backlight issues
  • some have very odd text input methods - eg. the Sony PSP takes some getting used to and URLs are a pain to enter

user familiarity masks problems

Users do find ways around many limitations, or become so used to poor workarounds that they no longer think of them as "problems". However if you have a system that needs lots of workarounds, users are also likely to simply stop using your system and go elsewhere. User familiarity should not be seen as a substitute for good usability.

connecting in the first place

Many of these devices have "wireless capabilities" but this can mean many things. Wireless LAN without security, wireless LAN with security, bluetooth, WAP, etc. A large number of devices can connect to a wireless network but won't get past corporate VPN requirements. For example there's no VPN client for the Sony PSP, which put an abrupt end to our wireless testing at work (although the PSP is actually capable of using most of our systems, so long as VPN is down at the time).

Even if you can connect, wireless networks (at least in Australia) usually aren't the nirvana you might wish for. Slow, prone to dropouts and generally not free, wireless is absolutely not "ubiquitous" and not necessarily "high speed".

so what do we learn from all this?

To a large extent, you could summarise by saying that - between all the options- users with devices other than desktop PCs have the same requirements as disabled users. That means some of the most technology-savvy, youngest and brightest users are actually the ones at risk of hitting problems. The user base also includes key decision-makers like managers, CEOs and so on who like to have the latest and greatest toys.

One interesting thing to note is that some users are essentially mouse-only users, which is less commonly considered than keyboard-only users. Most devices do offer a keyboard substitute but many of them are limited.

conclusion?

Here's the good bit. You can cater to varied devices by doing all the "right things": build to standards, don't use tables or fixed width layouts, let users choose or override style settings, keep page weight to a minimum.

It's not a new message, just a lot of new reasons for the ones we already know. Best of all, they're reasons based on the latest gear rather than any form of moral highground or expectation that everyone wants to follow Best Practice.

Standards are good for the boss's latest PDA; your kids' expensive new game handheld; and the tablet PC you kind of wish you didn't have to give back to your employer. They're not the most laudable reasons, but they sure do motivate people.

meta post: xml feed shenanigans

I've changed the XML feed from summaries to full descriptions. This seems more productive, despite losing data on what's getting read. If you really like a post, do me a favour and click through eh? :)

I've also switched over to using FeedBurner to manage this site's newsfeed. This is partly to compensate for Blogger's limitations in terms of feed management; and partly to make use of some of FeedBurner's features.

The old feed is still there at the moment, but not looking too pretty. So, if you're reading the old feed... I recommend updating to the new one.

2006-06-22: opera 9 released

After all the betas and weekly builds, Opera 9.0 has been released! If you've never tried Opera before, this is really the time to do it.

I still recommend much the same settings and configuration changes as I did for Opera 8. Some aren't needed any more - eg. it now identifies as Opera by default. Some are more powerful now, too :)

Key points about Opera 9:

  • First Windows browser (and first multi-platform browser) to pass Acid2. Actually they achieved that with a build back in March, but now it really counts :)
  • Native BitTorrent support
  • Site-specific settings (eg. allow popups for just one site) and content blocking
  • Tab/window terminology (and keyboard shortcuts) now match other tabbed browsers
  • Rendering and scripting changes mean sites which didn't work in Opera 8 work just fine in Opera 9. This includes Gmail and Blogger, along with some major corporate applications I won't bother naming. Really the sites are still at fault, but users never cared - now things just work :)
  • MSI installer for Windows version - corporate admins be happy!
  • Widgets (although to be honest I'm not wild about them, sorry Chaals :))
  • ...and much more. See the Opera features overview for more.

If you already use Opera (or you want to know the specific rendering/scripting/security/etc updates), you might be interested to see the Opera 9.0 for Windows Changelog (or your relevant platform's changelog, obviously).

Enough talk! Go check it out :)

Tags: , , , .

2006-06-18: meta-data is dead. long live xhtml.

Lately I've encountered quite a few people who still feel meta-data is useful (even critical) for web pages. They were unwilling to consider the idea that a pure ROI evaluation might be worthwhile before spending time embedding meta-data in traditional <meta> tags.

Actually I think it's time for web publishers to focus their efforts elsewhere.

invisible meta-data is dead

Invisible meta-data doesn't work. - Tantek Çelik at WE05

Invisible meta-data has failed for search engines, due to sustained abuse by unethical or just misguided web developers. Being hidden from the user's view means there is no real accountability - few people check a website's meta-data to see if it is accurate.

As the web became more popular, people started to use search more heavily; then when people started making money from websites competition started to get fierce for the top rankings on search results. When simple relevance wasn't enough, people started looking for ways to work - and then exploit - the system.

It started out with a few extra keywords, maybe a few mispellings, a few variations for good measure. Then it moved on to adding less relevant but more popular keywords... eventually sites were adding massive amounts of entirely spurious meta-data.

The search engines fought back; and now search engines barely use meta-data at all when ranking pages. Specific search tools still make heavy use of meta-data, but general web search engines do not.

most meta-data is just bad

Intentional abuse aside, a great deal of meta-data is counter-productive simply because it is bad. This low-quality information can not produce a high-quality result when used for any purpose - a problem which has quite possibly been misunderstood from the dawn of computing:

On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question. - Charles Babbage

To put it in more modern terms: rubbish in, rubbish out.

One fundamental problem with meta-data is that it requires a reasonable grasp of indexing to produce even passable meta-data. For a very large web site, you really need a trained indexer with an extensive controlled vocabulary (...and they're not afraid to use it, punk).

Your average web publisher is not a librarian or indexer. The chances they can produce a good meta-data set are slim to nil. To make matters worse, it is not quick or easy to properly train someone in the skills required to do so.

In a distributed publishing system, this can lead to complete chaos. Meta-data can be completely unrelated to the contents of the page. Administrative meta-data such as publish dates can be horribly out of date.

In fact, unless you have highly-trained indexers creating the meta-data for a large website, you are probably better off having no meta-data at all.

semantic markup to the rescue

A well-formed XHTML document actually contains a great deal of meta-data. Much of it is visible and a lot is self-defining - by creating the document, you create the meta-data. Then to really put the icing on the cake, search engines do use it.

From the evidence I've seen so far, the most powerful items of meta-data in XHTML are the <title> and <h1> elements - key pieces of microcontent which don't receive the attention they're due. They should define the contents of the document, providing top-level keywords for the content.

After <title> and <h1>, some the sub-headings; emphasised/strong-emphasised text (<em> and <strong>); language statement (eg. xml:lang="en"); and finally the body text. Body text does count, since it should contain the most relevant, accurate keywords anyway.

tag and release

These days we can really cap things off by adding the human keywords which might be associated with the content. Call it tagging, visible meta-data, folksonomies... the general principle is the same. Tagging gives you the opportunity to categorise your content in a useful way (limitations of the rel="tag" microformat aside). Not only can search engines read tags; but your users can read them and (where your system supports it) they can even use those tags to seek out further information on the topic.

Tags let you add the extra terms that people used to throw into <meta> tags - the related terms, regardless of their existence in the body text. Combine this with mispelled words being picked up by good search tools (eg. Google's "Did you mean...?" suggestions) and you no longer need to seed your documents with meta-data that could get you blacklisted. Why keyword bomb your content when users are being redirected to the correct term?

trust in the natural meta-data

The sum total of this natural meta-data gives search engines the ability to index and rank pages according to the content they actually contain (including visible tags to catch related terms), rather than meta-data that someone has hidden in the file. This way, you cannot have spurious meta-data without creating spurious content... which even the most casual user is likely to question, or the most time-poor developer should remember to update.

Meta-data as we knew it is dead. Long live XHTML.

2006-05-26: in the blue corner, IE7...

Regular readers will know my feelings about the IE7 team's attitude, at least as published on their official blog. Generally I feel just a dash more sensitivity wouldn't have gone astray, given that Microsoft has come back to the browser game after a notable and extended absence.

So it's only fair for me to highlight this post: Albatross! : Microsoft, IE and the Web Standards Project. Now it's a personal blog and not an official line, but all the same it's an acknowledgement that they did disappear for a while there: I’m sorry Microsoft took an apparent vacation for a few years. Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa. Go watch Bill Gates’ and Dean Hachamovitch’s keynote addresses from the MIX06 conference, maybe their apologies will mean more.

The post also shows the frustration from the IE side of the fence: I’m not asking that people forget that vacation – I don’t expect them to. I’ve moved on, and I’m trying to do the right thing now. There's a difference between stewing in the past, and figuring out where to go from here.

It's a fair call that we have to move on, although there's a difference between stewing and venting. After all IE7 still isn't actually released and we have years of screaming at IE6 to get out of our systems ;) But it's true that it takes leaders like Molly Holzschlag to cross the line between bitching and helping. The rest of us should probably be getting a handle on the idea that IE7 might be a good browser.

Meanwhile, Eric Meyer reminds us (and apparently the IE team) that neither side is an amorphous mass. Eric's Archived Thoughts: Praise IE, Go to Jail : While at Mix 06, I was talking with one of the senior IE team folks about improving standards and the browser market. He said to me, "So what is it the Web design community wants?"—as if there is a single such community, and it always speaks with a unified voice on all matters. Does that sound like the Web design community you know? ... So why do we assume that Microsoft, a company with tens of thousands of employees working in hundreds of teams and units, would be any more unified?

Occasionally we all have to have a reality check. There are humans on all sides here. All the usual issues of building trust and relationships still stand; and everyone needs to cut the other side a break once in a while.

link roundup

This is a bit of everything. The only common thread is that I've saved the link at some stage in the last couple of months. Enjoy the random!

2006-05-17: nine... nine'n'a haaaaaalf... nine'n'three quaaaaarters...

Like a child refusing to count to ten, Flickr has found yet another way to stall the idea of acting like they have released a product. We've had alpha and beta, now Flickr has gone into gamma: FlickrBlog | Alpha... Beta... Gamma! I can't help but wonder if we're going to go through every step to omega before they try 1.0.

Seriously - I don't understand what the harm would be in just drawing a line in the code and calling it v1.0. They have thousands of users and presumably millions of photos. The system works. They provide support. They take money.

Web 2.0 chic ran out somewhere during beta. C'mon Flickr, go 1.0!

whitelisting web content

The true cost of content: New Thinking: Gerry McGovern: In an age of information overload, content management must be more concerned with what you don't publish. It is easy to put everything you have up. It is easy to take a print document and save it as a PDF. But that's not management, and those who take that approach have no future as content managers.

This is a concept we're pushing hard at work at the moment - don't publish something just because you have it. I think the problem stems from peoples' enduring misconception that websites don't cost anything. Unlike print, there's no obvious cost associated with throwing another page online; so people don't give as much thought to publishing more web content.

Publishing everything also tends to indicate that the website doesn't have a set of clear objectives (ie. business goals). Defining your goals should be Step One for a web publishing project, but frequently it's not done at all. People tend to skip straight to discussing what the page will look like; or what technology will be used; or what content they currently have online - making the assumption that it should all stay.

We need to take a whitelist approach to web content. Instead of saying 'yes' to every bit of content, we should start out by saying 'no' to everything then add specific items which fulfil some kind of need. That could be a hard-nosed business need or just 'interesting to the readers' depending on your page; but the principle works pretty much across the board.

Even personal pages can benefit from the odd reality check. Publishers often feel pressure to keep posting or you'll lose all your readers. Thankfully this isn't quite so true anymore thanks to syndication. As Jeff Veen notes, I can maintain a healthy audience by simply turning bold in their aggregator once in a while. (The Rhythm of Blogging, by Jeffrey Veen).

I guess it's true... more is not better, more is just more.

2006-04-13: web directions 2006

After hearing that Web Essentials 06 was not to be, many Australian web developers frowned and wondered what they hell they'd do with the last week in September now. Lo and behold! webdirections - a.k.a. WD06. I can only hope this event is still going in 2040. Just for the acronym.

So now our social ...err, professional calendar is full once again! In all seriousness, I still review the WE05 presentations for inspiration. If WD06 picks up where WE05 left off, people are going to be sleeping out for tickets.

Speaking of tickets, someone better get Derek a ticket to the NRL grand final...

2006-03-20: link roundup: WaSP redesign, iweb tag soup, internet security

  • Designing for: The Web Standards Project | And all that Malarkey: The one where Malarkey talks about the decisions that were taken during the redesign of The Web Standards Project web site. An impressive result, using design and key copy items to associate the site with serious social issues - a site designed to trigger subconscious reactions on the part of the user. Plus it looks nifty. I do find the body text too small and there are some problems with colour contrast*, however Malarky says alternate CSS will probably be added in future to address these issues.
  • iWeb, the new tag soup generator | 456 Berea Street. I'd comment, but then people would just get annoyed that I'm bashing Apple again ;) Seriously though, this is a pity and I hope it's resolved in future versions.
  • Virus watches mouse clicks | NEWS.com.au (16-03-2006). This doesn't come as any great surprise, since X/Y coordinates can be tracked; but it does disprove the claim (made by certain financial institutions) that a mouse-based login page is inherently more secure than traditional keyboard input. The reality is that a virus can pick up keystrokes and clicks, most banks are happy so long as their customers get a sense of security (and there's a disclaimer that the bank can use to avoid any problems).
  • Speaking of banks and security, the Bendigo Bank has just started advertising a security token system: Bendigo Bank e-banking. The TVC drives me nuts since they show the users firing up IE, which would be their primary security concern ;) It's an interesting move, probably made possible by the Bendigo's customer base being (apparently) loyal and willing to cough up the cash for the token generator. The entire system is still vulnerable to social engineering and so forth; plus the token generators are not exactly subtle - the bank's logo/URL is a bit of a giveaway as to what they are. The most likely attack I can think of would be a coworker installing keyloggers and nicking keyrings; so if you don't trust your coworkers the $99 generator with a pin number is a good idea.

* If you are curious to see for yourself, use Vision Australia's Colour Contrast Analyser to check the colour combinations. Since graphics are involved Firefox's colour check extension probably won't show the problem.

2006-03-14: going on safari: the search for version numbers

Q: When is a simple question not a simple question? A: When you need to get the answer out of Apple's website.

My simple question was this: what is the latest version of Safari? It sounds like a stupid question really, but bear with me here (and keep in mind I didn't happen to have a Mac handy).

My starting point: Friends who use Macs inform me that there are different versions according to which dot-point version of OSX a person is using. I know it's at least up to 1.2; and I've seen people talking about "Safari 2.0" so I'm pretty sure that exists.

So, needing an official source for the definite answer, I hit the Apple site. Being a geek, I make an educated guess at a URL.

http://www.apple.com/safari/ redirects to http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/safari/, which is all marketing fluff with one mention of 1.2 which I'm then told is out of date.

Having dealt with Apple Australia before, I try http://www.apple.com/au/safari/. I discover this loads with broken images and doesn't appear to have version advice anyway.

Somewhere along the line I try http://www.apple.com/safari/download/ ...well, at least I can confirm v1.2. But, like I said, our resident Machead has already assured me 1.2 is not the current version. Confusion reigns. Perhaps the only way to get the latest version is to install 1.2 and patch/update/whatever it's called on OSX. I still don't have the info I need, so onwards...

http://www.apple.com/support/safari/ lists versions of OSX but does not specify which version of Safari they contain. Even the update pages themselves are vague - eg. http://www.apple.com/support/downloads/macosxupdate1045.html just says it includes fixes ... [for] Safari rendering of web pages. The detailed information page (http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=303179) still doesn't mention versions.

At this point I give up on Apple and try a straight up Google search for "safari versions". The first two results we've already seen; the fourth is a beautiful moment in nomenclature: Safari Experts: About Web Browsers (yes, a company that does Safaris has a page about browsers).

I try the third result, 'Safari Developer FAQ' (developer.apple.com/internet/safari/faq.html). It appears to be far too detailed, but out of idle curiosity I happen to click on a question about Safari user-agent strings. Then I notice this: As the list of historical build version information for Safari and WebKit indicates, both version numbers may contain a minor version and possibly a sub-version number as well.

Could it be? I click historical build version information and discover a page with the title "Historical User Agent strings"; and the heading "Safari and WebKit Version Information". I hardly dare hope, yet here is detailed information on versions. For the record: the latest version(s) are 1.3.2 on OS 10.3.9 and 2.0.3 on OS 10.4.5.

That wasn't hard at all! :-]

So what's the moral to the story? Well, first off, dealing with Apple's website gives me a headache - not to mention you shouldn't bother with the website, just go straight to Google. Second, websites need to state information which may seem horribly obvious to the author; because that information may not be obvious or available to the user.

If Safari is managed via OS patches, that's fine - but Apple needs to put that information on the Safari product and download pages. It doesn't have to be front and centre, it just has to be mentioned somewhere; after all I did find the (inaccurate) 1.2 version info way down the bottom of the product page.

Apple is a repeat offender on this one. They seem to assume at all times that you already have detailed knowledge about the product they're talking about (and, in the case of hardware, that you already own at least one). They assume you know their exact terminology for things; for example you don't "update the name attribute" or "change the volume label" on an ipod, in fact you're looking for the article "naming your ipod". As if it's a kitten.

The main Safari product page does not actually state the latest version number, despite talking about Tiger. Nor does it mention the fact that it's an entire version ahead on OS 10.4 compared with OS 10.3. If you don't happen to know your Tigers from your Panthers, there's no reason you'd suspect that people with OS 10.3 can't just upgrade to the latest Safari - but that's the deal, apparently.

So next time you're writing some documentation, remember to state the obvious. You might keep someone from needing a couple of paracetamol and a lie down.

2006-03-13: link roundup: betas, templates, passing acid, superheroes, uk accessibility

Tags: , , , , , .

2006-03-03: when web 2.0 attacks!

Plazes is pretty cool, but if you get the latitude and logitude wrong... suddenly Brisbane airport is somewhere in New South Wales: plazes.beta Plaze:Brisbane Airport/Australia/4007/Brisbane/Banksia Place.

Plus there are some limits to localisation - Australia does not have 'zip' codes, for example; we have postcodes. But then it probably doesn't matter - since most of our television is American, the average Joe probably does know that a zip code is like our postcodes. Plus I'm pretty sure they had to forward the phone number 911 through to 000 (our real emergency number). But I digress.

The real point to be observed is that systems are only as good as the information people put into them. Enthusiasm doesn't replace accuracy, nor does a person's willingness to enter information imply they'll proofread it first.

Still, it's fair to say that I am surprised how well community sites can work. You just have to be a bit cautious: is that Wikipedia entry accurate? ...or is the page in the middle of an edit war and someone just rewrote it with an extreme bias?

Web 2.0: remember, more signal means more noise too.

Blog Archive