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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.

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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.

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