Archive for the 'accessibility web standards' Category

Reflections on Extensible Web Summit, Berlin

I was lucky enough to visit Berlin very briefly for the Extensible Web Summit. It was organised, it seems, by members of W3C (but was not an officially branded W3C) and hosted by Beuth University, Berlin. Lunch was provided by Google, beers afterwards by Yandex (although I missed those as I’d taken the inexplicable decision to fly back straight after rather than hobnob with the great, the good, and Chaals.) Thanks to all organisations.

This isn’t a record of the day; the event notes were crowd-scribed. It’s my preliminary thoughts about the concept of the “extensible web”.

As far as I can deduce – because the term “extensible web” wasn’t actually defined on the day – it’s about giving/ exposing primitives so developers can extend various parts of the platform. (Read The Extensible Web Manifesto for a longer description and statement of intent.)

In the current world, we wait for something like Appcache to be specified, then implemented and then scoffed at. This can take a long time, and we might not get what we want; Hixie told me “The appcache API is another big mistake. It’s the best example of not understanding the problem before designing a solution … Appcache works great if you want to do what it was designed for, but it turns out most people want to do something different enough that appcache feels horrible to them”.

So, an example of Extensible Web practices/ methodology is Service Worker – it allows you to control how websites fetch and store information across the network (and when there is no network) but it’s very low-level; you have to do everything yourself in JavaScript – but that gives you great power and flexibility.

One of the tests of Service Worker is: can we explain how AppCache works by coding it via Service Worker in JavaScript? Yes, we can. Similarly, Chrome’s Chris Wilson said how he hopes to be able to explain how the <audio> element works in terms of the Web Audio spec. Explaining how things work and giving us hooks in is a good idea, it seems to me. For example, in a sane, Extensible Web-world, we’d never have had the <canvas> element, but instead would have extended <img> with a scriptable API.

But while it’s good to explain magic, I feel we need to be careful about using the word “magic” pejoratively. A lot of the success of the Web was that simple HTML tags (<a>, <input>) made magic happen. You write <img src=”vomiting-otter.jpg”> and a vomiting otter appears; you don’t need to worry about how it gets there over the network, its caching, its format, etc. Similar with <input> – you just code a reasonably obvious word in angle brackets and it works.

As Steve Faulkner notes, a lot of the success of accessibility on the Web is/was that simple HTML elements makes accessibility happen.

Service Workers, and the spec that I’ve been closer to, <picture>, are great examples of listening to developers (partnership). Service Worker came out of a meeting between Opera, Mozilla, Google, BBC, Financial Times etc and was specified by Google, Mozilla and Samsung (and many others). <picture> came about because developers demanded it, even when the browser vendors and standards bodies didn’t care.

The Extensible Web Manifesto says “We prefer to enable feature development and iteration in JavaScript, followed by implementation in browsers and standardization”. I hope the end result is standardisation of a canon of best practice and then native implementation. Although JavaScript and C++ performance are (allegedly) very close now, I’d still rather see Sexy Feature implemented in 20K of C++ in a one-time download of a browser than loads of devs use a different Sexy Feature polyfill that gets downloaded squilions of times by billions of users of millions of sites.

But I’ve already heard potentially good ideas for extensions to core HTML handwaved away with “oh, that’s a job for Web Components”. So I’m not yet entirely convinced that we’re not heralding a new era of JavaScript-only web development. I don’t want to see the fossilisation of the declarative web and a new Programmer Priesthood (re-)emerge.

How can developers make their voices heard? It’s true that browser vendors are OBSESSED with solving developer’s problems. If we don’t, you’ll make native apps, and then browsers disappear, we default on our mortgages, our partners leave us for Apple employees and our hamsters starve. None of us want this to happen. So we try to listen.

Then there is the question of how developers can participate. The bravery barrier to entry for many of the mailing lists is already too high – I periodically get emails from people asking me to propose a feature or ask a question on a list as a proxy because lists are scary places.

W3C has set up a Specification forum where you can ask questions about specs/ propose a feature. Read around it to see if anyone else has a similar proposal, and if appropriate, add comments to that before you set up a new thread. Use Mozilla’s guidelines WebAPI Design Guidelines and please remember that use-cases are much better than a fully-worked out proposed syntax.

I’m enthused about the Extensible Web manifesto and the progress we’ve already made, eg baking popular jQuery-like syntax into browser engines via the Selectors API, getting our hands on the network with Service Worker, and the heady new world of Web Components. We need to ensure that all devs who want to can participate by allowing ease of collaboration, courteous discourse. And it would be perilous to forget that the declarative web reduces the barrier to entry and enhances accessibility.

Reading List

Standards smörgåsbord

Security Soufflé

Video Dessert

A Boy And His Atom: The World’s Smallest Movie, made by moving individual atoms at IBM, magnified 100 million times.

Reading List

Reading List

Standards ‘n’ all that jazz

French joke corner

Heard about the French chef who killed himself? He lost the huile d’olive.

Video corner

“Coders and hackers, ready to change the world, and the hackathon is the perfect place. But things don’t always go as planned…” by @ourmaninjapan

Reading List

Standards and tech

Freedom corner

Lonely hearts’ corner

Readers who are single may find this 80s dating video helpful. Invite me to the wedding, please.

On Internet Explorer supporting -webkit- vendor prefixes

News is just in from Microsoft that Internet Explorer on Windows Phone 8.1 Update will support legacy webkit-prefixed features.

Now, obviously I can’t speak for Microsoft or the IE team (Bill Gates despises me since I beat him in a nude limbo competition at Patrick Lauke’s birthday disco a few years back) but this brings a wry smile to my little face. It fell to me to write the blog post announcing that Opera was going to support some -webkit- prefixed CSS and be hated by the Internet for the 2.6 seconds it takes before someone more evil pops up.

Those in the know could guess this was coming. At a CSS Working Group meeting in February 2012 (search the minutes for “Vendor Prefixes”) this exchange took place:

tantek [Firefox]: At this point we’re trying to figure out which and how many webkit prefix properties to actually implement support for in Mozilla … Currently we have zero. Zero is no longer an option for us.
Florian [Opera], Sylvain [Microsoft]: Zero is not an option for us anymore either.

The reason that IE are doing it now, and we did it then, is simple. WebKit browsers, like other browsers, shipped experimental CSS with a prefix. When the CSS property was considered stable, all browsers apart from WebKit removed support for the prefixed version. WebKit browsers, however, did not remove the prefixed version, supporting it in parallel with the unprefixed syntax so that sites that had been made before the “standardising” of the property would not break.

Moreover, lazy developers only tested on WebKit browsers, so didn’t even add the -ms- prefix for Microsoft, -moz- prefix for Firefox or -o- prefix for Opera, so those browsers got a markedly worse experience.

At Opera, we did what we could with a relatively small team to contact site owners and developers and ask them to change it, but there were simply too many to deal with. It was much more effective simply to “support” those -webkit- prefixes that were the analogue of things we already supported; for example, we simply aliased -webkit-border-radius to border-radius.

Magically, lots of iPhone-only sites looked a lot better in Opera. As you can see from the screenshot comparisons in the IE blogpost, the same happens for them. It’s difficult to argue for ideological purity when a simple aliasing makes the user experience so demonstrably better – and one thing I’ve learned at Opera is most users don’t care two hoots for ideology if their favourite site works better in another browser.

It’s tempting to blame the mess on lazy developers, and they are without doubt at fault for enjoying the advantages of the Web without respecting its core principle of cross-browser compatibility. But some of the blame lies with WebKit developers, and (to a lesser extent) with the CSS Working Group for blessing vendor prefixes (though of course, browser makers just did this sort of crap anyway: scrollbar-face-color lurked around for years in IE without a prefix).

I’m very glad that the Blink rendering engine (which Opera, my employer, now uses) has abandoned vendor prefixes (and Firefox appears to have done the same.)

But, as managers around the world like to say when laying staff off because of bad management decisions, “we are where we are”. Legacy -webkit- prefixes hide in the dim recesses of sites used every day, and users deserve good experiences.

So good luck to the IE team; I’d do the same, because I’ve done the same. But I stand by my poetic words of 1 September 2012:

Vendor prefixes are like skidmarks on the underwear of web standards: sometimes unavoidable, but best washed and rinsed out as soon as possible.

Reading List

Review: JavaScript & JQuery by Jon Duckett

Disclosure stuff: I was sent a free copy of this by the publishers. From 2000-2002 I worked with its author. I currently work with Mathias Bynens, the book’s technical reviewer (but didn’t know this until after reading it).

Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not very confident with my JavaScript – I learned to program in COBOL, FORTRAN, BASIC, 6502, Z80 and DCL which are all procedural, so I was looking forwards to a book that starts at the very beginning and treats me kindly, before clubbing me over the head because I polluted the global namespace and laughing at me for extending my prototypical object literal constructors into my callbacks.

The book’s blurb says “We’ll not only show you how to read and write JavaScript, but we’ll also teach you the basics of computer programming in a simple, visual way” and is the follow-up to Duckett’s hugely successful HTML and CSS Book which sold over 150,000 copies. (In tech book terms, that’s practically Harry Potter; in this industry, 5,000 is a successful book.)

The book looks beautiful. High quality paper, colour images, with real care and attention lavished on the layout and the words. I’m no quivering aethete designer, but I found it pleasurable to read even though it’s a weighty 600 page tome. Each page (or spread) is its own discrete infolump so it’s easy to out down and come back to.

It starts light – defining events, objects, methods and properties, showing the relationship between HTML, CSS and JS, and with a section on Progressive Enhancement (hoorah). However, I was slightly peturbed that the first worked example uses document.write. I can see why you’d do this – it allows you to show something, but without having to muck about appending to the DOM or using getElementById and innerHTML but it didn’t feel particularly good practice (especially as getElementById and innerHTML are introduced soon after, anyway.) In the author’s defence, he does note that this is Considered Naughty.

Elsewhere, we see lots of workarounds and IE-specific aspects of the DOM. I’m comfortable with these being there; we have to live in the real world, and I think that a book that ignores this does a disservice to its readers – it’s right to equip someone to make pages work on IE.wtf or understand what’s happening in older/ inherited scripts.

The book moves briskly after the traditional introduction to loops, variables and other syntax. By page 270 we’re looking at event listeners, including IE5-8, event delegation, mutation events (with a note that mutation observers are coming, but no more than that.)

Chapter 7 begins with jQuery. Again, there are times when jQuery is entirely appropriate. What’s good is that this book teaches JS concepts first, and always keeps the two separate. (I get tired of “JS” tutorials that are actually about jQuery.)

The rest of the book romps through “HTML5″ APIs, JSON, common UI widgets and – usefully – debugging. Attention is paid to pointing out what’s standard and what isn’t, what’s vanilla JS and what isn’t. Progressive enhancement, accessibility and separation of concerns is are kept in mind throughout. This is good. You can see the table of contents.

When I’m reading, I often don’t care if I’m reading a paper book or a Kindle. But in this case, I was glad I was reading the full-colour, attractive book. I’ve railed about the shoddy quality and general unattractiveness of most computer books before. When so much information is available on the web, publishers must provide some sort of extra value. This book has it – the information is thought-through, beautifully presented and clearly explained. While I guess that the majority of my regular readers won’t need an explanation of what a loop or variable is, I believe this would be an excellent book for someone wanting to start with JavaScript, and learn it well. It doesn’t cover Promises, Mutation Observers, but I don’t really think they’re right for a beginners’ book, anyway.

Oh – and it made me realise that I’m not nearly as crap at JavaScript as I thought I was. Which is nice.

On the complexity of the picture element

On dev.Opera, the man we call “Bovo the bachata boss” just published Responsive Images: Use Cases and Documented Code Snippets to Get You Started. It’s excellent; go and read it. (It isn’t a primer to the whole concept; we have one of those in the works.)

We umm-ed and ah-ed about what order to present the examples – “most likely use-case first” or “simplest to gnarliest syntax” order? We eventually decided the second, because the full syntax can be a bit scary.

But don’t that put you off. Responsive images addresses 4 different use-cases. There are also new constructs like sizes and srcset to wrap your bonce around. So the syntax for addressing all four at once is, at first sight, pretty complex.

But, like the most complex of the 24 English tenses, the Future Passive Perfect Continuous tense*, you’ll probably rarely need it.

And if my dull brain can understand it, yours can.

*I used it once, when complaining about how long a repair shop was taking with my guitar. “By our next gig, it will have been being mended for three weeks!”

Reading list

Bonus video content!

“My job is to make sure that the web wins” – The Awwwards people interviewed me and my extra chins in Paris in February.