31 October 2008

Standard nonsense

My thoughts on web standards change on an almost weekly basis. I now consider myself a sceptical evangelist! I believe in web standards as an end but I do not agree with the means by which we seem to be getting there. I think we should be using web standards, but I live and work in the real world where web standards remain nothing more than a laudable goal and an occasional convenient excuse.

Currently, we have HTML 5 and CSS 3 and JavaScript 2 as the shining examples of where we are heading with web standards. I am aware that JavaScript 2 is no more (the end of a great folly in my opinion), however, these three serve to demonstrate my point.

The vast majority of users on the web, and surely its the users who are most important - not us developers, are using Internet Explorer as their primary web browser. IE is a fine product for browsing the web today and I suspect it fulfills the needs of those users in the vast majority of cases.

A good proportion of users are using Firefox with many using Firefox 3. This too is a fine browser. As is Safari which dominates the remaining small proportion of users.

At this point, others may launch into a diatribe about how users should switch browsers. Some may wish to analyse the statistics on a deeper level. But I wish to just re-iterate that for users, their current browser works fine! Why are we - the developers - getting so upset about users not changing their browser?

HTML 5, CSS 3 and JavaScript 2 are (or were) all meant to be innovations and additions to the interface developers toolkit, allowing us to do exciting new and innovative things. Creating new types of web pages, allowing the user to interact in new and exciting ways. Hmm. Writing that makes me think of AJAX. AJAX was meant to be an innovation and an addition to the interface developers toolkit allowing us to do exciting new and innovative things. AJAX was meant to allow us to create new types of web pages, allowing the user to interact in new and exciting ways.

Why did it work with AJAX? Its because support was already in the users browser. When AJAX started to become popular, there were some older browsers in use almost as much as Firefox 2 is in use today. Well, those older browsers disappeared as users could not access the websites that used advanced AJAX techniques. The other very helpful factor for AJAX was that computers became very cheap and very powerful and so users were upgrading more easily and more frequently. Most users only change browser when they change computer.

I believe there are the following 3 main reasons that HTML 5 and CSS 3 are not in common use today and will not be for at least 5 years from now:

  1. The W3C
    A large slow moving organisation that seemingly cannot decide in which direction to lumber. There has been some progress over the last year, but they have absolutely set the pace. The gap between HTML 4 and HTML 5 being proper standards will be mirrored by the gap between users using browsers which implement those standards.

  2. The browser vendors
    More slow moving organisations. The era of co-operation never began and never will be. There seems to be more effort being made to improve the performance of existing browser features rather than in implementing anything new. This in itself is a positive, but it does not really move the game forwards. This is the vendors playing catch-up so the websites we already build can run in a more reasonable fashion.

    There appears to be so little real competition in this market that vendor specific features are becoming acceptable again within the web development community. As developers we just want something shiny and new to play with!

  3. The Users
    The only group that should really matter. Users have not been given any real incentive to change browsers or to support those vendors attempting to implement and push forwards new standards. Users will only shift their position on this in response to catastrophic security issues or a family member who knows better and has a convincing voice.

    Users still use older browsers such as IE 6 and Firefox 2 because there is nothing that the newer browsers offer which is compelling enough to make the change. Users are not technically savvy and nor should they have to be. Users only demand reliability, usable performance and security - even IE 6 can provide that.

Ultimately, there is no business case for building a website implementing new standards. Indeed, the opposite is true - it is better for businesses to ensure their websites work on the widest cross-section of browsers out there which means implementing old standards.

So is this all a cause for depression? Absolutely not. Do we need new standards? Not really! Wow, that was a controversial statement. I would like new and more appropriate standards, I would like those standards to be adhered to so I don't have to deal with cross browser issues. But, I am still doing really exciting and innovative work, I still find new bugs and issues with the browsers and I am yet to see a design or specification for a website which I could not build with today's existing technologies.

30 October 2008

The Quiet

Its been pretty quiet on this blog for the last 6 weeks or so. I have been very busy working on an interesting, fairly complex and fairly large JavaScript application during the day and then recovering from it at night! I also had the pleasure of a lovely week away in this period of quiet.

I have also recently got my hands on a rather sexy new phone - an HTC Touch Diamond - and have spent a lot of time playing with that. Its a Windows Mobile PocketPC and its been an interesting experience, particularly Opera 9.5 Mobile which is the default browser.

Browsing on a handheld device has been a new experience for me. My phone comes with Pocket IE installed as well, but that is rather archaic. I have done all I can to avoid using it.

Opera Mobile however is a fantastic browser. Its fairly fast, pretty standards compliant and renders most pages rather well. It has also given me a useful insight into a different type of user agent for browsing the web. Its quite a different experience and its easy to see which sites are well designed and which are not.

I have taken away a couple of important lessons from my experience. Firstly, clear interface design is very important on this type of device. The browser can zoom into pages but when a page loads, it is zoomed out and most text cannot be read clearly at all. However, a site with good design is very usable as I can zoom in on just the right area. Clearly defined navigation really helps with browsing on a mobile device.

The second lesson I have learnt is that the easiest sites to use employ a liquid or semi-liquid layout. My phone has a resolution of 480x640 and if a site can flow its content to fit into either of those widths, that helps greatly. If I were designing a website today, I would definitely ensure it works in a browser width of 640 pixels!

The final lesson I have taken with me thus far is that the size of elements on screen really matters. I use my finger to navigate a website and having links tightly packed together with a small font size makes life very difficult. Having small form fields or form fields with a small font size and another link right next to or just underneath the form field can make it difficult to select the element I want to interact with. Finally, having heavily styled buttons, especially image buttons makes submitting a form harder than it needs to be, particularly if pressing enter on the keyboard does not work.

For me, the most noteworthy new aspect of interface development that I will carry with me is the importance of keyboard interaction with a form - never ever stop a form being submitted with the enter key!

There is much more to say about this phone and browsing the web using Opera, but at least for now, the quiet is no more!