Archive: March, 2014

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Sunday, March 30th, 2014

Hemingway

A useful text editor that analyses your writing for excess verbiage and sloppy construction. It helps you process your words, as it were.

The Pastry Box Project: The Values of the Web by Brad Frost

I don’t work in the tech industry. I work on the Web.

Saturday, March 29th, 2014

Readmill Epilogue - Readmill

If your startup gets acquired and shut down by a larger company, this is the way to announce it—no “we’re excited to announce”; no “incredible journey”. Instead there’s an apology and regret (which is exactly what your users will be feeling).

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Confessions Of A CSS Expert

Funny because it’s true:

The thing I regret the most is how my class addiction affected my relationship with HTML.

dConstruct 2013 videos

All the videos from last year’s dConstruct have been posted on Vimeo (with a backup on the Internet Archive). If you were there, you can re-live the fun all over again. And if you weren’t there, you can see just what you missed:

  1. Amber Case
  2. Luke Wroblewski
  3. Nicole Sullivan
  4. Simone Rebaudengo
  5. Sarah Angliss
  6. Keren Elazari
  7. Maciej Cegłowski
  8. Dan Williams
  9. Adam Buxton

Don’t forget the audio is also available for your listening pleasure. Slap the RSS feed into the podcasting application of your choosing.

Revisiting the brilliance of last year’s dConstruct should get you in the mood for this year’s event. Put the date in your calendar: Friday, September 5th. Last year was all about Communicating With Machines. This year will be all about Living With The Network.

More details will be unveiled soon (he said, hoping to cultivate a feeling of mystery and invoke a sense of anticipation).

Thursday, March 27th, 2014

Browsiness

Cennydd wrote a really good post recently called Why don’t designers take Android seriously?

I completely agree with his assessment that far too many developers are ignoring or dismissing Android for two distasteful reasons:

  1. Android is difficult
  2. User behaviours are different:

Put uncharitably, the root issue is “Android users are poor”.

But before that, Cennydd compares the future trajectories of other platforms and finds them wanting in comparison to Android: Windows, iOS, …the web.

On that last comparison, I (unsurprisingly) disagree. But it’s not because I think the web is a superior platform; it’s because I don’t think the web is a platform at all.

I wrote about this last month:

The web is not a platform. It’s a continuum.

I think it’s a category error to compare the web to Android or Windows or iOS. It’s like comparing Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and liquid. The web is something that permeates the platforms. From one point of view, this appears to make the web less than the operating system that someone happens to be using to access it. But in the same way that a chicken is an egg’s way of reproducing and a scientist is the universe’s way of observing itself, an operating system is the web’s way of providing access to itself.

Wait a minute, though …Cennydd didn’t actually compare Android to the web. He compared Android to the web browser. Like I’ve said before:

We talk about “the browser” when we should be talking about the browsers. I’m guilty of this. I’ll use phrases like “designing in the browser” or talk about “what we can do in the browser”, when really I should be talking about designing in the browsers and what we can do in the browsers.

But Cennydd’s comparison does raise an interesting question: what is a web browser exactly? Answering that question probably requires an answer to the question: what is the web?

(At this point you might be thinking, “Ah, this is just semantics!” and you’d be right. Abandon ship here if you feel that way. But to describe something as “just semantics” is like pointing at all the written works in every library and saying “but they’re just words”, or taking in the entire trajectory of human civilisation and saying “but those are just ideas”. So yeah, this is “just” semantics.)

So what is the web? Well the unsexy definition I’ve used in the past is that the web consists of files (e.g. HTML, CSS, JavaScript), accessible at URLs, delivered over HTTP. So FTP is not the web. Email is not the web. Gopher is not the web.

But to be honest, I don’t think that the Hypertext Transfer Protocol is the important part of the web; it’s the URLs that really matter. It’s the addressability of the files that’s the killer app of the web in my opinion.

I also don’t think that it’s the file formats themselves that define the web. Don’t get me wrong: I love HTML …and I have nothing against CSS or JavaScript. But if HTML were to disappear, the tears I would weep would not be so much for the format itself, but for the two decades of culture that have been stored with it.

I was re-reading Weaving The Web and in that book, Tim Berners-Lee describes his surprise when people started using HTML to mark up their content. He expected HTML to be used for indices that would point to the URLs of the actual content, which could be in any file format (PDF, word processessing documents, or whatever). It turned out that HTML had just enough expressiveness and grokability to be used instead of those other formats.

So I certainly don’t consider anything that happens to be written using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to automatically be a part of the web. I can open up a text editor and make an HTML document but as long as it sits on my computer instead of being addressable by a URL, it’s not part of the web. Likewise, a native app might be powered by CSS and JavaScript under the hood, but without a URL, it’s not part of the web.

Perhaps then, a web browser is something that can access URLs. Certainly in pretty much every example of a web browser throughout the web’s history, the URL has been front and centre: if the web were a platform, the URL bar would be its command line.

But, like the rise of HTML, the visibility of the URL in a web browser is an accident of history. It was added almost as an afterthought as a power-user feature: why would most people care what the URL of the content happens to be? It’s the content itself that matters, and you’d get to that content not by typing URLs, but by following hyperlinks.

There’s an argument to be made that, with the rise of search engines, the visibility of URLs has become less important. See, for example, the way that every advertisement for a website on the Tokyo subway doesn’t show a URL; it shows what to type into a search engine instead (and I’ve started seeing this in some TV adverts here in the UK too).

So a web browser that doesn’t expose the URLs of what it’s rendering is still a web browser.

Now imagine a browser that you install on your device that doesn’t expose URLs, but under the hood it is navigating between URLs using HTTP, and rendering the content (images, JavaScript, CSS, HTML, JSON, whatever). That’s a pretty good description of many native apps. There’s a whole category of native apps that could just as easily be described as “artisanal web browsers” (and if someone wants to write a browser extension that replaces every mention of “native app” with “artisanal web browser” that would be just peachy).

Instagram’s native app is a web browser.

Facebook’s native app is a web browser.

Twitter’s native app is a web browser.

Like Paul said:

Monolithic browsers are not the only User Agent.

I was initially confused when Anna tweeted:

Reading the responses to @Cennydd’s tweet about designers needing to pay attention to Android. The web is fragmented. That’s our job.

I understood Cennydd’s point to be about native apps, not the web. But if, as I’ve just said, many native apps are in fact web browsers, does that mean that making native apps is a form of web development?

I don’t think so. I think making a native app has much more in common with making a web browser than it does with making a web site/app/thang. Certainly the work that Clearleft has done in this area felt that way: the Channel 4 News app is a browser for Channel 4 News; the Evo iPad app is a browser for Evo.

So if your job involves making browsers like those, then yes, you absolutely should be paying more attention to Android, for all the reasons that Cennydd suggests.

But if, like me, you have zero interest in making browsers—whether it’s a browser for Android, iOS, OS X, Windows, Blackberry, Linux, or NeXT—you should still be paying attention to Android because it’s just one of the many ways that people will be accessing the web.

It’s all too easy for us to fall into the trap of thinking that people will only be using traditional monolithic web browsers to access what we build. The truth is that our work will be accessed on the desktop, on mobile, and on tablets, but also on watches, on televisions, and sure, even fridges, but also on platforms that may not even have screens.

It’s certainly worth remembering that what you make will be viewed in the context of an artisanal browser. Like Jen says:

The “native apps are better” argument ignores the fact one of the most popular things to do in apps is read the web.

But just because we know that our work will be accessed on a whole range of devices and platforms doesn’t mean that we should optimise for those specific devices and platforms. That just won’t scale. The only sane future-friendly approach is to take a device-agnostic, platform-agnostic approach and deliver something that’s robust enough to work in this stunningly-wide range of browsers and user-agents (hint: progressive enhancement is your friend).

I completely agree with Cennydd: I think that ignoring Android is narrow-minded, blinkered and foolish …but I feel the same way about ignoring Windows, Blackberry, Nokia, or the Playstation. I also think it would be foolish to focus on any one of those platforms at the expense of others.

I love the fact that the web can be accessed on so many platforms and devices by so many different kinds of browsers. I only wish there more: more operating systems, more kinds of devices, more browsers. Any platform that allows more people to access the web is good with me. That’s why I, like Cennydd, welcome the rise of Android.

Stop seeing fragmentation. Start seeing diversity.

Rise of the IndieWeb - Amber Case - FutureTalks - YouTube

A great talk by Amber on the history of personal publishing and the ideas and technologies driving the Indie Web movement.

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014

A Modern Designer’s Canvas | Smashing Magazine

The transcript of Malarkey’s recent talk. Good thoughtful stuff.

Layout in Flipboard for Web and Windows — Flipboard Engineering

A fascinating look at how Flipboard combines art direction and algorithms to generate layouts.

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014

1995 Vannevar Bush symposium: closing Panel

So Doug Engelbart, Alan Kay, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee walk into a panel…

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Council Toolkit

A reusable set of responsive patterns and templates for UK councils.

Bruce Lawson’s personal site  : Notes on accessibility of Web Components

Bruce’s thoughts on ensuring accessibility in Web Components. He thinks that the vocabulary of ARIA is up to the job, so that’s good enough for me.

Section for peer-reviewed Custom Elements · Issue

Some sensible thoughts from Addy on how Web Components might be peer-reviewed.

Aerotwist - Web Components and the Three Unsexy Pillars

A healthy dose of scepticism about Web Components, looking at them through the lenses of accessibility, security, and performance.

I share some of this concern: Web Components might look like handy ready-made out-of-the-box solutions, but the truth is that web developers have to do much more of the hard graft that was traditionally left to the browser.

24 hours to go

Tickets for Responsive Day Out 2 go on sale at noon tomorrow. Like I said, it was extremely popular last year and sold out very quickly. I don’t know if that’s going to happen again this year, but if you’re thinking about grabbing a ticket, I wouldn’t dawdle too much if I were you.

There’s a new addition to the line-up: Yaili is going to talk about the ongoing responsive work going on at Ubuntu.com—I’m really looking forward to hearing about that.

Then again, I’m really looking forward to hearing from all the speakers. It’s going to be like Christmas is coming early; a responsive, jam-packed Christmas.

Here’s the ticket page if you want to get in there the moment tickets go on sale. It’s not live yet, but at the stroke of midday you can secure your place.

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Notes from the edge

I went up to London for the Edge Conference on Friday. It’s not your typical conference. Instead of talks, there are panels, but not the crap kind, where nobody says anything of interest: these panels are ruthlessly curated and prepared. There’s lots of audience interaction too, but again, not the crap kind, where one or two people dominate the discussion with their own pet topics: questions are submitted ahead of time, and then you are called upon to ask it at the right moment. It’s like Question Time for the web.

Components

The first panel was on that hottest of topics: Web Components. Peter Gasston kicked it off with a superb introduction to the subject. Have a read of his equally-excellent article in Smashing Magazine to get the gist.

Needless to say, this panel covered similar ground to the TAG meetup I attended a little while back, and left me with similar feelings: I’m equal parts excited and nervous; optimistic and worried. If Web Components work out, and we get a kind emergent semantics of UI widgets, it’ll be a huge leap forward for the web. But if we end up with a Tower of Babel, things could get very messy indeed. We’ll probably get both at once. And I think that’ll be (mostly) okay.

I butted into the discussion when the topic of accessibility came up. I was a little worried about what I was hearing, which was mainly, “Oh, ARIA takes care of the accesibility.” I felt like Web Components were passing the buck to ARIA, which would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that ARIA can’t cover all the possible use-cases of Web Components.

I chatted about this with Derek and Nicole during the break, but I’m not sure if I was articulating my thoughts very well, so I’ll have another stab at it here:

Let me set the scene for Web Components…

Historically, HTML has had a limited vocubalary for expressing interface widgets—mostly a bunch of specialised form fields like, say, the select element. The plus side is that there’s a consensus of understanding among the browsers, so you don’t have to explain what a select element does; the browsers already know. The downside is that whenever we want to add a new interface element like input type="range", it takes time to get into browsers and through the standards process. Web Components allow you to conjure up interface elements, and you don’t have to lobby browser makers or standards groups in order to make browsers understand your newly-minted element: you provide all the behavioural and styling instructions in one bundle.

So Web Components make use of HTML, JavaScript, and (scoped) CSS. The possibility space for the HTML is infinite: if you need an element that doesn’t exist, you just invent it. The possibility space for the JavaScript is pretty close to infinite: it’s a Turing-complete language that can be wrangled to do just about anything. The possibility space for CSS isn’t infinite, but it’s pretty darn big: there’s not much you can’t do with it at this point.

What’s missing from that bundle of HTML, JavaScript, and CSS are hooks for assistive technology. Up until now, this is something we’ve mostly left to the browser. We don’t have to include any hooks for assistive technology when we use a select element because the browser knows what it is and can expose that knowledge to the assistive technology. If we’re going to start making up our own interface elements, we now have to take on the responsibility of providing that information to assistive technology.

How do we that? Well, right now, our only option is to use ARIA …but the possibility space defined by ARIA is much, much smaller than HTML, JavaScript, or CSS.

That’s not a criticism of ARIA: that’s the way it was designed. It’s a reactionary technology, designed to plug the gaps where the native semantics of HTML just don’t cut it. The vocabulary of ARIA was created by looking at the kinds of interface elements people are making—tabs, sliders, and so on. That’s fine, but it can’t scale to keep pace with Web Components.

The problem that Web Components solve—the fact that it currently takes too long to get a new interface element into browsers—doesn’t have a corresponding solution when it comes to accessibility hooks. Just adding more and more predefined ARIA roles won’t cut it—we need some kind of extensible accessibility that matches the expressive power of Web Components. We don’t need a bigger vocabulary in ARIA, we need a way to define our own vocabulary—an extensible ARIA, if you will.

Hmmm… I’m still not sure I’m explaining myself very well.

Anyway, I just want to make sure that accessibility doesn’t get left behind (again!) in our rush to create a new solution to our current problems. With Web Components still in their infancy, this feels like the right time to raise these concerns.

That highlights another issue, one that Nicole picked up on. It’s really important that the extensible web community and the accessibility community talk to each other.

Frankly, the accessibility community can be its own worst enemy sometimes. So don’t get me wrong: I’m not bringing up my concerns about the accessibility of Web Components in order to cry “fail!”—I just want to make sure that it’s on the table (and I’m glad that Alex is one of the people driving Web Components—his history with Dojo reassures me that we can push the boundaries of interface widgets on the web without leaving accessibility behind).

Anyway …that’s enough about that. I haven’t mentioned all the other great discussions that took place at Edge Conference.

Developer Tooling

The Web Components panel was followed by a panel on developer tools. This was dominated by representatives from different browsers, each touting their own set of in-browser tools. But the person who I really wanted to rally behind was Kenneth Auchenberg. He quite rightly asks why our developer tools and our text editors are two different apps. And rather than try to put text editors into developer tools, what we really want is to pull developer tools into our text editors …all the developer tools from all the browsers, not just one set of developer tools from one specific browser.

If you haven’t seen Kenneth’s presentation from Full Frontal, I urge you to watch it or listen to it.

I had my hand up to jump into the discussion towards the end, but time ran out so I didn’t get a chance. Paul came over afterwards and asked what I was going to say. Here’s what I told him…

I’m fascinated by the social dynamics around how browsers get made. This is an area where different companies are simultaneously collaborating and competing.

Broadly speaking, the feature set of a web browser can be divided into two buckets:

In one bucket, you’ve got the support for standards like HTML, CSS, JavaScript. Now, individual browsers might compete on how quickly or how thoroughly they get those standards implemented, but at this point, there’s no disagreement about the fact that proprietary crap is bad, standards are good, and that no matter how painful the process can be, browser makers all need to get together and work on standards together. Heck, even Apple can’t avoid collaborating on this stuff.

In the other bucket, you’ve got all the stuff that browsers compete against each other with: speed, security, the user interface, etc. A lot of this takes place behind closed doors, and that’s fine. There’s no real need for browser makers to collaborate on this stuff, and it could even hurt their competetive advantage if they did collaborate.

But here’s the problem; developer tools seem to be coming out of that second bucket instead of the first. There doesn’t seem to be much communication between the browser makers on developer tools. That’s fine if you see developer tools as an opportunity for competition, but it’s lousy if you see developer tools as an opportunity for interoperability.

This is why Kenneth’s work is so important. He’s crying out for more interoperability between browsers when it comes to developer tools. Why can’t they all use the same low-level APIs under the hood? Then they can still compete on how pretty their dev tools look, without making life miserable for developers who want to move quickly between browsers.

As painful as it might be, I think that browser makers should get together in some semi-formalised way to standardise this stuff. I don’t think that the W3C or the WHATWG are necessarily the right places for this kind of standardisation, but any kind of official cooperation would be good.

Build Process

The panel on build processes for front-end development kicked off with Gareth saying a few words. Some of those words included the sentence:

Make is probably older than you.

Cue glares from me and Scott.

Gareth also said that making websites means making software. We’re all making software—live with it.

This made me nervous. I’ve always felt that one of the great strengths of the web has been its low barrier to entry. The idea of a web that can only be made by qualified software developers doesn’t sound like a good thing to me.

Fortunately, things got cleared up later on. Somebody else asked a question about whether the barrier to entry was being raised by the complexity of tools like preprocessors, compilers, and transpilers. The consensus of the panel was that these are power tools for power users. So if someone were learning to make a website from scratch, you wouldn’t start them off with, say, Sass, without first learning CSS.

It was a fun panel, made particulary enjoyable by the presence of Kyle Simpson. I like the cut of his jib. Alas, I didn’t get the chance to tell him that in person. I had to duck out of the afternoon’s panels to get back to Brighton due to unforeseen family circumstances. But I did manage to catch some of the later panels on the live stream.

Closing thoughts

A common thread I noticed amongst many of the panels was a strong bias for decantralisation, rather than collaboration. That was most evident with Web Components—the whole point is that you can make up your own particular solution rather than waiting for a standards body. But it was also evident in the Developer Tools line-up, where each browser maker is reinventing the same wheels. And when it came to Build Process, it struck me that everyone is scratching their own itch instead of getting together to work on an itch solution.

There’s nothing wrong with that kind of Darwinian approach to solving our problems, but it does seem a bit wasteful. Mairead Buchan was at Edge Conference too and she noticed the same trend. Sounds like she’s going to do something about it too.

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

Spotlight – a pure JavaScript application for GOV.UK Performance | Technology at GDS

A nice tale of progressive enhancement from gov.uk, talking about how they made their analytics dashboards (which are public, by the way) using JavaScript on the server and on the client.

I believe this is what the kids are calling isomorphic JavaScript.

Wednesday, March 19th, 2014

Type Connection

A cute approach to pairing typefaces: treat it like a dating game.

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014

Making ubuntu.com responsive: intro | Ubuntu Design Blog

Yaili is documenting the process of retrofitting ubuntu.com to be responsive. I’ll be avidly reading each post in this series.

Meet the Geniuses on a Quixotic Quest to Archive the Entire Internet | TIME.com

A short video featuring Jason Scott and Brewster Kahle. The accompanying text has a shout-out to the line-mode browser hack event at CERN.

Monday, March 17th, 2014

[this is aaronland] because ephemera are just memories that didn’t try hard enough

I like the way Aaron thinks. I also like the way he makes.

9,125 days later

The World Wide Web turned 25 last week. Happy birthday!

As is so often the case when web history is being discussed, there is much conflating of “the web” and “the internet” in some mainstream media outlets. The internet—the network of networks that allows computers to talk to each other across the globe—is older than 25 years. The web—a messy collection of HTML files linked via URLs and delivered with the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP)—is just one of the many types of information services that uses the pipes of the internet (yes, pipes …or tubes, if you prefer—anything but “cloud”).

Now, some will counter that although the internet and the web are technically different things, for most people they are practically the same, because the web is by far the most common use-case for the internet in everyday life. But I’m not so sure that’s true. Email is a massive part of the everyday life of many people—for some poor souls, email usage outweighs web usage. Then there’s streaming video services like Netflix, and voice-over-IP services like Skype. These sorts of proprietary protocols make up an enormous chunk of the internet’s traffic.

The reason I’m making this pedantic distinction is that there’s been a lot of talk in the past year about keeping the web open. I’m certainly in agreement on that front. But if you dig deeper, it turns out that most of the attack vectors are at the level of the internet, not the web.

Net neutrality is hugely important for the web …but it’s hugely important for every other kind of traffic on the internet too.

The Snowden revelations have shown just how shockingly damaging the activities of the NSA and GCHQ are …to the internet. But most of the communication protocols they’re intercepting are not web-based. The big exception is SSL, and the fact that they even thought it would be desirable to attempt to break it shows just how badly they need to be stopped—that’s the mindset of a criminal organisation, pure and simple.

So, yes, we are under attack, but let’s be clear about where those attacks are targeted. The internet is under attack, not the web. Not that that’s a very comforting thought; without a free and open internet, there can be no World Wide Web.

But by and large, the web trundles along, making incremental improvements to itself: expanding the vocabulary of HTML, updating the capabilities of HTTP, clarifying the documentation of URLs. Forgive my anthropomorphism. The web, of course, does nothing to itself; people are improving the web. But the web always has been—and always will be—people.

For some time now, my primary concern for the web has centred around what I see as its killer feature—the potential for long-term storage of knowledge. Yes, the web can be (and is) used for real-time planet-spanning communication, but there are plenty of other internet technologies that can do that. But the ability to place a resource at a URL and then to access that same resource at that same URL after many years have passed …that’s astounding!

Using any web browser on any internet-enabled device, you can instantly reach the first web page ever published. 23 years on, it’s still accessible. That really is something special. Digital information is not usually so long-lived.

On the 25th anniversary of the web, I was up in London with the rest of the Clearleft gang. Some of us were lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes peak at the digital preservation work being done at the British Library:

In a small, unassuming office, entire hard drives, CD-ROMs and floppy disks are archived, with each item meticulously photographed to ensure any handwritten notes are retained. The wonderfully named ‘ancestral computing’ corner of the office contains an array of different computer drives, including 8-inch, 5 1⁄4-inch, and 3 1⁄2-inch floppy disks.

Most of the data that they’re dealing with isn’t much older than the web, but it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to access; trapped in old proprietary word-processing formats, stuck on dying storage media, readable only by specialised hardware.

Standing there looking at how much work it takes to rescue our cultural heritage from its proprietary digital shackles, I was struck once again by the potential power of the web. With such simple components—HTML, HTTP, and URLs—we have the opportunity to take full advantage of the planet-spanning reach of the internet, without sacrificing long-term access.

As long as we don’t screw it up.

Right now, we’re screwing it up all the time. The simplest way that we screw it up is by taking it for granted. Every time we mindlessly repeat the fallacy that “the internet never forgets,” we are screwing it up. Every time we trust some profit-motivated third-party service to be custodian of our writings, our images, our hopes, our fears, our dreams, we are screwing it up.

The evening after the 25th birthday of the web, I was up in London again. I managed to briefly make it along to the 100th edition of Pub Standards. It was a long time coming. In fact, there was a listing on Upcoming.org for the event. The listing was posted on February 5th, 2007.

Of course, you can’t see the original URL of that listing. Upcoming.org was “sunsetted” by Yahoo, the same company that “sunsetted” Geocities in much the same way that the Enola Gay sunsetted Hiroshima. But here’s a copy of that listing.

Fittingly, there was an auction held at Pub Standards 100 in aid of the Internet Archive. The schwag of many a “sunsetted” startup was sold off to the highest bidder. I threw some of my old T-shirts into the ring and managed to raise around £80 for Brewster Kahle’s excellent endeavour. My old Twitter shirt went for a pretty penny.

I was originally planning to bring my old Pownce T-shirt along too. But at the last minute, I decided I couldn’t part with it. The pain is still too fresh. Also, it serves a nice reminder for me. Trusting any third-party service—even one as lovely as Pownce—inevitably leads to destruction and disappointment.

That’s another killer feature of the web: you don’t need anyone else. You can publish to this world-changing creation without asking anyone for permission. I wish it were easier for people to do this: entrusting your heritage to the Yahoos and Pownces of the world is seductively simple …but only in the short term.

In 25 years time, I want to be able to access these words at this URL. I’m going to work to make that happen.

Thursday, March 13th, 2014

Our Comrade The Electron

This is a wonderful piece by Maciej—a magnificent historical narrative that leads to a thunderous rant. Superb!

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

Return of the Responsive Day Out

When we decided to put on last year’s Responsive Day Out, it was a fairly haphazard, spur-of-the-moment affair. Well, when I say “spur of the moment”, I mean there was just three short months between announcing the event and actually doing it. In event-organising terms, that’s flying by the seat of your pants.

The Responsive Day Out was a huge success—just ask anyone who was there. Despite the lack of any of the usual conference comforts (we didn’t even have badges), everyone really enjoyed the whizz-bang, lickety-split format: four blocks of three back-to-back quickfire 20 minute talks, with each block wrapped up with a short discussion. And the talks were superb …really superb.

It was always intended as a one-off event. But I was surprised by how often people asked when the next one would be, either because they were there and loved it, or because they missed out on getting a ticket but heard how great it was. For a while, I was waving off those questions, saying that we had no plans for another Responsive Day Out. I figured that we had covered quite a lot in that one day, and now we should just be getting on with building the responsive web, right?

But then I started to notice how many companies were only beginning to make the switch to working responsively within the past year. It’s like the floodgates have opened. I’ve been going into companies and doing workshops where I’ve found myself thinking time and time again that these people could really benefit from an event like the Responsive Day Out.

Slowly but surely, the thought of having another Responsive Day Out grew and grew in my mind.

So let’s do this.

On Friday, June 27th, come on down to Brighton for Responsive Day Out 2: Elastic Bugaloo. It will be bloody brilliant.

The format will be mostly the same as last year, with one big change: one of the day’s slots won’t feature three quick back-to-back talks. Instead it will be a keynote presentation by none other than the Responitor himself, Duke Ethan of Marcotte.

There are some other differences from last year. Whereas last year’s speakers all came from within the borders of the UK, this year I’ve invited some supremely talented people from other parts of Europe. You can expect mind-expanding knowledge bombs on workflow, process, front-end technologies, and some case studies.

If you check out the website, you’ll see just some of the speakers I’ve got lined up for you: Stephanie, Rachel, Stephen …but that’s not the full line-up. I’m still gathering together the last few pieces of the day’s puzzle. But I’ve got to say, I’m already ridiculously excited to hear what everyone has to say.

The expanded scope of the line-up means that the ticket price is a bit more this year—last year’s event was laughably cheap—but it’s still a ridiculously low price: just £80 plus VAT, bringing it to a grand total of just £96 all in. That’s unheard of for a line-up of this calibre.

I’m planning to put tickets on sale on two weeks from today on March 25th. Last year’s Responsive Day Out was insanely popular and sold out almost immediately. Make sure you grab your ticket straight away.

To get in the mood, you might want to listen to the podcast or watch the videos from last year.

See you in Brighton on June 27th. This is going to be fun!

(By the way, if your company fancies dropping a few grand to sponsor an after-party for Responsive Day Out 2: The Revenge, let me know. The low-cost, no-frills approach means that right now, there’s no after-party planned, but if your company threw one, they would earn the undying gratitude of hundreds of geeks.)

Device-Agnostic by Trent Walton

A terrific post from Trent, touching on all the important facets of building for the web: universality, progressive enhancement, performance …great stuff!

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

BBC Radio 4 Extra - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy - The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Game - 30th Anniversary Edition

One of the most fiendish user-unfriendly (but oh-so-witty) adventure games of all time is now online for you to enjoy with some added graphical flourishes.

Learning about, and deploying IndieWeb tools | Dan Gillmor

Well, this is pretty nifty: Dan Gilmour is at Indie Web Camp in San Francisco and he’s already got some code up and running on his site.

Y’know, I’m not missing South by Southwest in the slightest this year …but I’m really missing Indie Web Camp.

Particle Fever

I can’t wait to see this documentary on the monumental work at CERN.

Friday, March 7th, 2014

Making progress

When I was talking about Async, Ajax, and animation, I mentioned the little trick I’ve used of generating a progress element to indicate to the user that an Ajax request is underway.

I sometimes use the same technique even if Ajax isn’t involved. When a form is being submitted, I find it’s often good to provide explicit, immediate feedback that the submission is underway. Sure, the browser will do its own thing but a browser doesn’t differentiate between showing that a regular link has been clicked, and showing that all those important details you just entered into a form are on their way.

Here’s the JavaScript I use. It’s fairly simplistic, and I’m limiting it to POST requests only. At the moment that a form begins to submit, a progress element is inserted at the end of the form …which is usually right by the submit button that the user will have just pressed.

While I’m at it, I also set a variable to indicate that a POST submission is underway. So even if the user clicks on that submit button multiple times, only one request is set.

You’ll notice that I’m attaching an event to each form element, rather than using event delegation to listen for a click event on the parent document and then figuring out whether that click event was triggered by a submit button. Usually I’m a big fan of event delegation but in this case, it’s important that the event I’m listening to is the submit event. A form won’t fire that event unless the data is truly winging its way to the server. That means you can do all the client-side validation you want—making good use of the required attribute where appropriate—safe in the knowledge that the progess element won’t be generated until the form has passed its validation checks.

If you like this particular pattern, feel free to use the code. Better yet, improve upon it.

The Pastry Box Project, Scott Jehl, Friday, 7 March 2014

Scott writes an absolutely spot-on skewering of the idea that progressive enhancement means you’re going to spend your time catering to older browsers. The opposite is true.

Progressive Enhancement frees us to focus on the costs of building features for modern browsers, without worrying much about leaving anyone out. With a strongly qualified codebase, older browser support comes nearly for free.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel - A tediously accurate map of the solar system

A lovely visualisation that combines two of my loves: space, and the correct use of the subjunctive.

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

Can This Alternative Smartphone Deliver Real Privacy to the Masses? | Co.Exist | ideas + impact

Fast Company features Aral’s tantalising Indie Phone project that he’s been working on at Clearleft Towers.

Good to see Oskar the dog getting the recognition he deserves.

On the top floor of a commercial building in the old maritime city of Brighton, England, Balkan has been quietly hacking away at Indie Phone for the last several months with the rest of his team—Victor Johansson, an industrial designer, Laura Kalbag, a professional web designer (and Balkan’s partner), and her Husky, Oskar.

Aerotwist - My Performance Audit Workflow

Excellent tips and tools from Google’s Paul Lewis on performance testing.

Mosaic - Wellcome Trust

I did some consulting with the Wellcome Trust on this new magazine-like project, and it’s great to see it go live—excellent stories of science, all published under a Creative Commons licence.

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

Brighton workshops

There are some excellent workshops coming up in Brighton soon.

Seb will be teaching a two-day course on CreativeJS Fun and Games on the 13th and 14th of March. I went on one of Seb’s workshops a while back, and it was really, really good. He really does make it fun.

Then on April 2nd, Remy will be teaching a one-day workshop called Debug, and know thy tools. It sounds like it will be an “I know kung-fu” moment for front-end dev tools. Alas, I will be out of the country at An Event Apart Seattle at that time (I say “alas”, but of course I’m really looking forward to getting back to Seattle for An Event Apart).

Anyway, if you’re in Brighton—or looking for a good reason to make a trip to Brighton—I can highly recommend these workshops.

Mobile-first and IE8 Solution – Introducing grunt-legacssy (Updated) | Robin Plus

A handy way of automating the creation of old-IE stylesheets using Grunt. This follows on from Jake’s work in using preprocessors and conditional comments to send a different stylesheet to IE8 and below—one that doesn’t contain media queries. It’s a clever way of creating mobile-first responsive sites that still provide large-screen styles to older versions of IE.

Sunday, March 2nd, 2014

Async, Ajax, and animation

I hadn’t been to one of Brighton’s Async JavaScript meetups for quite a while, but I made it along last week. Now that it’s taking place at 68 Middle Street, it’s a lot easier to get to …seeing as the Clearleft office is right upstairs.

James Da Costa gave a terrific presentation on something called Pjax. In related news, it turns out that the way I’ve been doing Ajax all along is apparently called Pjax.

Back when I wrote Bulletproof Ajax, I talked about using Hijax. The basic idea is:

  1. First, build an old-fashioned website that uses hyperlinks and forms to pass information to the server. The server returns whole new pages with each request.
  2. Now, use JavaScript to intercept those links and form submissions and pass the information via XMLHttpRequest instead. You can then select which parts of the page need to be updated instead of updating the whole page.

So basically your JavaScript is acting like a dumb waiter shuttling requests for page fragments back and forth between the browser and the server. But all the clever stuff is happening on the server, not the browser. To the end user, there’s no difference between that and a site that’s putting all the complexity in the browser.

In fact, the only time you’d really notice a difference is when something goes wrong: in the Hijax model, everything just falls back to full-page requests but keeps on working. That’s the big difference between this approach and the current vogue for “single page apps” that do everything in the browser—when something goes wrong there, the user gets bupkis.

Pjax introduces an extra piece of the puzzle—which didn’t exist when I wrote Bulletproof Ajax—and that’s pushState, part of HTML5’s History API, to keep the browser’s URL updated. Hence, pushState + Ajax = Pjax.

As you can imagine, I was nodding in vigourous agreement with everything James was demoing. It was refreshing to find that not everyone is going down the Ember/Angular route of relying entirely on JavaScript for core functionality. I was beginning to think that nobody cared about progressive enhancement any more, or that maybe I was missing something fundamental, but it turns out I’m not crazy after all: James’s demo showed how to write front-end code responsibly.

What was fascinating though, was hearing why people were choosing to develop using Pjax. It isn’t necessarily that they care about progressive enhancement, robustness, and universal access. Rather, it’s often driven by the desire to stay within the server-side development environment that they’re comfortable with. See, for example, DHH’s explanation of why 37 Signals is using this approach:

So you get all the advantages of speed and snappiness without the degraded development experience of doing everything on the client.

It sounds like they’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (a wrong reason being “JavaScript is icky!”).

A lot of James’s talk was focused on the user experience of the interfaces built with Hijax/Pjax/whatever. He had some terrific examples of how animation can make an enormous difference. That inspired me to do a little bit of tweaking to the Ajaxified/Hijaxified/Pjaxified portions of The Session.

Whenever you use Hijax to intercept a link, it’s now up to you to provide some sort of immediate feedback to the user that something is happening—normally the browser would take care of this (remember Netscape’s spinning lighthouse?)—but when you hijack that click, you’re basically saying “I’ll take care of this.” So you could, for example, display a spinning icon.

One little trick I’ve used is to insert an empty progress element.

Normally the progress element takes max and value attributes to show how far along something has progressed:

<progress max="100" value="75">75%</progress>

75%

But if you leave those out, then it’s an indeterminate progess bar:

<progress>loading...</progress>

loading…

The rendering of the progress bar will vary from browser to browser, and that’s just fine. Older browsers that don’t understand the progress will display whatever’s between the opening and closing tags.

Voila! You’ve got a nice lightweight animation to show that an Ajax request is underway.

CSS A/Z

The alphabet illustrated with CSS.

Node School in Brighton

Tom is running a Node School at 68 Middle Street on the evening of March 27th. I plan to attend and finally wrap my head around all this Node stuff.