Tags: panels

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Edge words

I really enjoyed last year’s Edge conference so I made sure not to miss this year’s event, which took place last weekend.

The format was a little different this time ‘round. Last year the whole day was taken up with panels. Now, panels are often rambling, cringeworthy affairs, but Edge Conf is one of the few events that does panels well: they’re run on a tight schedule and put together with lots of work in advance. At this year’s Edge, the morning was taken up with these tightly-run panels as usual, but the afternoon consisted of more Barcamp-like breakout sessions.

I’ve got to be honest: I don’t think the new format worked that well. The breakout sessions didn’t have the true flexibility that you get with an unconference schedule, so there was no opportunity to merge similarly-themed sessions. There was, for example, a session on components at the same time as a session on accessibility in web components.

That highlights the other issue: FOMO. I’m really not a fan of multi-track events; there were so many sessions that sounded really interesting, but I couldn’t clone myself and go to all of them at once.

But, like I said, the first half of the day was taken up with four sequential (rather than parallel) panels and they were all excellent. All of the moderators did a fantastic job, and I was fortunate enough to sit in on the progressive enhancement panel expertly moderated by Lyza.

The event is called Edge for a reason. There is a rarefied atmosphere—and not just because of the broken-down air conditioning. This is a room full of developers on the cutting edge of web development technologies. Being at Edge Conf means being in a bubble. And being in a bubble is absolutely fine as long as you’re aware you’re in a bubble. It would be problematic if anyone were to mistake the audience and the discussions at Edge as being in any way representative of typical working web devs.

One of the most insightful comments of the day came from Christian who said, “Yes, but this is Edge Conf.” You’re going to need some context for that quote, so here it is…

On the web components panel that Christian was moderating, Alex was making a point about the ubiquity of tools—”Tooling was save you”, he said—and he asked for a show of hands from the audience on who was not using some particular tooling technology; transpilers, package managers, build tools, I can’t remember the specific question. Nobody put their hand up. “See?” asked Alex. “Yes”, said Christian, “but this is Edge Conf.”

Now, while I wasn’t keen on the format of the afternoon with its multiple simultaneous breakout sessions, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ones I plumped for. Quite the opposite. The last breakout session of the day, again expertly moderated by Lyza, was particularly great.

The discussion was all about progressive enhancement. There seemed to be a general consensus that we’re all 100% committed to the results of progressive enhancement—greater availability, wider reach, and better performance—but that the term itself is widely misunderstood as “making all of your functionality work even with JavaScript switched off”. This misunderstanding couldn’t be further from the truth:

  1. It’s not about making all of your functionality available; it’s making your core functionality available: everything else can be considered an enhancement and it’s perfectly fine if not everyone gets that enhancement.
  2. This isn’t about switching JavaScript off; it’s about any particular technology not being available for reasons we can’t foresee (network issues, browser issues, whatever it may be).

And yet the misunderstanding persists. For that reason, most of the people in the discussion at Edge Conf were in favour of simply dropping the term progressive enhancement and instead focusing on terms like availability and access. Tim writes:

I’m not sure what we call it now. Maybe we do need another term to get people to move away from the “progressive enhancement = working without JS” baggage that distracts from the real goal.

And Stuart writes:

So I’m not going to be talking about progressive enhancement any more. I’m going to be talking about availability. About reach. About my web apps being for everyone even when the universe tries to get in the way.

But Jason writes:

I completely disagree that we should change nomenclature because there exists some small segment of Web designers unwilling to expand their development toolbox. I think progressive enhancement—the term—remains useful, descriptive, and appropriate.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree with Jason. The term “progressive enhancement” is a great descriptor. But on the other hand, I don’t want to end up like that guy who’s made it his life’s work to change every instance of the phrase “comprises of” to “comprises” (or “consists of”) on Wikipedia. Technically, he’s correct. But it doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your days.

I guess my worry is, if I write an article or give a presentation, and I title it something to do with progressive enhancement, am I going to alienate and put off the very audience I’m trying to reach? But if I title it something else, am I tricking people?

Words are hard.

Speaking at South by Southwest

This was my third year attending South by Southwest and also my third year speaking.

It seems to have become a tradition that I do a “bluffing” presentation every year. I did How to Bluff Your Way in CSS two years ago with Andy. Last year I did How to Bluff Your Way in DOM Scripting with Aaron. This year, Andy was once again my partner in crime and the topic was How to Bluff Your Way in Web 2.0.

It was a blast. I had so much fun and Andy was on top form. I half expected him to finish with “Thank you, we’ll be here all week, try the veal, don’t forget to tip your waiter.”

As soon as the podcast is available, I’ll have it transcribed. In the meantime, Robert Sandie was kind enough to take a video the whole thing. It’s posted on Viddler which looks like quite a neat video service: you can comment, tag or link to any second of a video. Here, for instance, Robert links to the moment when I got serious and called for the abolition of Web 2.0 as a catch-all term. I can assure you this moment of gravity is the exception. Most of the presentation was a complete piss-take.

My second presentation was a more serious affair, though there were occasional moments of mirth. Myself and Derek revisited and condensed our presentation from Web Directions North, Ajax Kung Fu meets Accessibility Feng Shui. This went really well. I gave a quick encapsulation of the idea of Hijax and Derk gave a snappy run-through of accessibility tips and tricks. We wanted to make sure we had enough time for questions and I’m glad we did; the questions were excellent and prompted some great discussion.

Again, once the audio recording is available, I’ll be sure to get it transcribed.

That was supposed to be the sum of my speaking engagements but Tantek had other ideas. He arranged for me to rush the stage during his panel, The Growth and Evolution of Microformats. The panel was excellent with snappy demos of the Operator plug-in and Glenn’s backnetwork app. I tried to do a demo of John McKerrell’s bluetooth version of the Tails extension using a volunteer from the audience but that didn’t work out too well and I had to fall back on just using a localhost example. Still, it was good to be on-hand to answer some of the great questions from the audience.

And yes, once the audio is available, I’ll get it transcribed. Seeing a pattern here? Hint, hint, other speakers.

As panels go, the microformats one was pretty great, in my opinion. Some of the other panels seem to have been less impressive according to the scuttlebutt around the blogvine.

Khoi isn’t keen on the panel format. It’s true enough that they probably don’t entail as much preparation as full-blown presentations but then my expectations are different going into a panel than going into a presentation. So, for something like Brian’s talk on the Mobile Web, I was expecting some good no-nonsense practical advice and that’s exactly what I got. Whereas for something like the Design Workflows panel, I was expecting a nice fireside chat amongst top-notch designers and that’s exactly what I got. That’s not to say the panel wasn’t prepared. Just take one look at the website of the panel which is a thing of beauty.

The panelists interviewed some designers in preparation for the discussion and you can read the answers given by the twenty interviewees. Everyone gave good sensible answers… except for me.

Anyway, whether or not you like panels as a format, there’s always plenty of choice at South by Southwest. If you don’t like panels, you don’t have to attend them. There’s nearly always a straightforward presentation on at the same time. So there isn’t much point complaining that the organisers haven’t got the format right. They’re offering every format under the sun—the trick is making it to the panels or presentations that you’ll probably like.

In any case, as everyone knows, South by Southwest isn’t really about the panels and presentations. John Gruber wasn’t keen on all the panels but he does acknowledge that the real appeal of the conference lies elsewhere:

At most conferences, the deal is that the content is great and the socializing is good. At SXSWi, the content is good, but the socializing is great.