124. HTML 5

Paul Boag

In this weeks show we explore how to create better online surveys and Lachlan Hunt joins us to discuss HTML5

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News and events

Removing Microformats

The story that has generated the most email this week is the BBC announcement that they will be dropping the hCalendar Microformat. This decisions comes because of long standing accessibility concerns over the machine readable content within that particular Microformat. The problem is that code meant to be used programatically is potentially read out to screen reader users and displayed as meaningless tooltips to sighted users.

The decision of the BBC to adopt Microformats was a huge boost to the movement. Equally the rejection the hCalendar is a blow. However, it is important not to get this out of proportion. Remember, they are only rejecting a single Microformat not the whole approach.

The other thing to consider is that the BBC is a public service organisation with an incredibly high obligation to ensure maximum accessibility. In many ways they are in a unique position. Although it maybe appropriate for your organisation to pull hCalendars too, it should not be based on the decision of the BBC.

My advice is as follows. If you already have hCalendar information on your site I would probably leave it (dependant on your exact circumstances). The Microformat community is working on a solution and I would implement that rather than removing hCalendar entirely. If however, you are not yet using hCalendar then I suggest you hold off until an updated specification is released.

Becoming employable

In the past we have spoken about becoming a professional web designer. I know that many people who listen to this show or read the blog are students. You are concerned that the skills you are being taught are out of date and will not improve your employment prospects. How then do you become a more employable web designer? What skills do you actually require?

Andy Rutledge tackles this subject in his post "the employable web designer". Without a doubt it is the best post I have read on the subject of web design career development. I highly recommend you read it.

The thing that impresses me is that it looks beyond the obvious design and technical skills required to be a web designer. It also tackles the business and communication skills too. He really drives home quite how wide an understand a good web designer has to have.

My only criticism is that it could feel demoralising. You may read the list and think it is an unachievable aim. However, I don’t think that is the case. What Andy outlines is the optimal requirement of a web designer, rather than what is needed to get your first step on the ladder. I certainly did not have all of the attributes listed when I started.

All we need now is a second post telling us how to gain the skills he lists.

Better CSS font stacks

David (a boagworld listener) sent in the next story. It covers a subject that I am currently still grappling with. It is a post about CSS font stacks.

If you code in CSS you already know about font stacks. It is where you specify the fonts you wish to use. You can say for instance; use Helvetica and if that isn’t available use Arial. If that fails use a generic san-serif font.

For many of us that is as far as our thinking goes. The majority of us use very basic font stacks that are uninspiring to the point of being insipid.

I love this post because it lays out a very clear methodology for improving your font stacks. It also goes on to provide an impressive selection of font stacks organised into heading and body fonts, allowing you to instantly improve your site

If your site is looking tired and boring, but you don’t have the time to redesign, consider adding a new font stack. Such a simple change could make a real difference.

Do flexible layouts still matter?

Our last story of the day is a post from Smashing Magazine entitled Flexible Layouts: Challenge For The Future. To be honest I was ensure whether to include this post or not. On one hand it covers an issue many people have been asking me about. On the other, its arguments seem stretched and the whole thing ends with an advert for a CSS framework.

The article tackles zooming and fluid design. The new generation of web browsers – Firefox 3, Opera 9.5 and Internet Explorer 7 – provide full screen zooming. This gives users has the ability to enlarge the whole interface, not just text. Some are arguing that this is the end of fluid layout because zooming tackles many of the accessibility concerns associated with fixed width sites. However, this article strongly disagrees.

The author argues that flexible designs are better for mobile devices, that pixels are becoming less important and that the user shouldn’t be required to customise a site to their needs (it should be done automatically). Although his arguments are weak at times and he uses some fairly dodgy comparisons I do generally agree with him. I see no reason to think fluid design will go away anytime soon.

That said, I am in no doubt that page zoom does reduce the number of occasions fluid sites are necessary. Ultimately there is no right or wrong answer. It is entirely based on the situation. For example Boagworld, Headscape and The Website Owners Manual all use fixed designs. However, many of my client websites do not. That decision is based on numerous factors such as device, user base and business priorities.

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Feature: Creating a Better Survey

The web allows us to interact with our customers more than any other medium. One of the tools in our arsenal is the online survey. However, these are often badly implemented. In this weeks feature we find out how we make your surveys more effective?

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Interview: Lachlan Hunt on HTML 5

Paul: Joining me today is Lachlan Hunt; It’s good to have you on the show

Lachlan: Thank You Very much

Paul: It’s great to have you here I really appreciate you taking the time to join us, now the reason that we asked Lachlan on the show is because he posted a brilliant article on the A List Apart site about the subject of HTML 5 and I have been keen to look at this subject for a while partly because of my own ignorance to be honest, um, so lets kinda kick off by if you could perhaps tell us a little bit about where HTML 5 is at the moment I know that kinda getting a language to a release like this finalized is a massive process so can you tell us where we are at in that process.

Lachlan: OK, it’s, um, a really an ongoing process with browsers implementing different parts of it progressively so it’s not, you know, going to be all implemented at once and ready to go in one, er the next few browser implementations. We have some features implemented already and shipping in browsers other features which are being worked on at the moment and other are planned for, but still a few years of yet. But it is gradually getting there. We are trying to focus on what authors really need, instead of trying to do it all at once

Paul:Ahh, okay so that a slightly different approach that we have seen in the past, the idea of an incremental roll out. So how does that work from the W3C’s point of view are they doing modular releases is that how it works

Lachlan: Um, at the moment no, but the way the spec is structured each part of the spec, what I am trying to indicate is the stability of each section of the spec as we go along. SO thing like the Canvas API which has been in browsers for a few years now, it should be getting to IE very soon. That section is pretty stable, Other things for example "data grid" or a lot of the web forms are not widely implemented.

Paul: OK so that quite an interesting approach to the problem I guess from what you were saying earlier to me there is a community base element people can get involved and contribute. How is that all working then?

Lachlan: Well we’ve got a REALLY REALLY open mailing list on whatwg.org anyone can subscribe at the moment there wa about 800 subscribers on that list anyone is free to subscribe and post feedback about the spec if they want to, but that’s not for everyone obviously because it’s quite a high volume mailing list and not everyone can keep up with that. We have also got an open blog on http://blog.whatwg.org/ where absolute anyone who wants to can write an article submit it and have it published. Anything to do with what the WHATWG are about, HTML5 and anything related to it at all. It’s also a good way to let the community know what’s going on by publishing articles also to find out what people think because they keep posting comments on there as well. We have also got an open forum which is at http://forums.whatwg.org/ again anyone can subscribe to that, am sue you know how a forum works

Paul: So there are lots of different ways to be involved, I have to confess things like that can feel quite intimidating to get involved in. You’re kinda worried about putting your foot in it, and saying something really dumb, is there kind of Opportunities to lurk and are people fairly friendly over there? I guess you are going to say yes aren’t you

Lachlan: Yeah everyone is friendly over there,they are nice sort of area to go to aim at web developers and people who aren’t quite as technical with the spec areas and stuff. You can ask any question you want and just learn whatever you want as well. Their is also the w3c side of it as well. Which is strictly related but is more focused on the actual technical side and issues so yeah. The What WG and the W3C are both publishing exactly the same spec and they both work on it together and feedback can be sent to either place, it will all be taken into account

Paul: Oooh, that’s useful. So looking at kinda the state of affairs at the moment with HTML 5, reading through your article there was some things in there that really sounded quite exciting, there was this thing about structure and some kind of additional elements that could be used, which provide a little bit more structure, headers and footers and things like that can you tell us a little about that, and maybe explain a bit of what those do.

Lachlan: Well at the beginning of the work back in 2004 / 2005 we basically took a look at what a lot of site where doing and we noticed that they were all using a similar structure. All the blog’s were using headers and footer and generally things like column layouts to show articles and stuff like that. So we wanted some semantic elements to come and cover each of those features that people actually used, solving the real problems that they were actually focusing on. instead of having to do "Div" elements for everything, which is what people do we give them an actual element and that also has a side effect of increasing accessibility because an element with specific semantics can be hooked into the accessibility API’s and help someone with assistive technology navigate the document a bit easier.

Paul: Okay, because I mean reaction just glancing at it quickly and not thinking about it was what’s wrong with the div with an ID Equals footer, or an ID equal header or whatever but like you say, as you think about it more it become obvious that if those are considered distant elements, one person might call it a footer another might call it "the bottom" or whatever else if they have consistent semantic names then you know you can have screen readers and stuff jumping to the footer or avoiding / not reading the footer depending on what is set in their preferences, is that what you are thinking?

Lachlan: Yeah that sort of it, it’s also helping the authoring side too, as there are lots of Div elements in source code which makes it easier to read if you have got elements with different names

Paul: yeah very much so, I spend half my life trying to which closing Div relates to which elements, that very exciting. Obviously the other big area you talk about in your A List Apart article is the audio visual elements and there is a lot that’s happening in there. It’s always had the vague feeling that HTML has never had any kind of, erm, erm, the audio visual elements have always been and after thought, what happing in HTML 5 in regards to that?

Lachlan: Well we have added the video and audio elements to the spec to try and allow video to be added directly to HTML, at the moment we have sites like youtube revel and all the other video site out there using flash to embed video and using the flash to give customized controls and stuff to the user, it’s really awkward, depending on proprietor technology, so we want to open that up a bit give a very very easy to use Javascript API to hook into and promote custom controls and all sorts of cool stuff with videos and of course audio as well. We have got experimental implementations of that in opera and in webkit. I have heard mozilla is considering implementing it as as it is now I am not sure of the status of their implementation. However the one big problem with video and audio at the moment is with Codecs, there are a whole load of software patent issues going around and we are not quite sure what codec we are going to standardize upon or if we are going o be able to get common codec support among the browsers, That’s an open issue but I am no lawyer to I cannot really go into that, so the ultimate aim is that you will be able to embed your movie file, your avid file or whatever directly into the HTML without the need to kinda pump it through something like flash

Paul: cool

Lachlan: that make it a whole lot easier to the authors hopefully

Paul: Yeah, you kind of, to some extent got to ask the question why do we need that when we have got a solution like flash

Lachlan: Well because Flash is a proprietary technology it’s managed only buy Adobe , they control it, they control the changes and what does and what does not go into future versions of it, however the thing with HTML is that it is an open standard platform which can be implemented by anyone and maintain interoperability between those venders.

Paul: It’s intrusting isn’t it that adobe has just announced they are opening up the flash format, do you wonder if that’s a reaction to some of the stuff you have been doing to kind of force their hand if they want to stay ahead o the game and dominant they need to be open

Lachlan: Yeah I don’t know how that going to work though, it depends, if they open the format up and actually make it an open development process where anyone can contribute to the future version and features which go into it or whether they just write the specs and tell other people to implement based on what they write, so I don’t know much about that. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Paul: Very interesting, Now the next thing you cover in the A List Apart article is something which you titled "Document Representation" now I have to confess this confused me, so do you want to explain a little about what you meant by document representation. What you were getting at there.

Lachlan: Yeah, well in the past we have had HTM, and XHTML with two separate specs, HTML 4.1 which a lot of people use and XHTML 1.0 which a whole lot of other people use one of them is based on XML and is really really strict syntax that requires well formedness and is supposed to when you serve it correctly, if you make a well formedness error the browser is suppose to stop processing and throw and error message saying "Sorry I cannot handle this" where as HTML is more sorta loose and convenient in its error handling, it’s the traditional inspired by SGML, although really only syntactically similar these day but the error handling is a bit more lenient and you can get away with making a lot more errors. So instead of having two distinct language which you can use we have combined them into a single language which share the same elements and attributes and everything and as much a possible and when the browser reads those file it produces and internal representation called the DOM, a lot of javascript user will be familiar with the DOM as they work with that with their scripts to modify the document through the DOM. That’s an internal representation which is mapped, the DOM which is sort of mapped to by the syntax’s, the HTML and the XHTML syntax’s so it give the authors a choice of which syntax they want to use

Paul: So why do we need that choice what is the key difference, I mean you talk about HTML being more lenient are there other reason for choosing one over the other.

Lachlan: erm, well I don’t really know. However a lot of authors do prefer the strict syntax of XHTML like to make sure they quote the attributes and encode all their ampersands properly. They like to know they have done everything perfectly as with HTML a lot of people do make mistakes inadvertently and don’t want end users to see big error messages, so it’s a bit more user friendly if some little small error slips though their CMS and causes problems.

Paul: So it’s basically come down to personal preference then

Lachlan: yeah

Paul: Okay, that’s fair enough, so both, we are going to see equal support for both of them in browser manufacturers are we

Lachlan: Well that’s the hope we have said that we have got good support in most browsers, it’s just IE which is lagging behind

Paul: (Sarcasm) Oh that’s a suprise (Laughs) Okay are there ant other things in HTML 5 that might be of interest to those listening to the show which we should be paying attention to?

Lachlan: erm, well, as I said before we got canvas implemented in most browsers

Paul: So tell us, what’s canvas

Lachlan: It’s a 2D drawing API that you can use javascript to draw dynamic image with. People have used it to implement things like graphs that are built using tables of data which are on the page. People have also gone and done 3D games with it which is really cool

Paul: Wow, that incredible. I mean that sounds very similar to SVG is it a different thing.

Lachlan: It is different SVG is entirely done with XML, you modify that with script via the DOM by changing elements and attributes and stuff or with CSS. Canvas is an immediate mode graphics API where it is more like a bitmap sort of thing where as SVG is vector graphics, and canvas is bit map. They can both do images, the same sort of images, if you like but we have both vector images and bitmap images, so they both can serve different purposes.

Paul: Right, I see. Okay that’s good, so okay the big question, kind of the final question everyone is going to have is when can they start doing some of the cool stuff. Now you said right at the beginning this is going to be modular support based thing so we are going to be able to see some of these elements before others. You know some parts before other, so what can we do now, what are we going to be able to do soon give us an idea of where things are at.

Lachlan: erm, okay let’s see I think what’s being implemented at the moment. Cross document messaging is being implemented at the moment, that’s an API that lets you send message between documents with javascript without worrying about cross domain security issues,

Paul: Oooo…. that’s good.

Lachlan: Yeah it’s a really, really handy API that been implemented in opera for a while and I heard mozilla is implementing it soonish and should be in firefox 3 thought I am not entirely sure about that. That should be very very soon, erm, what else have we got, we got…. hmmm, this is tough

Paul: Sorry put you on the spot there (laughs) is that last one supported in webkit?

Lachlan: erm, I am not sure I would have to double cheek that

Paul: Okay that’s fair enough

Lachlan: yeah,

Paul: Okay so any other elements? Things like the structural changes are any of those being supported yet?

Lachlan: Not quite yet, erm as far as I know support for those requires changed to the phaser, and to implment the new pharsing algorithm in HTML 5, as far as I know browsers are not yet focusing on doing that because..

Paul: Okay that’s a shame, because that one I liked the sound of, what about the audio and the visual stuff?

Lachlan: We have experimental implementations in opera which supports OGG video, though it’s not really in a public build version yet, there is a experimental version which was released last year sometime. And webkit also has support in their nightly builds, which supports mpeg 4 unfortunate they don’t support the same codec but you can experiment with them.

Paul: (laughs) That would be far to easy

Lachlan: yes I know

Paul: So it’s all progressing slowly but, erm you know obviously the one name which has been very absent in the list you keep mentioning is Internet Explorer, so I expect we can probably see some slower movement there. We are talking you know in the years before this all becomes mainstream and we can actually start using it. Is that a fair comment to make?

Lachlan: Yes it will be several years before the entire spec is finished, we are hoping that it can get finished sooner rather than later but realistically it’s going to be quite a while yet, But it is important to know people will be able to use theses features before the spec is finished; so it depends on when browsers start supporting features authors can go ahead and use it.

Paul: That’s great and real exciting that you can start to do that sort of stuff. you know that we don’t need to wait for it all to be set in stone before moving forward. And it’s always exciting as well to see the future, know what coming up and be aware of everything. so is there somewhere people can go a websites address and keep an eye on what is currently supported by browsers.

Lachlan: Not at the moment but that’s something worth looking into, I think there is a wiki on the Working Group site, it does have some implementations listed but I am not sure how up to date. But it’s something I think we should look into

Paul: Yeah it would be great to have some kind of single page which says what features are supported by each browser that you could check back every few months see what’s going, there you go there is my contribution to the working group (laughs). Alright it was really good to speak to you and thank you so much for your time, What we will do is to get you back in further down the line and have a check to see where we have currently got to in the development of HTML 5, Thank you so much for your time.

Thanks to Jamie Knight for transcribing this interview.

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Listeners feedback:

Staying healthy on the web

Evan writes: My question to you is not entirely related to design, development or management but rather about health in the web industry. This is very important but we often seem to forget about it. We spend hours upon hours at our desks but are unaware of the damage this could be having on our health. Eyeballs almost touching the screen, typing without a break, sitting incorrectly – just a few examples. So, what do you do to maintain good health while working?

I am possibly the worst person in the world to answer this question. I consistently abuse my body while at work. In fact a physiotherapist friend said I had the worse posture in front of a computer she had ever encountered.

However, there is possibly something to learn from my terrible example. Let’s look at what I do and compare that to best practice.

  • I sit with my leg tucked up under me – Posture while working is important. Both feet should be flat on the floor, rest your wrists on the desktop in front of your keyboard and make sure your monitor is at eye level (in other words avoid laptop screens).
  • I stoically refuse to use anything other than my preferred mouse and keyboard – Using the same keyboard and mouse in the same position day after day can cause damage. Try using a variety of different hardware and positions. Push your mouse and keyboard nearer or further from you to change the position of your arms.
  • I believe that an individual pixel should fill my field of view – Leaning too close to your monitor is a particular weakness of designers who want to position that pixel ‘just so’. This not only damages your eyes but also your back. When you learn forward your neck and back support the weight of your head. When sat upright, the head is supported by a straight spine and therefore your chair bears the weight.

On the upside I do take regular breaks. I would like to claim this is because of my health. However, I think it has more to do with my short attention span. I get easily distracted and wander off to do something more interesting.

From Photoshop to HTML

I see a lot of PSD 2 HTML services on the internet but never tried any out. It seems to be an great option for an designer for making an quick website, to edit later myself.

What is the opinion of you guys? Love to hear you discuss this topic in one the next podcasts.

An long time listener from Holland.

I have to confess to being a snob over these services. Until recently I have always doubted the quality of the code but after seeing some recent examples I have begun to change my mind.

We are even considering giving them a try at Headscape, just to see what happens. Certainly from an economic point of view they make sense especially if you have more work than you can handle. That said, I do have three concerns.

First, results may vary. Without a personal recommendation it could be hard to find a provider who can produce the quality you require. Anybody can convert a photoshop document into HTML. However, it is much harder to do so using techniques like microformats, semantic markup and accessibility. Also, just because the quality was good once, does not mean it will be so again. As the good providers get busy it can lead to a decline in quality.

Second, people code in different ways. Unless careful attention is given to commenting, it is hard to pick up somebody elses markup. This is fine for relatively static sites where only small changes are required. However for projects where change happens regularly as the site evolves, it is more important that the markup is tailored to your style of coding.

My final concern is that this could lead to designers not learning HTML. As I have said before on the show, I believe all designers should be able to code themselves. You need to understand how the web works and markup is apart of that. Also, if you cannot code how can you judge the quality of the markup you receive?

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