In this week’s show, Aral Balkan joins us to discuss the release of Adobe CS4 and we discuss how not to get blacklisted by google.
News and events
Adobe CS4 is released
The biggest news of the week is the release of Adobe’s CS4 suite of products. This includes new versions of Photoshop, Flash, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Fireworks, the list goes on.
This leaves every web designer asking the question, is it worth forking out over one thousand dollars for the latest set of enhancements? As always it depends on how you use the products.
The most significant changes are in workflow and interface. Adobe have been adding features to their applications for years and some of the interfaces have become unwieldy. This release addresses a lot of these issues. They have brought buried features out of the menu and into palettes and toolbars.
Also, if you tend to work entirely in the Adobe universe, you will be interested in the workflow improvements. It is now easier than ever to move work between applications and manage your entire workflow throughout your site development process.
However, workflow and interface improvements are probably not going to make you upgrade. After all how excited can you get about that kind of stuff?
What may tip the balance are the new 3D features. For example in Flash you have substantially improved animation tools for 3D objects and in Photoshop it is now possible to import 3D objects into a 2D image and manipulate them. I can see many web designers moving from buy stock photography to entire 3D models because it provides substantially more control.
However, if you are still debating about whether to upgrade to the latest version of Photoshop, go and check out a feature called ‘content aware scaling‘. It will blow your mind.
For more on the new features in Adobe CS4 listen to our interview with Aral later in the show. Also check out Adobe TV for video demonstrations of all the new features across the entire range.
Next up is a Firefox extension that allows you to transform Firefox into a screen reader.
We all know accessibility is important. We all know we should develop with screen readers in mind. However, many of us fail to test in screen readers because they are expensive and time consuming.
Well, now you have no excuse. Fire Vox is an open source, freely available talking browser extension for the Firefox web browser. Think of it as a screen reader that is designed especially for Firefox.
In addition to the basic features that are expected of screen readers, such as being able to identify headings, links, images, etc. and providing navigational assistance, Fire Vox provides support for CSS speech module properties. It also works on Windows, Macintosh, and Linux.
Installation is slightly more fiddly than your average extension but if you follow the instructions it is easy enough to get up and running.
Once installed, it is probably one of the easiest screen readers I have used. They also provide some excellent tutorials on their site to get you up and running.
I highly recommend it.
Irresponsible content publication
According to Gerry McGovern, on the 8th September, a story about the bankruptcy of United Airlines parent company began circulating on the Web. Within hours of the story’s being released, their shares had dropped by 76 percent.
What has this got to do with web design I hear you ask? The answer; the story was 6 years old. Somehow it had been picked up by Google News and quickly caused panic among share holders.
Gerry uses this as an example of the dangers associated with out of date content. He goes on to talk about how our ‘content management system mentality’ has led to an online environment without editorial control.
The production of content for our sites has become so distributed and unregulated that nobody is responsible for reviewing or removing content. We put content online without considering if it is needed or whether it has an expiry date.
The content of our websites has been largely neglected and I believe the time has come for website owners to put the same investment into content as they do into the build of a site.
For those of you who are web designers, I would encourage you to start talking to your clients about how they plan to manage the content on their sites. Who will be responsible for the relevancy of what they place online?
Code CSS the clear:left way
Although I didn’t get to hear her speak she has put her slides and notes (PDF 64.2mb) online. Fortunately, her notes are extremely comprehensive and it gives a real insight into her approach.
Obviously, there is not a single approach to building websites. However, Natalie shares some interesting ideas about ensuring your CSS remains maintainable and can be easily handed to other developers.
Interestingly we follow a similar approach at Headscape although we do differ in a few key ways. Nevertheless it is fascinating to see how others do it and there is a lot to learn from what Natalie shares.
Interview: Aral Balkan on the new Adobe Products
Paul: Ok, so joining me today is Aral Balkan, good to have you on the show.
Aral: Oh, thank you Paul, it’s always great to be here.
Paul: It’s been a little while, but it’s good to have you back, and we’ve got Aral on the show today, really to talk about a couple of random things really…
Aral: The story of my life!
Paul: …yeah, the story of your life, yeah, um, one of which is the new Adobe suite of products that are coming out, but before we get onto that, let’s talk about <head>, previously Singularity, what’s all that about for a start, what happened there?
Aral: Uh, with the name change?
Aral: It was quite unfortunate, about 2 weeks ago or so, I got a letter from a company called Singularity Ltd, and they’d apparently trademarked "Singularity" the word, and you know how trademark law works, it’s got different categories apparently, and these categories are really wide, so a single category coul
d include things like training and conferences, so this company was not actually doing a conference called Singularity, but they trademarked it under the same class, and so they weren’t too happy that we were using the name, and we had a talk as well, I called them up because I was like, oh crap, might as well just talk it out, and it just seemed like they wanted to have a legal conversation through the lawyers and stuff, you know, I’m not really into that, we only had 2 months to go and, you know, we’re a first year conference so I didn’t have the budget or the time really to get into that sort of a conversation and so I was like, yeah, you know what, this is going to hurt but let’s re brand, so I took a weekend out, redesigned the site, redesigned everything, and then we decided to go with the new name. I actually really like the new name…
Paul: Yeah, it’s a good name.
Aral: …it’s kind of edgy, it’s short, it’s memorable, and you know, given everything else, I probably wouldn’t have changed the name 2 months ago if I’d had a choice, but still, I like it.
Paul: These things happen don’t they.
Aral: These things do happen apparently, yeah.
Paul: So tell us a little bit about <head>, what is it? You know, it’s obviously a conference but tell us a bit more about it.
Aral: Well, it’s this conference and we have this amazing guy; Paul Boag speaking at it.
Paul: Well, obviously, yeah!
Aral: And that’s really all I need to say! How do you like that one?
Paul: That’s perfect. Keep going, you’re doing well.
Aral: It’s a virtual conference, so all of the sessions are streamed live over the Internet, and they’re interactive so you can ask questions as you’re viewing them, and the speaker can answer those questions. We’re using Adobe Connect Pro in order to do that, so it’s a tried and true system that’s been around for quite a few years actually, surprisingly. Also we have a couple hubs in London, in Manchester, we’re going to have one here in Brighton, one in Belgium, and there are a few more that still haven’t been finalised, but we may have 1 or 2 more hubs, and the one in London for example is taking place at the Magic Circle which I’m very excited about, it’s a lovely venue. Have you been there?
Paul: I’ve heard of it, but I haven’t actually been there, I’ve heard of other people talk about it.
Aral: It’s awesome, I was there last week, and it’s basically like the magician’s society in the UK, so it’s been around for about 100 years, and it’s got a museum where you can see actual items from Houdini and other people. Did you know that Prince Charles apparently is a member of the Magic Circle?
Paul: Oh, that doesn’t surprise me.
Aral: And he apparently had to do a little trick to get in with these cups and this ball, and he got accepted into the highest order of the magic circle, just kind of crazy!
Paul: There you go! So when is this conference?
Aral: The conference takes place October 24th to the 26th, and it’s everywhere, so you sign up to attend, and you can watch it from home, or if you’re in one of the cities where we have a hub, you can go from there.
Paul: I mean, why virtual? Why did you decide to have a virtual conference rather than the traditional get-together kind of thing?
Aral: Personal reasons Paul! No, um, actually seriously I do a lot of talks at conferences, so I fly around a lot, and the flying around bit and staying in strange hotels, sometimes it’s a great experience but depending on the hotel that you’re in, that’s not the bit that I really enjoy. You know, you go to a hotel, you don’t have wi-fi, the wi-fi costs 3 billion dollars or something, and I got to thinking whether that was actually part of the conference experience, the positive part of it for me, and I thought maybe not, and we do stuff on the web, that’s what we do, that’s the line of business that we’re in. So I thought why not try and see if we can create a conference that’s virtual, but yet try to keep some of the aspects of conferences that we like the most, like the social interactions, and that’s where the idea of the hubs came from, and that’s why it’s interactive and people can ask questions and communicate during the conference. And it’s an experiment, you know, it’s a first time conference so we’re trying it out, we’re going to see what works, see what doesn’t, and then we’re going to evolve it next year.
Paul: I mean what I find incredible about it is, I guess because people don’t need to travel, you’ve got an absolutely incredible line-up of speakers.
Aral: We do have some great speakers!
Paul: And you’ve got so many of them as well, there’s, what is there? Over 70 odd speakers?
Aral: Yeah, yeah, we’ve got 70 plus speakers, we’ve got amazing people; Tim O’Reilly for example is speaking, he’s doing a keynote in the London hub in person, we’ve got Jason Fried, and we’ve got yourself of course…
Paul: I don’t think you could put me in the same category as those 2, but keep going. I like the sound of it, that’s good.
Aral: Course we can! Dude, I’ve seen you in so many conferences, you rock! Um, and we’ve got Molly, Jeremy Keith, we’ve got so many people, I mean Rafi Haladjian, he’s the father of the Nabaztag bunny… I have one here! Yeah you saw it, when I came over with you guys.
Paul: Yes, I know how obsessional you are.
Aral: So, I mean, we’ve got amazing people. Gary Vaynerchuk, Wine Library TV, he’s awesome, I’m going to see if we can try and get a live video hook-up during the London hub with him, he’s just awesome, and just a whole bunch of people, I’m forgetting half of them, Richard Moross from moo.com, another one of my favourite companies.
Paul: It’s just a stella list, absolutely unbelievable. Do you think people are going to miss out from the fact that they’re not going to have that face-to-face experience?
Aral: I sure hope not, you know, we’re trying to build things that compensate for that, and next year especially I’m going to concentrate much more on the hubs. You know, I’m thinking of scaling it down next year because we’ve kind of gone for everything this year, which is exhilarating, but at the same time for a first year conference it’s a lot to do. Next year I’m thinking of maybe scaling it down a little bit, concentrating on 1 or 2 hubs, and try to build new interactions for connecting those hubs. I’ve got some really cool plans for it.
Paul: I mean, one of the kind of interesting things about this as well is the kind of underlying technology of all of this. I mean, how is it working, how are you going to connect all of these people? I mean, you’re talking about thousands of people, 70 speakers, you know, here I am sitting in the middle of Dorset in the back and beyond, you know, and how are all these people going to see my presentation?
Aral: Well, we’re using Adobe Connect Pro, so that does have a limit currently of 2,000 people in a room, so that’s where we’re limiting our attendance, we’re definitely not having more than 2,000, and I don’t think that’s going to be a problem. But Connect has a lot of features for basically connecting people. You can see the streamed audio and video of a presentation, but you can also interact both by typing, or you can send your own video feed. We’re probably not going to use that because of bandwidth concerns, but people can interact with other people who are in the session, they can chat with them and with the speaker, and so at the end of every session we’re going to have a question and answer, and the speaker will go through all of the written questions that they’ve received during the talk and answer them, and that format has really worked in the past as well for meetings that we’ve done.
Paul: So, this is not a technology I’ve come across before, this is something that’s kind of publicly available from Adobe is it?
Aral: Oh yeah, totally, Adobe Connect Pro has been available for several years. I think the full name, and it’s got one of those really long names, is Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro.
Aral: I know, I don’t know where they come up with them. But it’s a really cool piece of software for doing meetings and these sorts of virtual presentations. It used to be called Breeze.
Paul: Ahhh, that’s the name I recognize.
Aral: Yeah, there you go. It’s been around for years and years, so it’s really really stable, and Adobe actually has a new version of it, I don’t know what they’re calling it, I remember it’s beta name I think, but they have a free version for up to 3 or 4 people, so if you Google for that, or like in the transcript or something you guys can find it and link it, that’s really cool because you can just start playing with that. It used to be called Brio. I don’t know what they’re calling it now it’s been released.
Paul: The other thing that I noticed from Twitter was that you mentioned that you built the website using Google’s App Engine.
Paul: Tell us bit about that.
Aral: Wow, it’s been a fun ride!
Paul: You sounded somewhat stressed at certain points through the period.
Aral: It has been really great.
Paul: What is it first of all? Explain to people what it is.
Aral: So Google App Engine is Google’s foray into providing access to the cloud; to its infrastructure. So basically Google has this massively scaleable infrastructure that hosts, it’s search and on it’s various applications on. So Google’s App Engine is Google’s way of saying "ok, here’s the technology that we have for building these infinitely scaleable applications, and we’re going to make it available to you in a very simple manner so you can build your applications on it and host them on it". And it’s really cool, the idea is awesome, and you’re going to be hearing so much more about it as they add more features to it. It’s currently in pre-release, so of course it was quite a gamble to base the website on a pre-release technology, but I’m still convinced that that gamble is going to pay off because basically the way I see it, there are the most intelligent developers in the world working at Google basically working for my application. Every feature they add basically adds a feature to my app in a way that I can use. So once they integrate things like the Google APIs, once they integrate other features, not that I have any insider information, but it just makes sense that they would do that, I think it’s just going to become a more and more powerful platform.
Paul: But you found it a little bit painful at times.
Aral: Well of course. It’s pre-release, right? And pre-release technologies have issues, so they’re figuring things out. It’s not something that, again, has been done before, Amazon has a really cool platform with simple DB, S3, S32 and those technologies which provide the same thing, but in some ways, Amazon’s platform is much more tested, much more tried, but it’s also more difficult to develop on, I mean, you need a lot of skills, you need to be a system administrator in order to build on EC2, or at least have some knowledge in that area. You need many more skills. With Google App Engine, if you know Python, you just download this SDK onto your machine, you install it and you have a local version of their environment on your machine and you can write a few lines of Python and start running your application on your local machine, and then you just enter one command and suddenly it’s on Google’s servers, and the theory is that a million people can hit it immediately and it’s not going to go down.
Paul: Yeah, which for a conference like this where a large number of people are all going to be using a site at the same time, it’s vital.
Aral: Yeah, and I mean we’re not going to stress it at all with our numbers, but you know, if you think of the next Flickr or the next Twitter, although you can’t currently build a mess
aging app on it, but apps that will get those numbers, that might get those numbers, they won’t have to go through the standard stages of development. Because these days, today, what happens is you build an application, you build it using some sort of rapid framework like Rails or Django or whatever, you build it, you put it up there, and if it gets really popular, then you basically have to go in, you have to re-architect a lot of things. You know, for some apps like Twitter, they’ve basically had to rebuild the application as it’s running. And that’s a lot of work. Google App Engine turns this on its head. You have hurdles to get by when you’re building the application, but you can test it, just with yourself, and if your application runs correctly for you, if you can get it to that point, then it will run that way for everyone that hits it. Or at least, that’s the idea, that’s where they’re heading for.
Paul: That sounds really exciting, I look forward to seeing that develop.
Aral: It is.
Paul: You’re very brave taking it on so early.
Aral: Well you know what, that’s the thing. A few people have told me when I was bitching and moaning when we had a few issues, and let me tell you, Google have been amazing, I have direct contact with a couple of engineers on their team, and they have been amazing in helping me out and working with me, and I’m working with them to try to improve it. But a few people when I was bitching about it were like "well, you know, you just got what you deserve for using pre-release technology". But the thing is, someone has to, right?
Paul: Exactly, yeah.
Aral: Someone has to, so the next time somebody tries a beta piece of software, tries to build it and provides feedback, instead of going "ha ha, I told you so!" kind of think, well you know, I’m probably going to end up using this in a few years time and I’m going to benefit from the lessons you’ve learnt. So some people have to be early adopters, and yeah, getting burned with certain things is part of it. But it’s just how it goes. But what interests me the most, Paul, about Google App Engine, and about like, EC2 et cetera, is that we’re kind of entering the age of the commodity web, where the web, where building scalable applications on the web becomes a commodity just like electricity or water. You know, so we won’t have to worry about things like hosting and this and that, it will just be like another meter reading, you know,um, I’ve made my app, here it is on the web, and I get charged for it by CPU cycles, by the amount of resources that I’m using, just like electricity.
Paul: I mean, that will be awesome. If we can reach that point where we don’t have to worry about scaleability and things like that, that would just be incredible.
Aral: Yeah, I think we’re nearly there.
Paul: That’s superb.
Paul: Talking of you working with people, you said you were working closely with Google over this, I know you’ve got an excellent relationship with the guys over at Adobe, and no doubt you’ve been playing with CS4, tell us a little bit about it. You were over at the launch of it were you not?
Aral: Yes I was, I wasn’t actually speaking about CS4, but I was at the launch and I got to see some of the demos there. It’s a huge suite, you know, I didn’t have the chance to play with everything, so seeing some of their demos, it’s really cool, it looks like they’re really concentrating on integration between the products, they’ve been doing this for a couple of releases now, but it’s really starting to pay off. When Adobe bought Macromedia, everyone was like, well you know, how are they going to integrate things, and people were fearing it was going to be an instant process and some of the tools would be ruined. That hasn’t happened. But they have been integrating the products over the years with these release cycles. So, one of the demonstrations that I saw that was really cool for example was in In Design, which is a desktop publishing tool that they have, you can build a magazine, and then you can click a button, and then have that be an interactive magazine in Flash that you can put on the web with like a page turn effect and stuff like that.
Aral: And that’s actually quite awesome.
Aral: I spent a bit of time a couple of years ago to build an app that did that from PDFs, and that software is still going strong and being used on the web, but now you can just do that with In Design and Flash. And things like that, it really worked on the workflow between various tools, and it makes a lot of sense because web video is such a big thing now, and being able to take things from After Effects and Premier into Flash and back and into DreamWeaver and put it up on your site, they’re really working on these workflows so they’re not joined to tools. I think that’s really for me the most exciting thing, apart from some of the cool stuff in Flash.
Paul: What have they done in Flash then that’s so cool?
Aral: Some of the cool stuff in Flash? Well, we have bone support now, IK support. You can draw like a stick man for example and then you can take this bone tool and trace over its various limbs, and then have this puppet that you can play with, and the cool thing is, you can publish this and this puppet is interactive once you’ve published your movie as well, it’s not just an authoring. So you’re going to see some amazing advances in like online games that use this, and in animation. For animators, it’s just going to make their lives so much easier. And that’s just like one of the new things they have.
Paul: Did you get a look at Photoshop and whether there have been any major changes in that?
Aral: Yeah! Well they’re really concentrating on the 3D stuff in Photoshop from what I can see. There’s a lot of 3D tools, you can bring in 3D models into it, you can paint into them, they stay 3D as you’re painting into them and outside of them. There was this one demo which I thought was really cool where they took an old-fashioned car and it was like a 3D model, and they just rubbed off the roof, and then it became like this convertable, but it’s still 3D, and they started painting the seats, which is kind of cool. I think that’s going to, again, it’s an integration with your
other tools, with your 3D tools. It does look really cool, I can’t wait to play more with it.
Paul: I guess the only other one that’s directly relevant to web design would be DreamWeaver. Did you get a chance to look at that?
Aral: Yes. Yeah, I did, and it seems to have gotten a whole bunch of new features as well especially with the CSS and their live preview of CSS. But to tell you the truth, I don’t really use DreamWeaver. I started out with, well no, ok, I started out with Front Page many many years ago.
Paul: You should be ashamed to even admit that.
Aral: Forgive me, I know, but I switched to DreamWeaver right away! But recently, you know, I just do a lot of my stuff in Text Mate, and I don’t know why that is, but I just find some of these tools to be way too heavy, especially for HTML, and I really like to have control over what I do. And Text Mate is light, I’ve begun to favour lightweight tools a lot.
Paul: Yeah, I must admit, I use DreamWeaver for a very long time as a text coding tool, not as a WYSIWIG, but in the end, it was just so slow to open up compared to other stuff and it just seemed to be chunky.
Aral: Yeah, I kind of went through the same thing, and I really, like I say, I really enjoy Text Mate. It is such a simple simple editor and it just works.
Paul: Ok, so that’s really great Aral. Going back to the conference just very briefly, by the time this comes out, people are going to have missed unfortunately the early bird discount, so how much are they looking at for this conference?
Aral: Well the main tickets are $149, but who knows, maybe we can do something special for listeners of your podcast.
Aral: If they are going to miss it.
Paul: Ok, well you let me know that, and we’ll tag that on after this interview, I can do that easily enough.
Aral: Ok, cool.
Paul: You can find out about the conference over at headconference.com and I’ve got to say, this does look absolutely incredible. Am I right in saying that also people that have attended the conference, there’s no way you’re going to be able to listen to all 70 speakers over those couple of days. So they can go in and watch the videos after the event? Is that right?
Aral: Yep, all of the videos are going to be recorded and you’ll be able to watch them at any time.
Paul: So I mean, absolutely superb for a $149 or whatever it is, that’s an incredible deal and you will never come across a conference that’s got quite this line-up of speakers, and certainly of course, you don’t have to pay for hotel bills, you don’t have to pay for travelling, and you don’t even have to pay for time out of work.
Aral: Exactly, yep.
Paul: Sounds pretty good. Aral, thank you for coming on the show and we’ll get you back again in the future.
Aral: Thank you Paul, oh it will be great, I love being here.
Paul: Ok, good to talk to you.
Aral: Take care, Paul.
Review of Stackoverflow by Teifion
I’m a developer not a designer so if you understand my incoherent babbling please keep in mind that this review probably won’t be as useful for designers but please, fall asleep after I stop talking.
About a month ago I joined a site called Stackoverflow. Essentially it is a cross between a Forum, Digg/Reddit, Wikipedia and a Blog; you ask questions and answer questions, you also get answers to your questions and you generally get them very fast. It is now in public beta.
It’s a simple idea that could be great and could also be completely useless. Jeff Atwood and Joel Spolsky have managed to make it very useful.
Now it’s time to add some actual content to the review or Paul will call me silly names again. Questions in Stackoverflow are allowed to be on any language or topic related to programming and here’s where the designers might be interested, this includes source control, HTML, CSS and even things such as keyboard layouts.
The question that you should ask yourself right after "why am I listening to Teifion" is "Why is this better than google?". The answer is a simple one, Google cannot look at your site and tell you why a div is wider than you want it to be while a site with 8000+ members probably can. I am given answers to my questions within 5 minutes bar I think 2 obscure questions.
Don’t feel that you are too new for the site either, you can ask anything from very simple to very complex questions, anything from "what is a class?" to "how do I benchmark a PHP or Python script via the Unix terminal and not from within the script itself?".
I strongly recommend that everybody check it out.
Don’t Get Blacklisted By Google
Jason from Toronto recently wrote to me with a questions about search engine optimisation:
I am desperate to improve the search engine ranking of my company website but I am confused by the contradictory advice online. We have even considered hiring an SEO company, but aren’t sure who is reputable. The last thing we want is to be blacklisted. Do you have any advice which might help?
It is true that Google comes down hard on sites who disregard their webmaster guidelines. Probably the highest profile example of this was when they effectively removed car manufacturer BMW from their search results for using doorway pages.