Posts Tagged ‘openweb’

Lynx would not be impressed – on semantics and HTML

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

unimpressed lynx Lately there has been a lot of discussion about markup, and especially the new HTML5 elements. There was a big hoo-hah when Hixiethe WHATWG wanted to remove the time element from the HTML spec, Divya stirred lots of emotions with her “Our Pointless Pursuit Of Semantic Value” and of course Jeremy posted his views on the subject, too in a counterpoint article “Pursuing semantic value“.

Maybe there wasn’t a counterpoint, maybe there was. Frankly, I was too busy to read the lot. It also doesn’t matter that much, as I get more and more the feeling that we really need to think about the web as it was and how it will be. The lack of understanding of the value of semantic markup to me is just a symptom of a change that is happening.

Tales of yesteryear

A lot of the debate about semantic value and using the correct HTML is kept alive by people who have been around for a long time and seen browsers fail in more ways we care to remember. Valid markup and sensible structure was our only chance to reach maintainability and make sense of the things around us. This was especially important in the long long ago. I remember using Lynx to surf the web.

Lynx showing twitter.com

I also remember to keep Lynx in my arsenal for a bit longer. I used it to “see” what search engines and assistive technologies see. The former was correct at the time (not any longer, Google does index Flash and JavaScript and actually follows ill conceived links using hashbangs).

The latter was even wrong back then. A lot of the debate around using proper HTML5 right now tries to back up with the argument that “assistive technology like screen readers need it”. Nah, not quite the case yet.

Build it quickly, make it work

I’ve mentioned it in a few talks that when people mention the good old days where markup mattered and people cared and such they are talking nonsense. These days never existed and when we started with web development we struggled to make things work. We used tables for layout, NBSP for whitespace, lots of BR elements for vertical whitespace and more evil things. We then used spacer gifs for padding and margin and just started to care when CSS got out and supported. The reason was not that we wanted to write cleaner HTML. The reason was that we wanted to make things work as all we got was a design to build, not a description how to structure the document or what to build. When you start from the look of a web product, semantics are already on the endangered list.

Write less, achieve more

This is the mantra of now. The big success of jQuery is based on it. JavaScript standards were too complex and too verbose to write code quickly and change it quickly. So the jQuery crowd analysed what people did the most – changes to the DOM and adding and removing classes (and later Ajax) and made it damn easy and short to do. No need to write code that doesn’t do much.

The same happens over and over again. less and sass make the prefix hell and repetition for different browsers in CSS easy to maintain and client-side templating languages and browser-internal templating and client-side MVC make HTML the outcome of computation and programming logic and not a starting point.

If you can’t see it, why do it?

A lot of what the fans of HTML and semantics are getting excited about is not visible. Whenever a new HTML element got support and had a visual representation in the browser it was a no-brainer. People used it immediately. In most cases they used it wrongly, but they used it (I’ve seen fieldset and legend used around images as it is pretty and of course indentation with BLOCKQUOTE).

A lot of the semantically rich elements don’t show up at all. Blockquotes’s cite attribute was meant to give a quote meaning by telling us where it is from. ACRONYM and ABBR were supposed to tell people what a TLA meant – heck we don’t even do that in meetings and press releases so why bother adding info that the browsers don’t show the users.

This is also a big issue for Microformats. If browsers made an address draggable to your address book or created voting buttons for VoteLinks, if a browser would automatically detect events and give you a simple interface to add to your calendar they’d be a no-brainer to use. As it is, we have a few success stories to tell, for a lot of work to do.

The big book of ARIA

It gets really frustrating when we are talking about accessibility. Making a web document available for people with various abilities should be easy when we stick to keeping things simple and follow human logic.

It should, but it isn’t. And by keeping things very simple we can reach more people but we could also deprive a large group of great interfaces. Whenever we do crazy things in the browser and the talk comes to making them accessibile the way out is the mythical ARIA.

If you dive into ARIA you will realise very quickly that it is a lot of work, hard to understand concepts and above all a lot of code to write. Instead of having accessibility as an integral part of HTML5, we have to deal with two parallel standards. One to achieve things quickly and move the web from documents to applications and another one to keep it available for everyone out there. This is not a good place to be in. Accessibility happens when you embrace it from the very start. There is no magic bullet layer at the end of the process that makes things work.

So what about HTML and semantics?

You know what? There is no solution for all. The reason is not that technology moved on or people don’t care about users or that our standards are holding us back or anything like that. The reason is that “write once, deploy anywhere” is simply bullshit. The one thing that made the web work so far and become an amazing market to work in is flexibility. We all enjoy that you can reach a seemingly similar experience for our end users in many different ways. So why are we banging on about one side of the development range or another?

How about this:

  • If you write a document by hand, use all the semantics you can add in. This is your handwriting, your code is your poetry and people learn from looking at what you did.
  • If you need to write a hard-core application and every byte is a prisoner try to play nice with the semantics but follow your end goal of delivering speed. Make sure to tell people though that your code is the end result of conversions and optimisations and not for humans to look at.
  • Regardless of what you build – when you can use new technology (maybe in connection with old, like <div class="section"><section></section></div>) use it.
  • Remember that the web is not your browser and computer – add fallbacks for other browsers when using bleeding edge technology. When the others catch up you won’t have to alter your code!
  • The main focus of markup and web code that is not optimised for edge case apps is to make it easy for people to maintain it. If people can see in the HTML what is going on – win. If what only works with JS is generated by JS - even better.
  • More markup is not a crime when it is markup that adds value. Arguments that STRONG is worse than B because it means more code and slower loading pages are irrelevant in times of gzipping on the server
  • We can only escape the chicken and egg problem of new HTML when we use it. Right now, if you ask for support in browsers for new elements the answer from most vendors is that nobody uses them so why bother. And when you ask people why they don’t use them they tell you because browsers don’t support them. One of us has to start changing that.

Bigger fish to fry

Personally I am concentrating more on the things that really worry me about the web these days, and it might be interesting to list them.

  • Death of longevity – I always loved the fact that I can find something on the web and go back to it. This is not the case any longer. A lot of my old bookmarks are dead, my tweets go into the data nirvana after a certain number and I cannot access them any longer, and code you write for companies will be totally different shortly after your departure. This is not the web I want. It is a great mix of entertainment and archive and the “real time web” really messes with this.
  • High fidelity web sites – I remember when Flash made our 500Mhz machines flare up. Nowadays almost every cool new site I try out does that to my dual core macbook. I can see in the very near future pages coming up telling me that my video card is not good enough to enjoy them. This is the reason I never played games on a PC. Let’s use cool new and flashy in a sensible manner instead
  • Identity – we are spreading ourselves thin on the web right now and leave a lot of outdated and erroneous profiles of ourselves. Who you are on the web is becoming a very strange concept and some of the work I do right now tries to bring that back into an easier to maintain fashion.
  • The open web – today the US debates if it is a good idea to censor the internet like China, Syria and other countries do. This scares me. I started on the web as it was less regulated and much less commercial than radio or TV. Let’s not give up that freedom
  • The maker web – the web is ubiquitous, we use it as a part of our day-to-day work and play. Lately I find though that the creative part of the web is dying and people are consuming it rather than using and enriching it. This, again, scares and annoys me. We should not become virtual couch potatoes.

Semantics are like wonderful prose. You use them to deliver an enjoyable product. People are not celebrated for writing books. They are celebrated for what they filled them with. If we keep putting things on the web that have structure and get better on more sophisticated display products we are building for the future. If we point fingers at others doing it wrong we waste our time.

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Lynx photo by Jimmy Tohill #40 in the National Geographic photo contest 2011

Why I don’t write my slides in HTML

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010

At the Fronttrends2010 conference Tantek Çelik spent the last few minutes of his HTML5 talk praising HTML as a great format for presentations and urged people for the good of the open web to use HTML slide systems instead of Flash or PDF. Other presenters right now write awesome CSS3 driven slide shows and build their own scripts to show their presentation. I could, but I don’t – and here’s why.

Presentations are not web documents

I am all for the open web (heck, I just took a job evangelising it) but I don’t write my slides in HTML and I really don’t consider it a good format for something like a presentation. Here are my reasons:

  • A presentation is not what you see on the screen – many speakers have notes that are shown in presenter view in Keynote or Powerpoint and not shown to the audience but on a different screen. There are probably ways to do that with CSS and media queries but I have yet to find a slide system using web standards that supports this requirement. If you just read your slides you might as well not be on stage.
  • Adding images should also allow you to edit them – I find myself dragging photos into Keynote and cropping and resizing them all the time. This can be done with CSS and JavaScript but I have yet to see a slide system have that functionality.
  • Presentations need to scale to different resolutions – I’ve encountered anything from 800×600 to 1280×1024. A slide package resizes my fonts and keeps them the way I intended them to – HTML doesn’t do that yet. Again, I am sure with SVG, Canvas and clever trickery this can be easily done but please tell me about a system that considered that.
  • Presentations need to be a single, printable file – presentations get mailed around and printed out for people who like to edit or read on paper. Using a PDF I can do that. Printing out is needed for example when you have a conference with sign translation. As sign translators do not translate word by word but sentences by meaning it is important that they know what is coming. Unless HTML slide systems also support good print styles this is not really possible
  • HTML slides can’t be embedded and resized – using Slideshare people can embed my slides in their blog posts or articles and people can watch them in context. You can put HTML slides in an iframe but they wouldn’t resize but instead get massive scrollbars
  • Slides might need to be synced with audio to make sense – I normally record my talks in addition to offering the Slideshare embed. I also used to do slidecasts, but the editor on Slideshare is not good enough yet. This is something we could write for HTML slides – a syncing tool with audio that automatically moves ahead in the deck.
  • Slides need to work offline – many a conference doesn’t have working wireless and people want to read the slides on the train. If you use third party fonts or images hosted elsewhere or you link to live demos this is very frustrating. You can use offline storage for that though.
  • Slides should work without your computer and your browser – many hand-rolled slide decks expect the presenters settings, operating system or nightly build of a certain browser and are not written with progressive enhancement as they are for personal use. When people try to watch them on their own computer and cannot see the effects or demos explained this actually is bad advertising for open web technologies.
  • A slide deck has a fixed layout and fonts – and differences in browser rendering or elastic design effects are not welcome in a slide deck – so why choose a technology that excels in this?

Presentations are more than a document on the web and unless I can do the things above as effectively and easily in HTML as I can do them in Keynote, I won’t switch.

Arguments for HTML slide decks

The main argument – beyond “doing the right thing for the web” that Tantek mentioned was that your slides as a PDF or Flash movie just can’t be found on the web. This is not true – Google happily indexes PDF and Flash and furthermore Slideshare creates a transcript of your slides as an ordered list for SEO reasons.

The other argument which is more to the point is that HTML documents are easy to edit, re-use and update. Collaborating on a slide deck in Keynote and Powerpoint can lead to annoying inconsistencies across operating systems and software versions.

My hybrid approach

Personally, I use a hybrid approach to the issue. I write my presentation as notes and then create a slide deck from those. I explained the lot (and the above arguments against HTML slides) in the presentations chapter of the Developer Evangelism handbook:


When I write a new slide deck I start with a text editor. I write the story of my presentation and I follow the same rules as for writing online articles. That way I make sure of a few things:

  • I know the content and the extent of what I want to cover – which also allows me to keep to the time limit when presenting.
  • I have the information in a highly portable format for people to read afterwards – by converting it to HTML later on or blogging these notes.
  • I already know all the links that I want to show and can create easy-to-find versions of them – for example by bookmarking them in Delicious.
  • I don’t get carried away with visuals and effects – which is a big danger when you play with good presentation software.

Yes, this is duplicating work, but I think it is worth it – after all Slideshare is a community for slide decks – you already have a captive audience rather than hoping Googlebot comes around and considers you better than another resource on the same subject.