Buzz Archive: March 2005

Interview with Håkon Wium Lie

Håkon Wium Lie is the CTO of Opera Software and in 1994 proposed the idea of CSS. Håkon is as deeply involved with the Web and with CSS as anyone can possibly be. Recently, he contacted WaSP to ask whether we could host the Acid2 test, which we agreed to do. Our role is to help build, publish, and promote the test for all browsers for CSS 2.1 compliance. Acid2 will be a free and public resource for any browser or user agent developer and any web developer as we all move toward improving CSS support and fixing existing bugs in our work.

In this interview, I ask Håkon to share some of his experiences and insights into the history of HTML and CSS, the challenges and triumphs at Opera, mobile devices and microformats, and the reasons standards mean so much to the current and future Web.

MH: Håkon, many people know you as CTO of Opera Software. But the critical work you've done goes back to the early days, and many people working with Web standards don't realize that you are essentially the "father" of CSS. Can you talk a little bit about those early experiences, and how they've shaped your thinking both for today and for the future?

HL: I stumbled across the Web in 1992. I joined the www-talk mailing list in September that year while working for Norwegian Telecom Research. This was before Mosaic and when HTML was a text-only language. Still, a critical mass of talented people saw the beauty of the underlying system. When Marc released Mosaic in early 1993, pictures entered the web and it suddenly became much easier to demo. Even managers could see the potential!

However, pictures were also a threat to the web. Designers started to encode text in images in order to achieve certain fonts or other special effects. In order for HTML to remain a logical markup language (as opposed to a presentational language) a style sheet language was needed. So, the motivation for developing style sheets was twofold: we wanted to give authors the presentational effects they craved, while stopping HTML from sliding down the ladder of abstraction to become a presentational language.

One important observation I made along the way was that both image and text were important for the web. Images are more appealing aesthetically, and most people will prefer a visually rich presentation to a sparse text-based one. Text, on the other hand, can be processed in a meaningful way by computers. Computers can search text and analyze its content. Google and friends have shown us wonderful things to do with text and I think there is much mileage left.

MH: The Opera browser has not been without its struggles, despite best efforts to keep it standards-aware, low-cost with a free ad-supported version, and very lightweight. Can you point to the features in Opera that you think are particularly strong and those that have remained problematic?

HL: My favorite feature is OperaShow, which instantly turns Opera into a PowerPoint-like presentation engine. It's fully based on standards, and it extends the reach of the web from a scrollable canvas to a paged presentation. Also, I'm very proud of the work we have done to display web pages on small screens. So Opera covers the whole range, from big to small screens. Along the way we have struggled much with "Dynamic HTML". There were no standards to guide efforts in the beginning and we had to reverse-engineer many pages. Then the DOM came along and things started to improve. It has taken much work, but we're now seeing the hard work pay off: HTML, CSS, JavaScript and the DOM can be used to build interoperable web applications.

MH: Many people are unaware of Opera's reach. One example is the rendering engine in Macromedia Contribute. While many observers feel Opera has failed as a browser, the point could easily be made that Opera simply has reached a different audience, one that is in essence hidden from the general user but very obvious when one looks at your strategic partners. Could you comment on Opera's involvement as integrated software within other applications?

HL: We think of Opera as a success on the desktop, after all we're the best-selling browser there. And, we have about 20 million users, I believe. Recent innovations in Opera8 on the desktop are support for voice input/output and native support for SVG.

But, I didn't answer your question. Indeed, our rendering engine is used in several authoring systems. It's a great way of making sure pages are tested in Opera right from the beginning. A big announcement in coming up in April, and I look forward to saying more about it at that time.

MH: Taking the previous question to another level, one of the things that has long interested standards-based developers such as myself is the goal of extending our reach to alternative devices: PDAs, cell phones and so forth. Opera appears to be doing amazing things in this area. Do you think this is the "next big thing" for Opera and for those of us in development at large?

HL: I think the mobile area is very important. It's important for the web to escape Microsoft's grip on the desktop. And, it's important for the mobile telecommunications industry to embrace the web to ensure there is interesting content on the wonderful devices they are making.

For Opera it's an enormous business opportunity. Already, there are more Opera browsers on mobile phones than there are Microsoft browsers.

MH: As a pioneer of the Web, what's your opinion as to how it should progress? Set aside any preconceived ideas such as 'semantic web' or 'convergence.' What I would like readers to know about is the vision you personally hold for the Web as it will become rather than as it is today.

HL: The web is actually in pretty good shape and I don't really want to see it change quickly, rather I'd like to see some graceful evolution. I plan to spend the rest of my life on the web and I want it to remain a place where a broad range of people can contribute ideas, content and applications. No single vendor should dominate, and no single organization should have control. Standards are key to achieving this and I think we have identified a set of standards that will last a long time: HTML, CSS, JavaScript and DOM will be the basic content standards in the foreseeable future. I think evolution on the web will be based on these formats, and this is what WHAT and AJAX do. We will also see a bunch of microformats being developed, and that's how the semantic web will be built, I believe.

Finally, I hope that future web formats can represent more than flat documents. I'd like for 3D models of all sorts of stuff to appear, starting with spare parts that I need. Along with 3D printers, this will enable localized production of stuff which is much healthier for the environment than moving stuff around. The web globalized information, and I hope it will also localize production.

MH: Thanks so much, Håkon.

Note: This interview is cross posted here so as to take your comments. Thanks! -mh

Inspired by Accessibility.

Accessibility and usability inspires innovation. Embracing and using standards and recommendations allows for more innovation. It's time to quit thinking that embracing accessibility stifles growth or causes limitations.

Many years ago, I was inspired by accessibility and innovations. I began my work and advocacy of web standards and accessibility items well before they became a public focus. Many contemporaries and others tried to diminish the message and importance. My background is the arts and also a variety of sciences. Our first computer was the direct result of our daughter who has several challenges needing assistive technology for communication and learning. She can see and hear, but motor and some cognitive items prevented her from using a text only Web and standard ways to access a computer or information. Enter rich multimedia and assistive technologies. These items existed well before the popularity of web, and these items also drive innovation for emerging technologies. We had a specialized keyboard for the computer, the keyboard can be customized with theme overlays, images, and or keywords and universal icons instead of the standard keyboard of letters and characters (the touch board could be set up in standard ways also). We had a special 15 inch screen that could be placed over a monitor. The screen allowed the user to access links or interact with items via touch and worked with many websites or applications. And then there is word prediction and recognition in communication devices, as well as rich multimedia sound and animation which offered up audible content, examples, and clues for those that could not read. All because of innovation in technology. Several people may find or feel that rich media items are entertainment only, but rich media is very important to a wide variety of challenged users or learners.

I often felt that as emerging technologies expanded, so would a renewed look or enthusiasm for accessibility interest grow. Many items for accessibility work very well for new technology. Think about how great offering a link to skip large groups of links works for mobile or handheld devices that have limited screen display. Think about how voice browsing or listening might work well for hands-free interaction with web content (car computers, some automated phone systems, etc). Think about how touch screens work well with kiosks in stores (photo stations, pharmacy, gift, registry, and ordering kiosks, etc). Some of these kiosks also break language and cognitive barriers as well when sound, images, or animated examples are involved. Think about how great it is to be able to take a single source of content and be able to deliver or transform it in a variety of ways. Core standards, guidelines, recommendations and open technologies enable this, while also providing an avenue for innovation and more emerging technologies. So... While we awe and wow at new items or older items making a comeback for emergent technology, we also need to take a closer look at how these newer technologies reach users. We need to find and work with the limitations and help to provide alternatives or information where needed. We need to know that usability and accessibility are often the forerunners of innovation.

Wendy Chisholm is the author of a new and important article at Digital Web Magazine, today. Innovative Design Inspired by Accessibility. She writes:

The Web provides unprecedented access to information for people with disabilities. People who are blind no longer wait for 25 pounds of braille to be printed and delivered or for a volunteer to read. People who have difficulty moving in physical space can easily attend classes. Those who find it hard to read the labels on products or have trouble getting oriented in grocery stores (whose layouts change frequently) can shop using Web sites with images and search features.

Wendy writes about the challenges and also rewards surrounding accessibility and innovation. She offers up a great table, Questions to inspire innovation which takes a look at limitations (vision, motor, hearing, cognitive), needs, and exercises or questions to help inspire innovation. These are some of items we need to look at when looking at popular and emerging technologies.

Another example of accessibility inspiring innovation is Pellegrino Turri who built the first typewriter to help a blind friend with the ability to write. There are more examples of Assistive Technology inspiring innovation at: A History of Technology Advances Inspired by Disability

While we (designers, programmers, developers, instructors, advocates, business owners, and corporations) broaden our awareness on accessibility and look at how it works in many ways for more and more users, challenged or not, we need to embrace, advocate, and use standards, guidelines, and recommendations to build a solid foundation for more innovation and for the future. It seems this might be the intelligent way to work. My own inspiration and work with web and digital technology is a direct result of accessibility and assistive technology.

What's Up with WaSP

Maybe we built a hive in your garage, or perhaps we stung you in an unsightly spot. We are truly sorry. We really had promised to be a kinder and gentler sort of WaSP. But then again some of my country's presidents promised the same thing.

So let me wake up from my nap and tell you this: WaSP is buzzing about. Yes, as is typical to our nature, we stung a few folks while breaking out of our hive, but we've cooled off now, and look at all the stuff that's going on as a result of recent activity:

  • Acid2 Task Force. The acid2 test is for all web browsers seeking to check CSS 2 compliance. WaSP is hosting this test. Browsers, start your rendering engines . . . here we go!
  • Macromedia Dreamweaver Task Force. The Macromedia Dreamweaver Task Force is revitalized and the focus is standards and accessibility all the way. Look forward to some amazing developments from Macromedia and this group.
  • Assistive Device / Accessibility Task Force. The group whose time has been long overdue.
  • Microsoft Task Force. Microsoft and WaSP representatives in a round-table discussion about the next generation of Microsoft software. Thank you, Robert Scoble.
  • Emergent Technologies Study Group. A group of WaSPs are forming to study and report on emergent tech (oh, okay, and re-emergent stuff like XMLHttpRequest) and report back findings. Look for Drew McLellan, Simon Willison and others to be heading up this initiative.

Other groups at work at WaSP:

  • The Mobile Task Force. Dedicated to documenting mobile and alternative device development.
  • The CMS Task Force: An upcoming group documenting and working with CMS developers to assist in the support and implementation of web standards within CMS products.

What do you want to see at WaSP? Answer here.

Access Matters Quiz Blog

Bob Easton is the man behind Access Matters, a weblog that offers up advice regarding web accessibility and best practises. Quiz items are presented as blog or journal entries and answers by others follow in the comments or replies often offering up additional key information.

Thanks go to Gez Lemon of Juicy Studio for posting information about Access Matters.

The Acid2 Challenge

In a public effort to encourage Microsoft to add as much CSS 2 support as possible as its developers embark on IE7, Håkon Wium Lie (CTO of Opera Software and the father of CSS) and the Web Standards Project have begun the development of a test suite, known as “Acid2.”

The suite, and challenge to Microsoft, has been announced today in an article written by Lie for C|NET, The Acid2 Challenge to Microsoft.

IE 7 Rumors

Microsoft Watch has posted an article with rumored details on IE7. That the release will primarily be focused on security, and will include tabbed browsing come as no surprise. They say native (i.e., no Direct-X filters required) support for alpha transparency in PNG is also in the cards.

The advance word on CSS, however, isn't so good. Rumor has it the IE team hasn't yet decided what to do with CSS, but are leaning towards a very modest update. According to Microsoft Watch's sources, despite continued pressure from working web developers Microsoft is leaning towards adding support for an unspecified number of currently-unsupported bits, but not addressing current bugs or attempting to support the latest version of CSS in its entirety.

Of course these are just rumors, and as any avid Mac fan knows the gulf between rumor and reality can be very wide indeed. Heck, when it comes to Microsof the gulf between early official announcements and actual, shipping reality can be wide. Just look at Longhorn.

Here's hoping that rumors of Microsoft's wavering commitment to CSS are just that — rumors — and that reality will be much closer to what Chris Wilson has indicated.

Welcome, Tantek

The WaSP would like to officially welcome Tantek Çelik to its Steering Committee (pssst, someone update the bio page thanks for the quick work, Ben).

I was wondering why I was reading about it here and here but not on this site, and then I realized that it's probably because I'm about the only SC person not busy at SxSW. I'm sorry that I'm not there, but it does mean that I get to make the announcement.

Welcome aboard, Tantek!

MS Commits to Better Standards Support in IE 7

Lead program manager for IE Chris Wilson has committed to improving standards support in Internet Explorer 7.

While Chris doesn't provide many details about what improvements will be made just yet, he does say that IE's rendering in 'quirks mode' won't see any changes that might 'break' legacy sites. He expressly notes, though, that such changes are possible in 'strict mode'. That's excellent news, as it means the IE team is open to making changes that would bring IE's behavior closer to the CSS 2.1 recommendation.

More, Chris explicitly cites Position is Everything, and other sites that document IE's shortcomings. Dare we hope to see an IE with a sane float: implementation?

It's also worth noting that Chris has considerable cred where standards are concerned: he has been Microsoft's representative to various W3C working groups and he wrote the CSS implementation for IE 3. While that implementation was extremely limited, CSS wasn't even a full recommendation when IE 3 was relased and its partial implementation gave a tantalizing glimpse of what was to come.

While it won't be time to celebrate until we actually get our hands on a final IE 7 release that actually does raise the bar for standards support — hopefully to levels that will have Safari, Opera and Firefox developers scrambling to catch up — Chris' post is more reason for optimism than this CSS hack has had for a long, long time.

Handheld Styling

Jim Wilkinson authored a CSS Wiki page of useful information for those interested in styling content for the small screen, found at: Handheld Stylesheets - css discuss. If you are developing or styling content for handheld or mobile devices this page looks like it would be a very useful bookmark.

Jim included additional resources for introductory, practical, and advanced topics. One of my favorite articles is the March 2004 Webmonkey overview authored by Heidi Pollack, The End-All Guide to Small-Screen Web-Dev.

Also listed are links to Standards for Markup and CSS.

All About Firefox

Perhaps this is something that should be added to BrowseHappy, but for now I wanted to draw your collective attention to a page I stumbled upon this morning. It's on one of my favorite web sites, How Stuff Works, and this time Firefox gets the treatment. The chances are, you're reading this post using a browser other than IE and are already sold on the 'alternative browsing lifestyle', but take a moment to view How Firefox Works, bookmark it and then be ready to send it on to your sister/brother/grandparents/second cousin twice removed the next time they complain about pop-up hell (or any other IE-related annoyances)

Netscape 8 Beta goes live

Slashot notes that the Netscape 8 Beta has been released to the public.

Ironically, though the release is said to focus on security and protecting user privacy it still uses Firefox 1.0 as its foundation, rather than the more-secure 1.0.1 release. As well, the new Netscape is only available for Microsoft Windows, since one of its primary features is the ability to use Trident, the Internet Explorer for Windows rendering engine, as well as Gecko.

The ability to use multiple rendering engines isn't entirely novel; the Maxthon shell for IE/Win has uses Trident by default, but allows one to switch to Mozilla's Gecko rendering engine via the Mozilla ActiveX control.

Because the web is only one facet of the Internet

Those of you who don't check Slashdot might be interested in something posted there several minutes ago: A Concise Guide to the Major Internet Bodies.

In addition to our favorite, the World Wide Web Consortium, other organizations focused on infrastructure and policy, such as the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, are described in brief.