2007 Web Development Predictions

The standardistas were abuzz a year ago with hopeful predictions for the coming year. Visions of sugar plums dropping rounded corners, AJAX, and alpha transparent pngs danced through their heads. 2006 has been a great year for web development. Did we get what we wanted? Did we get too much of what we wanted? Further, what lies ahead?

Getting drunk on the possibilities and waking up to sober reality

It could be argued that 2006 was the year of AJAX and DHTML. They matured this year and solid libraries were released. The Yahoo User Interface Library makes a JavaScript mangler like me seem downright competent. Not only that, it’s got some good accessibility and security built in. Gez Lemon and others have been tearing apart AJAX for a possible accessibility hook that makes all of us happy. JSON gave us new ways to transfer information.

Yes, we got giddy with the possibilities. I helped build Yahoo! Tech. It’s a great site, if I do say so myself. We launched with every flash, web 2.0, animation, AJAX driven widget imaginable. Someone even called it “an explosion of a web 2.0 factory.” The site was accessible, harnessed the powers of a web-service architecture, and was the first completely new site for Yahoo! Media in a long time. But the web 2.0-ification was the star in many people’s eyes.

A funny thing happened over the months after launching. We got rid of the flash on the home page. We removed the dynamic width widget. We removed some animations. We began removing these Web 2.0 stars because the users didn’t use them AND they made the site performance horrible. Yahoo Tech, like many other sites, learned an age-old lesson. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

Prediction #1 – In 2007, AJAX and DHTML will be used reasonably.

I predict new sets of AJAX/DHTML libraries will be released with great features and accessibility. People will go gaga over a few sparkly ideas and ultimately settle with good sites that use the libraries reasonably. I predict AJAX will be used less often as commercial sites realize they need page refreshes for advertising revenue. AJAX will continue to be used for features that significantly help the user’s experience (Yahoo Finance Streaming Quotes) and not so much for page level mechanisms (Yahoo! Tech Search).

No More Rounded Corners

I hate rounded corners. They were fashionable for a year and everyone had to have them. You could build them with 15 nested divs, with javascript, with extra paragraphs, extra this, that and the other. Die rounded corners die!

Seriously, rounded corners add a bit of visual white space but they’ve gone overboard. They’ve hit the designer’s toolkit like a bad font and are being used because people feel like that have to use them. It’s time to be creative again and kill rounded corners. Please!

Prediction #2: Rounded Corners Replaced With Dancing Hamsters

Let’s look at alternate container variations. Put rounded corners on the shelf next to drop shadows and let’s explore line quality, tonality, texture, and contrast instead.

Accessibility is a big deal and then it isn’t

Accessibility for web sites will become a big deal in 2007 as the Target lawsuit comes back and someone figures out a way to make AJAX accessible and easy to implement. I’m putting my money on Gez Lemon finding a solution and the Yahoo! User Interface Library making it available.

Firefox, Apple, Yahoo!, Google, IBM, Sun, and who knows what other companies will come together and agree that there is a particular way that these things should be done and will create some resolutions. After these things happen, you will see more and more sites become accessible without even trying. Platforms such as WordPress have already made huge impacts in setting up sites to be accessible from the beginning. Look for more advances from Microsoft, Adobe, and more.

Apple will release their new OS with extended assistive technologies built-in. Existing screen reader companies will have to deal with a big new competitor. Watch for Jaws, et al to scurry around fixing outstanding issues to hold onto their audience.

Prediction #3 – Accessibility for All

Even if JaneDoe43 is simply dragging images into her MyLinkedInSpace page, it will have the hooks necessary to be accessible. Platforms and libraries will make it easier for people to worry more about content and less about rules. The web will be a better place for novice and advanced programmers. It will certainly be better for those that need assistive technologies.

IE7 opens the possibilities

Internet Explorer 7 has been released and will soon see adoption rates increase significantly. Vista is ready to also increase the graphic processing potential for millions of users. As web developers, we have new tools in our kit to work with. Start studying your attribute selectors, pseudo selectors, and playing with alpha transparencies. 2007 will see the death of Internet Explorer 6. It will still sit on a small percentage of machines, but IE7 will take over and with it comes hope.

Prediction #4: CSS2 and CSS3 Get Used

Start looking at progressive enhancements with your CSS. Give Firefox, Opera, Safari, and IE7 the best possible experience. You may have to dumb down some of the IE6 images but go for the beauty and simplicity that advanced CSS offers.

Where’s the new blood?

The standardistas of the past are busy working on big projects now. Sure, they’re still doing some innovative stuff. But where are the young guns inventing wonders like Son of Suckerfish, Microformats, CSS Zen Garden,Image Replacement, SIFR, and god-forbid the image-free rounded corners? Seriously, it’s time for some exciting developments to come from people recently discovering web standards and bringing a new approach to solving issues. Who knows who will be the next Erik Meyer, Big John, Andy Budd, Shaun Inman, PPK, etc. Who’s gonna carry Joe Clark’s torch for being the genius with a cattle prod as he solves the captioning dilemna next year?

Prediction #5 – New Standardistas Rock The House

Further, these new standardistas are going to come from Asia, India, South America, and possibly the United States and Europe. They’ll have us on the edge of our seat as AListApart releases the latest tools to completely change the way we build sites. My number one pick for standardista of the future goes to Hedger Wang who tirelessly experiments and publishes little teasers on a regular basis.

I can picture the @media 2008 conference in Singapore with Molly, Andy, PPK, et al lining up for a chance to rub shoulders with the new greats.

Slide Show Pro – Director

When it comes to marrying standards-based web design and Flash, there’s only one name that stands out. Todd Dominey is a legend and hero for creating the flash-based headers, the PGA re-designs, and Slide Show Pro.

SSP gave us a great platform to build photo galleries based on XML. Dominey has just released a new product, Slide Show Pro Director, which provides an AJAX-based interface for creating new slide shows.

I’ve just begun using Director and I’m mighty impressed. If you are currently using Slide Show Pro, you should download this helper application. It’s only $20 and will make your life much easier.

Frankly, the previously provided photoshop droplet and xml generator worked fairly well. But it was still a clunky procedure and my slideshows have stagnated. I’m looking forward to re-building all of them with this new director, providing fresh images and more movies.

Support the Godfathers (and Godmothers – Molly and Holly)

If you are new to the standards-based web dev world, consider this your opportunity to support those that made your new career possible. Buy the Slide Show Pro suite, get the latest version of Zeldman’s book when it comes out, grab a set of icons from Simple Bits, and continue to purchase standards-based web design books by Molly, Eric, et al. Donate them to new programmers once you’ve memorized the techniques. Spread the word and the wealth.

Make Flash accessible to screen readers in transparent window mode

The detour around flash for accessibility

Yahoo! Tech’s home page features a flash-based media space that highlights stories, comparisons, buying guides, blog posts, and more. Making this accessible required a bit of trial and error, but the solution was simple and can be used by sites everywhere.

Step 1. Inserting the flash object

The site uses the Unobtrusive Flash Object script by Bobby van der Sluis. This script checks to see if the user has JavaScript enabled and the correct version of Flash in their browser. If so, it inserts the code required to display the movie. If the user doesn’t have the requirements, a default set of information is presented.

This script cures the validation errors caused by the normal flash insertion code. Theoretically, it would also allow you to provide good, accessible content to those not using JavaScript and Flash enabled browsers, i.e. screen readers and search robots.

Window Mode Transparency conflict

However, we had an issue with the flash movie conflicting with a DHTML drop down menu. The flash movie wanted to have the highest z-index and thus sat on top of the menu. To cure this problem, we added the attribute wmode:transparent. This tells the flash movie: your window mode is transparent, you are not the boss, go sit in the back and let others take center stage.

This cured the overlapping issues but negated the accessibility features that we had hoped for. User testing with a screen reader was disheartening. Screen readers ignore flash movies with window mode transparent. They want to do what’s best for the user and ignore the little guy in the back corner.

We began searching for answers on the flash and accessibility forums and couldn’t find a way to get screen readers to read a flash movie with wmode:transparent. It simply isn’t possible at this time.

Step 2. Time for a detour

The U.F.O. enabled page features a div with default text. This is where we originally duplicated the content being fed via xml to the flash movie. Our hope was that the screen readers would ignore the flash and read the HTML content in this div. When this wasn’t possible, we literally thought outside the box.

The U.F.O. script uses visibility:hidden to hide the default box. We tried using text-indent and negative margins instead, but it still was not available to the screen reader.

The default div now has your standard non-optimized warning text: “For the best experience, please enable JavasScript and download the latest version of Flash….

screen with css disabled - both versions viewable
We then created a new div (id=”alternatecontent”) that features the content from the flash movie. It is pushed off screen by using absolute positioning. This hides the duplicated content from the visual design while providing the content to those without the visual abilities.

We’re satisfying two audiences with just a little extra code. Add the extra div for your screen reader audience (…and search engines!) when using wmode:transparent in your Flash movie. You’ll create valid, visually dynamic, and accessible pages.

Listen to the Yahoo! Tech media space as read by a screen reader (.mp3)

FLORWAX – Mobile 2.0?

I sat next to Adrian Cockcraft on the plane up to San Jose yesterday. He just finished the ETech conference in San Diego.

He told me about his concept of bringing the Web 2.0 infrastructure to mobile appliances with some consistency. FLORWAX uses flash with AJAX like behaviors built on the Ruby on Rails platform. It’s just an accronym at this point. Let’s see if there’s any traction for this approach.

Z-index conflict with Flash and DHTML widgets

I’m working on a project that has a Flash movie and a DHTML dropdown menu on the same page. Flash movies like to sit on top of the page and the dropdown would slide behind the movie. Since this isn’t what I wanted, I needed to find a way to make the it have a lower z-index than the dropdown.

I did a Standardista Search for a cure and didn’t see it. But a quick message to the Web Standards Group returned the solution. It’s actually pretty easy.

UFO Flash detection and insertion script

I’m using the UFO JavaScript to detect the browser’s compatibility with the Flash movie and insert it on the fly. This method provides good default content to those without Flash and valid, shiny, happy Flash to those with it.

UFO gives you the ability to insert parameters into the movie and this is what you need to cure the z-index issue. You need to set the wmode parameter to “transparent.”

var FO = { movie:"swf/myMovie.swf", width:"300", height:"120", majorversion:"6", build:"40", wmode:"transparent" }

That’s all there is to it.