Having Met the Makers

Meet the Makers is a conference held in both New York and San Francisco where people are intended to be able to discuss the future of web design. Unfortunately, the session I attended turned into a series of advertisements and vague overviews of proprietary technology, only interspersed with intelligent discussion. The saving grace for me was time spent talking with Tantek Çelik (of Mac IE's Tasman rendering engine fame) and Arun Ranganathan (Netscape Senior Software Engineer) about web standards, and the future of their two great browsers.

This isn't too say that I regret having gone (for free nonetheless, much thanks to Brian Alvey). But it didn't do much to tame my disillusionment with the web's current state, or my skepticism towards the solutions that continue to sell despite the overall economic downturn. What particularly bothered me was the prevelance of clunky, over-complicated, and oftentimes platform-specific technologies, and the continued existence of the so-called "prevailing market forces" that drive their adoption. I'm no marketing whiz, and admittedly, my eutopian view of the internet is flawed and unrealistic, but I do know better than to build (for instance) a CMS that's too bloated with client-side interactivity to work with anything other than IE on Windows.

The morning interview session featured a talk with Google engineer Shiva Shivakumar, who divulged to us their production environment of choice: Linux, with a "hodge-podge" of C++, Python, Perl, and other languages. <tangent>At least for me, it's comforting to know that I'm not the only developer that doesn't think there's just one tool to get the job done. Like any self-respecting UNIX user, I've finally reached the point where it's easier to write a Perl script to do something than it is to do it by hand. I suppose that, to a larger extent, that's the equivalent of IIS developers writing VB Script applications to perform mundane tasks, but that doesn't sound nearly as sexy.</tangent> In the second interview of the morning session, MapBlast CTO Steve Weinstein exposed the true brains behind all those online mapping systems: people just drive around and take notes! Okay, it's a little more complex than that, but suffice to say that most of the methods for gathering street-level information are suprisingly low-tech. Now, as far as the transformation of that data into usable information goes, I'll leave that to people much smarter than myself to figure out.

Next came a series of labs. Surpisingly, Microsoft's session showcased the .NET platform's portability with other systems, thanks to their adoption of XML. It's just too bad they sell all their web services on a transaction basis. Props to the rep for use of the term marketecture during his PowerPoint presentation, though. Next, Atomz tried to sell us on their weighty CMS that appears to focus more on customized search results than well-structured navigation and content... sigh.

The third lab was held by Macromedia, who required we sign an NDA before bearing witness their awsome new application. All I can say is that I was very impressed, and I hope that it becomes a viable solution for people that want control over their content, instead of having to rely on shady CMS vendors or unreliable web geeks to update their sites. You'll see what I'm talking about in a couple weeks.

The last lab of the morning session dealt with Adobe's new Graphics Server 2 (formerly AlterCast). A very cool product to say the least: among other things, it allows systems to implement generated (think "localized" or "dynamic") navigational graphics based on PSD templates, to rip print collateral on the fly, or to apply transformations on hi-res graphics with an XML-RPC call. Sure, some of this is doable with open-source tools like the NetPBM suite and ImageMagick libraries, but the interoperability with popular design workflows (namely Photoshop and Illustrator) alone is priceless. Well, not priceless exactly... It's actually pretty fucking expensive. And it only runs on NT and Solaris. Poo.

Eating leftover pizza behind the safety of heavy plastic blinds just feet above sea level, it's even more painful to remember how nice it was to eat great food with a view of the entire Bay Area from the top of the Hyatt downtown... The best pasta salad I've ever had, hands down. If it weren't for the asinine conversations and awkward silences that followed, it would have been a perfect lunch. Mike and I skipped out early to snag an ethernet connection from one of the empty conference rooms, which presented us with the opportunity to test out Mac OS X's Airport internet connection sharing between my iBook and his new PowerBook. Worked like a charm.

The afternoon interview session featured my three favorite people at the conference: Tantek Çelik, Arun Ranganathan, and Douglas Bowman. While Tantek fiddled with the projector (which either had a busted connector, or just didn't like his PowerBook's aspect ratio), Arun spoke a bit about Netscape's transition from the old Communicator code to the Gecko rendering engine, and fielded some questions about web standards and all that jazz. Afterwards, I was able to ask him a couple questions that prompted him to divulge that Netscape is planning on building in support for the famed IE/Windows-ism, contentEditable. Check out the relevant Bugzilla entry for more info.

Tantek's presentation was brief, and not too informative for anyone that already knows the great lengths he's gone to make IE for the Mac the most standards compliant (and arguably, attractive) browser — on any platform — of its time (that is, back when Mozilla was too bug-ridden and unpolished to do much of anything). His CSS examples certainly wowed the crowd, but I can't help but be skeptical of their practicality until other UA's support them. Tantek was surprisingly down-to-earth when I spoke to him, and he assured me that there will be a version 6 release of IE for the Mac, despite widespread claims to the contrary. His response regarding CSS3 compliance was vague: The CSS3 module structure is apparently difficult to implement, and it appears as though none of the module specs (some of which Tantek himself is authoring) is even close to being finished. It wasn't all doom and gloom, though: We did have a nice little laugh over an offhand comment from a certain WaSP member that "XHTML 1.0 has been deprecated." Funny, the spec doesn't mention that...

The MTM folks brought things back to an interview format for Douglas Bowman, Network Design Manager of Wired News, and the man deemed responsible for the site's redesign using valid XHTML Transitional and CSS. What I found amazing was that he placed their site's Netscape 4 usage at "14 to 20 percent," which seems a bit high for them to have gotten away with it. If it's that easy to hide most of the presentation from nearly a fifth of your users, why can't we all do it? I talked with Douglas earlier about the rash of mailing list naysayers that ran the new Wired site through the W3C validation gauntlet, his response to which was along the lines of "well, the developers should have done that before we launched." A lot of people have a stick up their ass about validation, but I'm of the camp that says it really isn't that important until browsers treat XHTML as anything other than (somewhat more valid) tag soup (and yet I flaunt that referer validation link like it ain't no thang!).

The afternoon lab sessions were simply a series of commercials for three products, only one of which I found mildly interesting. netomat is a JVM class that pulls in content in the form of an SGML application called NML: the netostat Markup Language. Their reps assured us that DTD's would be published to facilitate more open development of products their platform. I don't think it'll be the killer app that dethrones Flash, but it certainly appears to be a simpler, quicker development environment. If their nml studio application ends up taking off, though, they could have a shot. Unfortunately, the other two labs aren't even worth mentioning.

The final interview session featured self-proclaimed usability expert Jeff Veen of Adaptive Path. Not much new on the "user-centered design" (really, is there any other kind?) front, but that man does have a great stage presence. If you get a chance to see (and hear) him speak, I would definitely recommend it. The audience got a laugh out of some of the comments made by the last interviewee, E*Trade "UI Visionary" Paul Whitmore, who started off by refuting a lot of Jeff's comments, then slowly building up an opposing argument that eventually ended up supporting them again.

A lot of what he said made sense, though. What stuck with me most was his evangelism of the process called iterative design. In a perfect world, we'd all be able to run every atom of our work through well-written test cases performed by careful QA staff. Sadly, it seems that with web budgets continually shrinking, little shops like ours won't have the manpower or the clout to demand things like elapsed usability tests, and other nicities that allow us to create web sites and applications that are (apparently) easier to use. For now, I guess we'll just have to depend on common sense.

A nearly universal theme throughout the day ended up being XML, which many vendors have been touting as the future of the web for years now. A lot of us have remained skeptics throughout, but I think it's time that we drop those misconceptions. Just about every popular programming and scripting language used today has XML processing built in, and we need to show vendors that we support their use of open standards to exchange information, lest they return to proprietary formats and protocols. Set up a 'blog if you must, or write a test document using RSS, and load it up in your favorite news aggregator. Compile mod_perl on your Apache webserver, or download any number of free XML parsing tools for your platform. Play with it, and learn it. Convert your HTML documents to XHTML, so that when the day comes that browsers can handle validation, you're ready for it. If you can't do it for yourself, do it for the web.

All in all, it was an eye-opening day. A couple applications made Mike and I think a bit about what we're doing, and how we could make things better for both ourselves and our users. At the same time, it was disheartening to think that we might not be able to compete with those gargantuan CMS vendors, and maybe that we need to change our focus. Everything's still up in the air with our group while we attempt to keep our heads above water, but I think that if we stay in touch with industry trends somehow, and more importantly, that we continue to listen and react to user feedback, we'll be able to make it in this new climate. Back in '99, a lot of large corporations probably accepted that they had spent too much money on their web services, but refused to spend anymore. The result is a lot of unhappy customers with outdated tools that don't align with our new world of standards and user-centric design. What I enjoyed about Meet the Makers were the portions that attempted to address these problems. The rest I could have done without.

Everybody's doing it: XML (NetNewsWire recommended).

100% Valid or your money back.

Thanks, Movable Type!