Geeky Things

I’ve had a couple things cross my radar recently that I’d like to see be improved somehow… either in Flock (or browsers in general), RSS aggregators or blogging tools.

Better Reading through Columnization

Web reading vs. TofuWhich do you prefer? I think it’s quite apparent that Tofu makes reading webpages and blog posts infinitely easier and more enjoyable. So where’s the Firefox extension? Huh huh? I guarentee you this will get into Flock eventually… if not my next RSS aggregator. Or both…?

Well, looks like the recent Firefox betas already have this. Now to just see some smart Tofu-like uses of this feature!

DOM state in history

With all the hoopla about AJAX-based interfaces, it’s about time that browsers get keen to the fact that the DOM state is part of your history. It’s not some scripty side-effect — no, when I use the back button, I expect the page to be in the same state that I left it. This should be the case whether I navigate off to some other page or close the window or tab. The only way to restore the state of a page back to its original state should occur if I clear my history or exit out of my browser (or somehow reset the DOM through some other intentional mechanism).

And this should exist in the browser because it’s the thing that’s storing my path history. So what does it mean when the browser adds DOM state to my history? For example, when I use Gmail and navigate off to some other page and then return, I would no longer lose the email I was reading or composing. In fact, I could even load up Gmail in a new tab or window and find myself in the same place where I left off. Which is exactly what I want.

So the effect would be in effect to maintain your session state across tabs, windows… no matter where you are or what you’re doing, the browser would be staying with you, never skipping a beat, making sure that every little action you took was recorded and there for you to return to until you decided to start afresh.

It’s time the browser got wise to the current state of web application design. If not to encourage the further development of fast webapps like Basecamp or Flickr, but to make the browser reflect user expectations about the purpose of the back button!

Blogbars

BlogbarsThe last thing on my list concerns a rather recent feature that Matt just launched on WordPress.com. It’s just like the Blogger toolbar, except that his bar applies to WordPress.com account holders instead of general visitors. It’s a good start, but I think it can be better. He’s open to ideas — as am I. How can this tool help you blog better?

Hmm, if only the browser could facilitate blogging somehow… heh.

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Why microformats are the glue between web content and a richer online experience

Why microformats are the glue between web content and a richer online experience In response to my introduction, Andy Hume asked me on the Microformats-discuss list:

What kind of microformat support are you looking to get in to these publishing tools? Obviously wordpress has built in support for XFN. What else are you trying to get happening?

So now it’s time for me to put on my visionary cap and mention a couple ideas I’ve been stewing on about why microformats make good sense for web publishers and web tool builders. I won’t get too pedantic or preach to the choir. Rather, I’m just gunna outline some of the obvious things to me that make creating the lowercase “semantic web” worthwhile, assuming, of course, that certain enabling technologies and innovations occur.

First, let me point out that the cost of implementing microformats is less than minimal and in fact, in some cases, can give you a net gain given the reduction on time spent figuring out what CSS classes to use. As a former-web-developer-junkie, it was my job to come up with unoriginal ways of identity bits of content on webpages so that I or someone else could come back later and figure out what the heck I was doing.

This lead to me to do things like code lists of people with a container that specified that, indeed, I was working with a list of people and not dates, dogs or envelopes. Why would this be useful? Well, what if you wanted to use a different icon to denote a person, date, dog or envelope? You’d need to know what class of object you were working with. (Just bear with me here.) This becomes a pain when you have to do this over and over again and or work on someone else’s code. However, with a sufficient store of standard microformats at our disposal, such situations could theoretically be avoided. Rather than having to reinvent a classing system everytime, I could simply turn to the related microformat standard and call it a day.

So that’s great and all, but why do you bother touching code anymore anyway with such able CMS and blog tools available? Why not just bake it into those publishing tools and be done with it?

The short answer is that that’s happening, and we need to see more of this work get done. The problem seems to be related to chickens, eggs, carts and horses, in no particular order. And until they all get sorted out, there’s a great deal of developer apathy best captured in lines like, “Why should I care?”

Well, better than just spouting out about the practical benefits for web developers, there are functional benefits which I expect to see available in the coming months. As a prelimary example, check this out:

I created a Greasemonkey user script that will find those hCalendar events and provide a link to import them into any calendar program that supports the iCalendar format (most notably Apple’s iCal and Mozilla’s Sunbird). What does this mean? Well any time you see an event on the web that has hCalendar information, you can click a link and it’ll be added to your calendar so you don’t have to copy the information by hand.

unmediated: Greasemonkey and Microformats

So just imagine once this kind of support becomes native in the browser… that’s when really interesting things start to become possible. And soon, I’ll outline just how I see this happening.

It’s my web, dammit, and I’ll do what I want!

A dirth of media articles have surfaced around Greasemonkey, a Firefox extension that lets you modify websites to your liking. I’m not about to get into the myriad scripts available or call out my favorites (I haven’t even used it yet though I did find one for fixing Spread Firefox’s column overlap issues!) but I do want to call out a shifting paradigm overtaking the web gradually, mercilously and with no sign of abating.

The trend is towards user-augmented web experiences, where users are in the drivers seat determining how they want to use a website rather than leaving it up to web designers and developers. Even on user-customizable blog software like WordPress, Greasemonkey scripts are showing up to set default prefs on the edit screens!

…Something that I read the other day on a site detailing steps to disable Greasemonkey really clued me into what this trend means:

“Your DOM”? I am sorry, but once your code leaves your server, it is no longer “your DOM” but the “user’s DOM” and they can screw with it as they please.

This is a wholly new concept that flies in the face of years and years of being inundated with the shrill cry of intellectual property and copyright fascists who can’t stand to think that someone else might want to alter their creations beyond their original artistic vision. We’ve been cooped up with that mindset for some time and only now are we starting to really break free from it. Only now do we realize — “Hey wait, this is my web browser on my computer! I don’t have to just sit here and take this! I can make my web browsing experience whatever I want — and I will!”

And as the web moves towards a more fluid model (or as Technorati CEO Dave Sifry calls it, an “event stream“), we’re going to see more of this — where blogs dissolve into tributaries and web aggregators become the Ganges and Niles of the internet. Stay tuned, I think I might just be working on something that will yet make it possible to swim the web as it goes liquid… and just might keep us from drowning in the impending deluge of freeflowing content.

Dan Gillmor makes the switch to Drupal

Dan Gillmor gets DrupalProlific author and blogger extraordinaire Dan Gillmore has packed his blog and moved it to the bayosphere, a new site dedicated to citizen journalism in the SF Bay area:

I’ve moved my blog to Bayosphere, where I’ll report and comment on the Silicon Valley technology community — and a whole lot more including my observations about the burgeoning arena that’s variously called citizen journalism, personal publishing, grassroots media and a lot of other things. They all have something in common: the read-write Web.

The coverage has been interesting as usual, with posts on Drupal, Slashdot and an explanation on the Bayosphere about why they chose Drupal

…and for some reason I was given credit for getting Dan to make the switch! While I did work with him in the initial part of this project, that work didn’t make it into the current iteration. In fact, Dan even came up to me during the PDF and asked me dryly, “So what’s this about you convincing me to go with Drupal?” In any case, I’ve now been in touch with both Dan and Jay Campbell (who set up the site) and we’ll be finding time next week after I return to the Bay area to discuss this project further. But I should make it clear… I don’t feel like I deserve all that much credit for doing any convincing. I may have been one of many putting a bug in his ear, but if Drupal weren’t really the best choice, I don’t think he would have gone with it, regardless of anything I might have said.

With that, I welcome Dan to Drupal and hope he’s got a lot of gripes that I can go to town on!

*P. S.* Turns out Moby uses Drupal too. Who knew!
*P. P.S.* See? We can get along! Matt calls the Bayosphere One of the best uses of Drupal I’ve seen.

It’s been one hulluva week

One of those weeksWhat can I say other than it’s just been one of those weeks? I can’t even characterize it so much as sense the depth of the changes happening in and around me. Nor can I chalk it up to any singular thing, there’s just a lot goin’ on!

So first off, lemme give props to Matty Mullenweg, for topping 200K downloads of WordPress, the software the powers this very blog. 200K. That’s just friggin’ sweet.

Moments before and in no way diminishing Matty’s accomplishment, Firefox hit the big 50 mil. Even if the quality of design at Spread Firefox seems to tanking since I left, I’m really proud to have been part of the effort to get the word out about the Fox. And having a hand in the launch of the rather successful syndicated download counter thing feels pretty tasty too (to use an Ericism.) Oh, and it seems SFX just hit the 99,000 member mark. Day-mn…

Ok, so other schtuff.

Well, I’m deep into rewriting my CivicSpace themes from the ground up, gutting all my previous code and aiming at a consistent codebase. I still don’t know how big a project this is and I’m having some trouble keeping focus on it. The good news is, this overhaul will have very positive results, both for CivicSpace, Drupal and, I hope, themers in general. We shall see.

In other news, my nascent work on SpreadOpenOffice seems to have suffered a bit of a blow, with one of the originators of the project being blown off by the OOo proper folks. I mean, it never makes me happy to see people fight, and it makes me even less so when having seemingly silly disputes over apparent falsehoods. I mean, Charles Schulz’s line “It is a very smart attempt to fork the community.” just seems preposterous. In an all the discussions about this effort I’ve been privy to, it’s never seemed like an effort to fork anything… The way I see it, if the OOo community doesn’t develop a way to harness the efforts of its grassroots supporters, there’ll eventually be more forks than a UN dinner party anyway…

So while I have a few other related projects going on, none warrant much discussion… except the nascent SpreadCC discussion and SpreadButter

…which is, mind you, yet another CivicSpace site. Speaking of… this week was probably one of the most tumultuous for us so far. But I’m not too worried; from adversity and conflict usually springs innovation and clarity, which is precisely what we’re in need of. I’m willing to give it some time and see what happens, but between balancing theming, module improvement, Drupal development, relationship building, promotional efforts, and business model planning, it’s been a helluva week.

Oh, and in the meantime, the Web 2.0 arrived. Backpack, Rojo, and hmm… something else… all launched… Firefox got SVG, Tiger finally dropped and… oh yeah, I moved (which has nothing to do with anything).

I forget what I was going to write next. But oh yeah, it’s really been one helluva week.

Redesigns run amok!

A number of sites have redesigned lately including CivicSpace, SvN and VersionTracker. Do I smell a trend?

CivicSpace redesign
Well, if you haven’t seen it yet, we went live with the beta of the new CivicSpace redesign. I’ve had this on my plate since last fall, but only now after the logo has more or less been finalized (and business cards printed) did I feel ready to proceed with the site’s design.

…that and Zack and Andrew are touring the country this month going to various conferences and the old site just couldn’t be kept up any longer without seriously soiling our burgeoning reputation.

So within one week of returning from Belgium, CivicSpace got a brand new site thanks to the perserverence, determination and abandonment of sleep by members of CivicSpace and Music for America (watch for their redesign coming up soon).

Now what’s interesting to me is that on the same day that we go public with our redesign, I spot two other significant redesigns. Coincidence or serendipity?

SvN redesign

VersionTracker redesign

Well, I’m going to stick with the latter, though that’s certainly not a scientific observation.

And while we’re discussing redesigns… how about the “new” RSS icons? Is this variation a good thing? Do we need to stick to one look (besides just orange)? I’m all about moving away from the RSS mini-buttons but are we moving forward in a sensible way?

RSS Specimens

Bah! Here’s a picture of me doing my thing care of Miss Chang.

Standalone IE7 destined for WinXP+ only

It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

IE7?It turns out that Microsoft’s next point release of Internet Explorer will only be viable on machines running Windows XP or greater.

From a web development standpoint, this seems to be the primary argument against tying your browser to your operating system. Think about it: when IE7 hits, all of web developers are going to have learn all the new bugs that are sure to come with the updated version. As it is, we have a good dozen or more browsers to deal with. Add to that having to code for Windows 2000 and WinXP+ and Longhorn separately and you can see the size of the problem.

So it is rather significant news that Microsoft has decided to decouple IE7 from Longhorn and release it for WinXP. This cuts down the number of different operating systems to design for by one, and suggests that Firefox is indeed affecting the 800-lb gorilla’s strategy.

Because Longhorn is to WinXP what OS X was to OS 9, the upgrade process is going to be painful for more than just old Windows 2000 users. It’s also going to hurt for web developers who have become savvy to IE6’s standards support shortcomings and learned how to get around them. Adding a new browser to the mix is going to create a slew of new challenges; and just when you thought the world was getting safer for web design, Microsoft has decided to go and bust up our party.

Time to brush up on the new box models hacks. <Sigh>