Back to basics…

Having just read the biggest web design mistakes made in 2004 from WebPagesThatSuck.com, I’m wondering whether I have something to confess. In my exuberance to promote web standards I may have been guilty of making an idol out of the technique. While web standards are good, and wholesome, and necessary, and useful they aren’t the be-all-and-end-all for a website. Design and the quality of content are of far more importance to the majority of visitors, so it’s that which I should be concentrating on. My source code might be beautiful, but not many people see that.

However I do disagree with one thing. The author makes this point:

Remember, nobody gets excited about the tools used to build a house (“Please tell me what brand of hammers you used!”). People get excited about how the house looks and performs.

But that analogy doesn’t really stand up. A more correct parallel would be to equate the use of web standards in a site to the quality of materials used for a building. Finding out what brand of hammers a builder uses is like asking which web design or coding program a web designer uses. Interesting to geeks, perhaps, but not really relevant to most people.

Web Applications (and buzzword-free zones)…

These days I seem to be spending far too much of my time reading geeky blogs, which of course is a good thing. The problem is that I’m spending so much time reading about what’s happening on the web that I have little time to contribute to it.

But then again some things are well worth reading, particularly this article about “Weblications”. While I am starting to bite back against the predominance of buzzwords washing around the web recently (in fact I’m currently rewriting my personal site with, hopefully, a buzzword-count of 0) there are some new things that really get me excited. “Weblications” might not be the snappiest of buzzwords, but what it means is pretty amazing. As I hinted at in this blog entry, web applications are becoming my consuming passion. A web application is a Website That Does Something. Rather than just a brochure online, anything that has a dynamic element or some interaction to it is, in essence, a web application. Even a simple feedback form is a web application. The interface I use to manage this blog is a web application.

Google is a web application. So is GMail (which is very nice, by the way). So are all the intranet systems I’ve been writing and rewriting for the last 4 years here at Egton. While proper programmers might look down on the humble browser as a platform – and with some reason, it has some pretty glaring constrictions – they should ignore it or write it off at their peril. With more and more people realising the power of the internet, the ease and simplicity with which powerful applications can be created, and the lack of installation needed for those applications, the faster this field will develop. I full expect in a years time to see dozens of Salesforce.com type applications available for commercial use. There are already dozens of extremely useful open-source applications, and I heard about this one today). Because the bottom line is that web applications can be just as powerful, just as quick, more easily scalable, more easily installed, more easily upgraded and deployed for a fraction of the cost of their desktop counterparts.

And, hopefully, I’ll have a couple of my web applications to give as examples in a few weeks time. Watch this space.

The Jazz Geek…

Recently I have been pleasantly surprised at discovering that a love for jazz music is shared by several who I would also class as “geeks”, software developers. This list includes Matt Mullenweg, lead developer of the WordPress project and Matt Kenny, a developer and jazz purist who works for the same software development team I do. He doesn’t have a home online, or at least not as far as he’s telling me.

The jazz connection at first is a bit of a strange thing. After all, most people (I count those who don’t regularly listen to jazz as “most people”, or sometimes “normal people”) hear jazz as a series of unconnected notes, often played too fast, that is inaccessible to all those outside of the clique. Or those without a goatee beard. Software development is all about rules, structures, formulas, processes, and it’s built on numbers. Strange bedfellows, one might say. But on closer inspection the correlation between these two areas becomes apparent.

Jazz, like software development, is a mystery to most. Some have an appreciation of the output it produces, the end result, but few have a real understanding of what goes into a piece of jazz, or indeed a piece of software. Firstly there is the skill – technical prowess – needed to produce something of high quality for others. Not that all jazz is high quality, and most of the software I’ve written is technically shocking, but some skill is needed for both. For the jazz saxophonist and trumpet player that skill can be fast fingers, a large range, and an unshakeable sight-reading ability. For the software developer it can be fast fingers, a wide experience of development techniques, and an shakeable code sight-reading ability.

But there is something else that is absolutely crucial to both jazz and software development – passion. It is a quality that shines from the best developers and jazz players alike, and without it jazz is nothing but notes, and software nothing but code. It is passion that drives the musician, gives them a goal to reach for, gives them the voice to say what they are feeling. It is passion that drives the developer, makes them write better, faster and cleaner code, and gives them the goal to aim for. Passion is the reason why I write most of the things I write – whether it be music or code – and passion that keeps me going when any sane person would stop.

Both jazz players and software developers need both; skill and passion, in order to produce something that other will want to experience. The bad news is that some have it and some don’t. The good news is that there are things we can do to increase our skill and our passion, and that both the software development and jazz worlds are always prepared to welcome newcomers, if they are willing to use and increase their skill and passion.

Perhaps that’s why I’m growing a goatee.

[Addendum]

The great Matt Kenny (who, incidentally, has a fine goatee) has very kindly said I can use this from an email he sent me today. I enjoyed it, hopefully so will you…

[Matt said]
I once had a job interview for a development role with the BBC in Southampton. Spotting the reference to Jazz Purist in my CV, they asked me who my hero was, and how jazz and software development could co-exist. I told them that my hero was Paul Desmond, and that listening to one of his solos one could easily see how it could be analogous, even inspirational, to the process of software development – the logical structure, the carefully placed notes, the inversions, the subplots, the way you could see it being built in an iterative way from a few melodic ideas to an edifice of indescribable beauty, deconstructed and reformed again from a myriad of simple, interconnected and reusable phrases.

I waxed lyrical.

Needless to say, I was offered the Job.

Needless to say, it being Southampton, I turned it down.

Words from the wise…

Some people may say I’ve been wasting my time today, listening to hours and hours of speeches given by some of the web’s most influential people (available here) from the Web Design World conference 2004 in Boston, USA. I don’t, I consider listening to what other people in this industry have to say very important. The web has always been, and hopefully will always continue to be, a community effort. Hearing from others is therefore crucial to the growth of the technology.

And not just that, but they have some great things to say. Monsieur Zeldman had some good things to say about making the most of your website, as he often does. And Ethan Marcotte and Molly Holzschlag gave a timely reminder of the importance of not divorcing presentation from content, after all they are meant to support each other.

As I start a redesign of my personal site this sort of advice is invaluable. I’m not a fantastic designer, and my code leaves much to be desired, so any help is very warmly accepted. I’m glad there are people around who are willing to give others a hand, share what they know, not dismiss beginners. The parallels with many other areas of life are very obvious. So, wish me luck, I’ll post a link when I get something reasonable done.

On the world, it’s people, and me…

The recent awful happenings around the Indian Ocean have brought many people of many different nationalities and cultures – even long-time enemies – together in a concerted effort to help those that are now in dire need. This is fantastic, although we all see how great the need is, and how long it will take that area to get back to any semblance of normality.

However this also raises larger questions of how we can and should act and react to our neighbours. Whether those are neighbours just down the road or neighbours across the globe, we all have responsibilities to each other to minimise hatred, maximise understading, and maintain the world we all share in a wise and gracious manner. I’ve been thinking a lot recently of what I do to help those less fortunate than me. I am pretty fortunate: I live in a safe and very wealthy country; I have a good job and lots support from people who love me; I have, in world terms, a small fortune at my disposal every month. So how do I use my advantages to help those that don’t have access to these things?

The truth is I do very little. I use low-power lightbulbs, try to conserve water and try to buy fairly traded products. However that is nothing compared to what I could be doing. The very helpful We Are What We Do website shows some other simple ways that I can make the world a better place. It sounds ethereal and hippieish, but I’m convinced this will make some kind of difference. I can’t travel to Africa or South America and work on the streets, I have family commitments here that I have responsibilities for, but I can do something. And this year I will.

Look around the Wibsite, there are other links on there that may help. Perhaps donate a portion of your monthly income to charities you want to help, have a spring clean and give as much as you can to local charities. The important thing for me is that I stop talking about the problems I see and start to be part of the solution.