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Front Row Conference 2011 – Day 1 Presentations

It might not be winter yet, but it was plenty cold when I arrived bright and early at Kraków’s Park Inn Hotel for day one of the very first Front Row web conference – in fact, I was one of the very first people there. I grabbed a lanyard and a funky red t-shirt – take note, other conferences, they had women’s styles in three different sizes – and  watched the attendees trickle in.

Being a single track conference meant that I could sit down, relax and pay attention to the presentations without having to make hard decisions or constantly worry that I might be getting more value from the concurrent session. While it’s obviously not suitable for large events that need to cater to more varied interests and skill levels, I actually enjoyed the change.

Opening keynote: Patrick H. Lauke –  The Once and Future Web

The first speaker of the day was Opera’s Patrick H. Lauke, with The Once and Future Web. Patrick’s presentation followed the development of the modern web from it’s humble beginnings with text-only browsers, then Mosaic with the addition of images (quote: “where it all went wrong”), through (ab)uses  of Java, Flash, table-based layouts, and crazy CSS hacks – with the recurring theme being the conflict between what the technology allows and what designers want to do, illustrated perfectly by the classic William Gibson line  from Neuromancer, “the street finds its own uses for things”.

Patrick’s presentation gave kudos to the main in the blue hat, “The Big J-Zed” (Jeffrey Zeldman) and his essential contribution to the modern web, Designing With Web Standards, and also John Allsopp’s A List Apart article from 2000, A Dao of Web Design. Interestingly, when I was going back through old posts on this blog, I found a link to an anti-CSS-layout web site that is still being updated with fresh arguments and examples in 2011! I first linked to it in disbeliefover 6 years ago. Talk about living in the past and not letting go – it reminds me of the following quote from my favourite movie of all time:

The Big Lebowski: Your revolution is over, Mr Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!

Patrick posits that the web thrives on hacks, and characterized technologies like JQuery and Sass as “massive hacks”. This may seem excessive, but when you think about it, it’s true – these have been developed to bridge the gap between what modern browsers are capable of delivering and what designers and developers want to achieve.

Patrick talked through HTML5 (and associated technologies) and the amazing things that are now possible, but urged designers and developers – who will “always be looking for the next shiny thing” – to use but not abuse them. While we can now use the latest and greatest in our every day work, Patrick warns against thinking that you only need to support the very latest browsers, as throwing out years of best practises, progressive enhancement, and graceful degradation is short sighted.

The web is in constant beta – and John Allsopp’s Dao is as relevant as ever. Patrick left us with one last thought: “Now are the good old days of tomorrow”.

Wojtek Zając – Top mistakes in web accessibility

Wojtek Zając has the aura of an expert still butting up against the frustration of managers, clients, designers and developers who just don’t “get it” when it comes to accessibility. In the later ‘Open Space’ session on the topic, he said that Poland is only just now getting anti-discrimination laws that will include web site accessibility considerations – so it’s not surprising that he’s still encountering the kinds of attitudes that were widespread in the US, UK and Australia five years ago.

As such, Wojtek’s presentation Top Mistakes in Web Accessibility was a brief but focused overview of why accessibility is important, the kinds of bad attitudes to access issues that are commonplace, and a list of common mistakes that developers are making.

Marek Stępień – Harmony – The Shape of Things to Come

This presentation covered what’s coming in the next version of ECMA script – ES.next. Marek Stępień covered the topic admirably but to be brutally honest this kind of advanced JavaScript is over my head. If you’re into that kind of thing however, check out Marek’s slides – there’s lots of code examples that I’m sure will get hard-core JavaScript nerds drooling.

Michał Budzyński – HTML5 as a Gaming Console. Is it possible?

The answer to this very entertaining session title was most definitely yes according to Michał Budzyński, creator of CSS Nyan Cat. Let that sink in for a moment – I saw the creator of CSS Nyan Cat in person! You don’t get much more internet-famous than that.

Again, as I’m not a JavaScript developer nor do I ever intend to be, I took less away from this presentation then some others. The general idea was that the number of HTML5 games is increasing, and while there’s a long time to go until HTML5-powered games outnumber Flash games, but the advantages of a pure HTML5/CSS/JavaScript solution means that day will definitely come. Michał was a lot of fun as a presenter – at one point, when showing off CSS Nyan Cat, he noted that the mouth was a rotated letter E – and I looked around to see half the audience tilting their heads to confirm.

Unfortunately the slides for this presentation aren’t available online but they may appear on Slideshare in future.

Richard Carter – CMS/Design Integration – or Patterns in Theming

Richard Carter defines theming as markup (HTML), plus style (CSS), plus software (Drupal, WordPress etc) – plus swearing. i think that’s a sentiment anyone who does any theming can attest is very accurate.

Rchard’s recommended approach (where the software allows) is to use a base or starter theme, then create a child theme to override just the parts that are required. He cited examples from Magento, Joomla, Drupal, WordPress, MediaWiki and ModX – this guy really knows his content management systems (he’s also written books on Joomla, Magnto and MediaWiki). The child theme model represents a trade-off between convenience and overhead – a tradeoff that Richard believes is strongly weighted on the convenience side in most cases.

This was a topic I have a lot of experience with, and I completely agree with Richard’s assertion that ideally, theme files should  not need complicated logic in order to display content – using the WordPress title code block as an example of code that is too complicated. On the other hand, it’s possible to abstract code too far – as an example, Richard cited Joomla which hides the entire head section in one output statement. Getting the right balance between choice and granular control is tough, and Richard admits he doesn’t have the ultimate answer.

My quote of the day goes to Richard for summarising the CMS problem as “WYSIWTF?”, as anyone who has ever cleaned up content imported from Microsoft Word will identify with.

Zef Hemel – JavaScript in the cloud with Cloud9 IDE

Zef Hemel’s presentation on the Cloud9 IDE was a bit of an eye-opener as to just how sophisticated a JavaScript-driven application can be. Zef started off by asking why we are not developing web applications IN a web application – he thinks it makes sense to “use what you evangelize” and “code on the web”.

The Cloud9 IDE is completely cloud based, written in JavaScript on both the front end and the back (using node.js) – although Zef stated that around 80% of the code is client-side. The live demonstration of the ease of access, ease of setup and ease of collaboration was very impressive.

Although the slides do not appear to be online anywhere, you can check out the product itself at Cloud9.

Open Space sessions

After lunch, the delegates gathered around some pin-up boards and the concept of Open Space sessions was introduced. These were “unconference” or “birds of a feather” style sessions, casual collaboration or discussion sessions in the six breakout rooms, conceived and led by audience members.

I participated in three sessions – an accessibility discussion, another session on content management system theming, and one I suggested on interesting uses of WordPress – all of which were quite interesting and perhaps a good way to get re-energised after lunch.

Four more sessions are scheduled for day two in the same timeslot.

Rich Quick – Topsy Turvy Design

Rich Quick’sstandard joke seems to be “yes, that is my real name” and he flashed around his passport to prove that it is in fact true. His presentation was about adaptive or responsive web design (he claims the terminology you use will depend on which book you read first).

Rich ran through the traditional web design process and noted that it was similar to the traditional print design process. He then suggested that responsive or adaptive web design should instead be done by working from the inside out – first the largest screen resolution, then what the same design would look like if the screen it was viewed on was a bit smaller (tablet or netbook sized) and finally if the screen was even smaller (mobile screen).

However, when coding, the process is reversed: start with the smallest layout, then add features for mid-sized and then full-sized screens. Basically – gracefully degrade your design, and progressively enhance your code.

Adaptive design is really easy, according to this presentation – it really just boils down to one line of code before each of the sets of different CSS. Although versions of Internet Explorer below 8 don’t support @media queries, it’s possible to get support with conditional comments or a library such as Modernizr, respond.js, etc.

To get started, Rich suggests that like a little bit of CSS is better than none, a little bit of responsiveness is better than none, so it’s possible to add some basic media queries to handle basic layout on almost any site with just a few additional statements.

Christian Heilmann – Fail, Meh or Win? How do you want the web to be?

Mozilla’s Christian Heilmann closed out the day with an keynote designed to enthuse and inspire attendees. To start with he admitted that with his hectic conference schedule of the last week, the presentation was written on the plane that morning, but I think that a speaker as dynamic and experienced as Christian could almost have winged it with no preparation at all.

Christian’s presentation was all about attitude – he started off by stating “we have fun being web developers” which is most definitely true! He talked about how he got into his current position – by being himself, always playing with technology, always questioning what he was told, and participating in the community. He urged developers to challenge themselves – because the only constant is change.

Under the heading “reasons to be cheerful” Christian talked about some of the cool things about being a developer, including things that are often considered bad things – notably, that as there’s no official accreditation and because many people don’t really even know what a web developer does, developers are judged by what they’ve done, not what letters they have behind their name.

The presentation was long and moved quickly, and after a while I stopped taking notes and started just trying to keep up with the ideas that Christian was firing off. The main takeaway was that developers need to engage – play with the latest tools and code, participate in the community, give feedback. Everyone has the potential to be a web rock star.

At the end of the day…

The main thing I learnt today is that Poland has a lot of web talent – I’m impressed! Day two report coming up.

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