Accessibility Internet Microsoft Usability Web Design & Development

When it comes to Web Standards & Web Accessibility: compliance, but of another kind…

So we work hard to meet with the web standards, to build in accessibility and to keep our websites and web applications usable. But what happens if we’ve made a square peg for a round hole?

In the first installment, I looked at the polite and the not so polite ways in which the establishment attempt to motivate both myself and my peers to adopt web standards as well as big business. I also discussed the many benefits of adopting web standards, too.

In this installment, I’ll look at how certain web browsers create more problems than the standards can resolve and what options are there for web designers & developers.

‘A’ is for annoying and NOT accessibility…

There’s a downside, however. And it’s a considerable one, too:

“Yes, the Beast of Redmond has decided that their browser; Internet Explorer, isn’t going to support the standards properly and break just about every damn thing you put in front of it, much like a petulant 3-year old with his most expensive toys from unwanted relatives, arms folded and pet lip inclusive.”

Yes, yes, OK. I confess, I was more than a little perturbed when I wrote that, but the point still stands.

So even working your socks off to produce all of your web wares to the finest web standards money can buy doesn’t mean all of your web designs are going to work when rendered in the most popular browser on the market, that being Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Now, in the past week, Microsoft has released version 7 of their web browser. But by their own admission, everything isn’t all rosy:

“Few of you believe it – occasionally, someone who knows me really well does – but I actually believe in open standards. Real open standards. The ones built by a group of people with an interest in making the world better, not just in their own private vested interests. I’ve championed that in one way or another since I joined Microsoft, and I continue to do so today. It’s been a hard road, but not one I can imagine myself not choosing to walk down. It’s been gratifying to me over the past couple of years to see my championing pay off in the change of direction in Microsoft. It’s been frustrating, though, to be continually identified as the personal screw-up responsible for IE not supporting more standards today, when it’s actually because of my personal influence that CSS is IMPLEMENTED in IE.”

Said one clearly frustrated Chris Wilson, Internet Explorer Group Program Manager for Microsoft.

From the reports emerging, Internet Explorer 7 is a step up from its predecessor, but remains evolutionary rather than revolutionary. And internal politics within Microsoft are clearly the problem and not the technical abilities of its employees.

So it would appear that Chris Wilson et al are subject to compliance, but of another kind, one deeply coloured with ‘Microsoftean’ overtones.

Microsoft has gotten very used to controlling the horizontal and the vertical of all their survey. So it must have been with a heavy heart that they made the decision that involved them revising the parts of their software concerned with web standards compliance to others outside of Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters.

However, the hand-over hasn’t been a complete success and still some issues remain with Internet Explorers interpretation of certain standards.

Go back 10 years and this wouldn’t have been the case. Microsoft would have just done their own thing and everyone else would have have had to follow suit.

But that was then, this is now. And the political landscape is now as dynamic as the commercial landscape around them. For the first time in some time, Microsoft have a competitor that represents a considerable threat to their ambitions in the name of Firebox.

I’ll spare you the potted history of Firefox, since to some degree I feel I would be preaching to the converted, and there are much more detailed historical accounts of Firefox and its origins to be found elsewhere on the Internet.

Suffice it to say, Firefox has found a home in the heart of many people, myself included. A place where web standards are adhered with more vigor and security issues aren’t as prevalent.

So where does this leave the web design and development community?

Clearly we are left in the strange hinterland between proper web standards compliance and hacking code to get our websites and web applications to work with the likes of Internet Explorer.

And for those that are the brave among us, they get to explore options that may well otherwise prove costly in a more commercial scenario.

In an interview with Peter-Paul Koch, a freelance web developer from Amsterdam, Holland, he explores such territory when asked the question: “You have …. decided to ignore IE6 issues. Why were these decisions made?” To which he replied:

“The IE 6 issues are easily explained. Since Microsoft now has a browser that supports decent CSS, I don’t see any reason to continue churning out workarounds, hacks, and other special measures to accomodate IE6. Sure, in a web site you create for paying clients that’s not possible yet, but Quirks-Mode is my personal site, and I have more leeway there. I decided to use this leeway, drop IE6 support, and see what would happen next.”

We web designers do know how to tell it like it is, although Carl Grint was somewhat more reserved and collected than I was:

“If we focused some of the attention on the browser companies as well as the web site makers, maybe things would change even quicker, after all as designers / developers we are restricted by the performance of the device people use to view our creations, and for the (unfortunate) majority that is Internet Explorer, which even in its best version yet (IE 7) still has some way to go before it supports Web Standards fully.”

And then Carl hits on another point which may well be more telling. He points to an comment made by Website designer, Leonie Watts, who was interviewed for the BBC article mentioned previously:

“There’s a technology called Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that allows you to control the way a page is displayed, such as the colour of the text and background.

However, that’s quite a new technology, it’s only been around a couple of years, and a lot of designers are still very wary of using it.”

You’re not knockin’ on the door hard enough, luv! To which Carl replies:

“My definition of a couple would be 2, 3 at the outside, I have been using CSS since 1999, so I make that a little longer the a couple of years.”

How the Wild World of Web Accessibility could be won

Put simply, web accessibility is about best practice web design & development. And more and more of my clients are asking about this service.

There was a time when they’d just ask quite prosaically: “So, how much does that cost?” And I’d tell them that it doesn’t cost anything extra. All I’m doing is my job properly.

I still tell them the same thing, but the questions have changed and their level of ‘cluedupedness’ has risen. Now they are at least aware of the legalities, if not all of the the benefits.

However, one of the top concerns of both clients and web designers alike is the perception that there’s some degree of creativity lost in the short-term of the transition to Cascading Style Sheets and properly formatted HTML. But if you’ve ever picked up a copy of “The ZEN of CSS Design: Visual Enlightenment for the Web” which can be found on my Amazon aStore page, you’ll know what can be achieved with Cascading Style Sheets once you’re more acquainted with the rules of the new game.

In time, adherence to the web standards will flow through the web design & development community quite organically, be they politely pushed or aggressively shoved, standards compliance is inevitable.

Some guys just need reassurance that the web standards will mature enough over time to allow for the level of control and visual complexity that they’re used to right now.

People fear the unknown and cling to the old and trusted. This isn’t always wrong, but it can cause a misidentification of positive change for something more sinister. There’s still much to be done by everyone, myself included.

I made the same mistake, but I persisted and I’ve never looked back. But I can do that, both metaphorically and physically.

However, those with a visual impairment, with regards to the current state of web accessibility they can but look back only metaphorically and scornfully…

Part 1, 2

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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