Fronteers 2008

This years Fronteers conference which also happens to be their first was much better than I thought it would be. The level of those attending seemed higher than I was expecting. London’s @media was by contrast very mixed with plenty of talent and those who were not sure what was happening.

The other surprise was that I was expecting mostly members of Fronteers, however, I heard that they only made up about a quarter of all attendees. If that was indeed the case then I would consider the conference a big success. Well done PPK. The timing, approach and persistence has paid off in his founding of the Fronteers group. The conference is a good indicator of that.

The Fronteers 2008 sessions covered things like IE8, emergence of the front-end profession, front-end techniques, accessibility awareness and a dollop of inspiration.
JavaScript doesn’t really feature very much in my day to day work so I focussed mainly on the CSS and accessibility sessions. Having someone like Bert Bos at this event automatically elevated the discussions on CSS.
This became evident in the discussion panel with Andy Clark, Stephen Hay and Bert Bos. Bos highlighted an issue that has been bothering me for some time now and that is the lack of GUI control. Typography on the web is still pathetic but it’s something everybody seems to be aware of and is, to some degree, being addressed. We are at least making some inroads. UI Layout on the other hand seems not to warrant as much attention and we’re stuck with the current lack of practical solutions. It all seems like an exercise in making the best of situation that was never intended to do so much.

Part of the problem is that Lay-out, as it stands now, is controlled only by HTML and CSS.
It’s not the end of the world but I would like to see more discussion on the subject before Apple adds even more CSS presentation controls. For example; Should additions like transitions even be allowed in CSS? Many believe that Apple has made a mistake.
I’d like to agree, however, where else would you put it?
The mantra these days is ‘don’t mess with the HTML’, keep it clean and minimal so that you and your site will live a happier life. This is something we all agree on, because we’ve experienced it to be true. This doesn’t mean that HTML shouldn’t concern itself with presentation, it must and it does because lay-out is strongly tied to the content structure. Lay-out is simply a large part of presentation.
With Apple’s Webkit pushing to dominate the mobile space CSS is claiming more control of the GUI through masks, gradients, animations and transformations, and with JavaScript providing added functionality and behavior. It true that CSS was never just for style, but now it’s gone way beyond style.

In my view any talk of separation is a bit of a misnomer. What we’re looking for is ease and robustness for front-end authoring. Control doesn’t require full separation, just less clutter, more clarity if you will. However, these new fancy smancy proprietary CSS for animation and transition sounds a lot like adding more clutter. So I’m left scratching my head.
The new Webkit additions make a lot of sense and have the added bonus of not abusing poor old battered HTML, but are swinging to much the other way? Won’t CSS become a bit of a nightmare to maintain? CSS is in danger of becoming the bloated HTML we’re bending over backwards to avoid. Can we distill the intrinsic GUI properties from CSS and plug them in to something else? Something else that will control all the hovers, animations, conditionals, sorting, content removal and text flow.

It’s good to see the web evolve but how long we can stretch the current technology to do it all. The sad reality is that many of these new ‘toys’ will never be used in a general sense. Especially when crossbrowser compliance is an issue, which is 90% of my work.
It’s funny, people complain about the proprietary nature of Microsoft’s filters in CSS. Now Apple adds something similar and I hear a lot less groaning. My concerns with the haphazard GUI control is eased with the promise that both HTML5 and CSS3 seem to hold. Additional GUI elements will be supported in HTML and CSS will have more lay-out and document flow properties.

As long as we keep discussing what to do with the web as a medium we’ll come up with the answers. Events like Fronteers 2008 are vital to this global discussion. I’ll centainly be attending next year.

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