Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Googlebot : accessibility in SEO clothing

You might think this an odd title.  I'm currently doing a makeover for a clients website.  At the end of four hours of CSS tinkering I was very proud to say the site looks exactly the same.  That is, of course, until you disable the CSS and see a lovely clear page of sequential text and links.  The original site looked pretty much the same with the CSS on or off and that was the problem.  This change isn't the consequence of my clients new born interest in accessibility.  It would be unfair to say my client doesn't care about accessibility but it would be fair to say he would find it hard to justify spending money to make the site more accessibile.  What my client has become very interested in is Search Engine Optimisation (SEO).  This is where you focus on changes to your website that will provide a better page ranking in Google.  The client thought SEO was important enough to engage a company that specialises in this dark art.  My changes to the site are the result of the SEO's report.  What I found fascinating is that most of the issues raised in the report are exactly the same issues that I would raise from an accessibility perspective.  That is they are about semantically correct HTML.  That seemed a little odd until I realised that Google's official site auditor is blind.  The Googlebot can't see your site.  It can only read your site and interpret what it thinks the site is about.  The sad fact is that most of the worlds successful websites only care about one blind user : the Googlebot.  Therefore if Google did nothing else to promote site accessibility than provide the world with a search engine then it is doing more for accessibility than any other company in the world.  For the rest of us we can stop trying to get our clients interested in accessibility.  Instead we can work on getting them excited about SEO knowing the outcome will be exactly the same.

Blogged with Flock

Friday, November 23, 2007

Flock 1.0

Screenshot of the Flock Browser showing my Flickr Media StreamBack in January I downloaded and had a play with the Flock Browser (then in beta).  At the time Flock was pretty impressive but I found it's bookmarking less than ideal and returned to using Firefox.  Well the other day I was reading an interesting article on TechCrunch that compared memory usage between Firefox and Flock (now out of beta).  The long and short of it was that memory usage was significantly better in Flock.  Which is strange as Flock uses Firefox for it's base engine.  Anyway I decided I better give it a another look.  It's a long time since a piece of software made me go WOW.  But that was my exact response to Flock 1.0.  First of all there are the exciting features that I'd seen in the beta ; the media stream browser, the image uploader, the blog post editor (which I'm using to write this post).  What I don't remember is a series of sidebars which make access to popular web 2.0 services so easy.  For example a people sidebar provides easy access to Flickr, YouTube, Facebook etc.  The accounts and services sidebar provides easy access to a variety of services (i.e Blogger).  I remember a web clipboard but a don't remember a neat drag and drop sidebar that helps you manage a number of saved media objects (text, images, video).  Great feature here is that each saved object has a link to create a blog post from the object.  The same feature appears over images or videos in the page that you can add to your blog.  One last feature I'd like to mention is that if you browse to a page that has a Firefox search engine then Flock will make you aware of that and offer the option of adding it to your installed search engines.  There are more great features and I feel I could go on for a while but I suggest you should give it a go and make up your own mind.

Blogged with Flock

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Adobe Device Central : Update 4

A new updater for Adobe's Device Central is now available for download. Device Central provides information about available mobile devices and their capabilities. It is a great tool if you are developing Flash for mobile. This is the 4th update since the release of CS3. Before installing update 4 you will need to install Flash® Lite™ 3 Update for Device Central CS3 and have installed the previous 3 updates. This is where Device Central lets us down a bit. I can't remember if my previous updates are up to date. Did I last install update #2 or update #3? The thing Device Central needs is a more streamlined way to manage these updates. It should keep track of them , check for new updates and automate their installation.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Web 2.0 As Operating System

Last night I attended the Melbourne Adobe User Group November meeting. There two excellent presentations:
While listening to Chris I found myself making a connection between Chumby and the gOS that Wal-Mart has been selling. I guess to explain this I need to give a brief description of Chumby and gOS.

Chumby is an always on device that you configure via your browser. It runs a version of Linux and includes a Flash player (Flash Lite 3.0) and uses wifi to connect to the net. Developers build widgets so the Chumby can do things. For example, there is a clock, an RSS reader, an eBay watcher and lots of other things. The point is the content is delivered from the web. Which is fine because there is a lot of very useful content on the web.

The so called gOS (Google Operating System) is a custom Linux install that uses web services as it's applications. So you have gMail, Blogger, Wikipedia, Skype, Facebook etc as your core applications. Compared to the Chumby it is a more traditional computer with a keyboard and mouse etc. But like Chumby it believes there is enough online services to make it useful.

Both of these devices are selling for around the same price (Chumby : $175, gOS : $200). Which is around the same price as some iPod's. Therefore the market is willing to buy devices at this price if they prove useful. Which makes me wonder what are we looking at here? Is this the beginnings of a new "must have" device or a couple of wannabes curiosities?

Adobe AIR has a new frisbee : I mean logo

Mike Chambers has just released the official Adobe AIR logo on his blog. AIR was originally code named Apollo and that had a logo. Then when the AIR name was released we got a new temporary logo. But here finally is it's official log. Fair enough it's not out of beta yet. Apparently the three bits represent the three technologies that AIR is built on : Flash, HTML, PDF. Despite what the logo seems to suggest putting together those three technologies in AIR doesn't result in a hole. Though perhaps it's not a hole. Perhaps the content is so effective that it becomes invisible. That is surely the goal with RIA's; to make something where the end user is so focussed on the content that they forget about the GUI and the technology.

Beedigital has set up a poll to get the communities initial response to the logo. Cast your vote.

Further speculation on the AIR hole from Alex Bustin over at "The Back Button". He suggests there may be a connection between the hole in the AIR logo and the hole in the new Photoshop logo. Perhaps we should be expecting a new holey Flex logo etc...

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Faves : BlueDot Gets On Topic

I started using BlueDot at the start of the year, after a brief trial of del.icio.us, and I've never had a reason to reconsider my decision. It seems that BlueDot has been less happy with itself than I've been so they've taken a long hard look at themselves and decided to re-brand as Faves.com. They've also introduced an range of new features and interface tweaks so I'd like to spend some time considering these changes.

Firstly, lets start with the name change. For a start it's shorter and easier, but it's also a lot clearer. The idea of a dot was always a bit forced and why was the dot blue anyway. But we've been bookmarking favourites since the day we dicovered the web and how natural it is to shorten favourites to faves. So name change : tick.

The next big change I noticed was voting. Every fave now has a digg style vote box. It's not really a new feature as you always had the option of marking a link as a favourite. But presenting it this way makes it's purpose much clearer. Prior to these changes I only ever marked one link as a favourite and that was as a test. Since the change I've already cast a number of votes.

The other new feature is a Votes tab. This allows you to quickly view faves you've voted on. I'll be interested to see what happens here as my list of voted faves grows. I imagine it could very quickly become unmanageable. What would be nice is the addition of "username's Votes" to the search options at the top of the page. The other useful feature for managing votes would be the addition of the Tag filtering tools available on your Faves tab. This would also highlight patterns in what you are voting for and could lead to the discovery of new Topics (see below).

The most useful new feature for me is the addition of Topics. Topics are a re-vamped version of BlueDot's buzz with some powerful new features. New Faves for your selected Topics appear on your home page and can be ordered by popularity or chronologically. There is also an option to hide Faves you've already seen. Topic selections are managed from the Topics area. Here you can browse Topics, search for Topics, or select from Recommended Topics. This last option seems to work particularly well as it looks at your most common Tags and recommends useful Topics based on these. Once you find a relevant topic you can add it to your selected Topics (or remove if it's already selected). These topic pages can also be added to your RSS reader. Which seems a particularly useful way to stay in touch. My only concern here is that the Topics are seperated from your Faves and I'd like to see these areas integrated in some way. But that is probably a bit impractical.

With this round of changes Faves is probably the most underrated of the available social bookmarking sites. The latest round of stats suggest that this is changing but Faves figures are still well below del.icio.us. I imagine social bookmarking is a fairly conservative marketplace. You hardly want to be moving your bookmarks every other week regardless of how easy the individuals systems make it to move. Therefore growth would need to be tied to a long term plan. But these changes show that Faves definitely has the future in it's sights.

Flex Effect Problem : Check your Alphas

The Flex feature I use less than any other is the Effects. This is because most of the time I am focussed on how the user interacts with the applications data rather than transitioning between states. Part of the reason is that effects are so easy and flexible to use. Infrequent practice means that I forget one really important difference between Flex development and Flash (AS1 or AS2) development : alpha values. In the old days you could set an objects alpha between 0 (invisible) and 100 (opaque). But in AS3 the alpha value can be set between 0 (invisible) and 1 (opaque). Consequently, setting an alpha value of 100 on the alphaTo property of the Fade Effect means you won't get any sort of fade. This has happened to me a few times now and it always results in a short period of intense frustration (an excessive period of time when you consider the scale of the problem) until I remember that I need to use 1 rather than 100.

Friday, November 09, 2007

IE's Plugin Activation Merry-Go-Round

A while ago Microsoft and Eolas had a small argument over who owns the rights to the technologies that allow plugins to play in MS Internet Explorer. As a consequence of that falling out IE was "updated" so users had to "click to activate" active content (Flash, Quicktime etc). The workaround was for developers to embed their content using external javascript. It was a big deal and for those of us who noticed it involved quite a bit of work hunting down all affected projects. That was April 2006. Well now the nice people at Microsoft and Eolas have had a chat and an agreement has been struck. So they are going to "update" the browser again so it works just like it originally did. This will start to happen in April, 2008. Though it will take a while for there to be a consistent base of users with this behaviour. I imagine it would be easiest and safest to pretent this new update isn't happening and keep using the external javascript.

This disagreement between MS and Eolas is about money (and probably quite a lot of money) and thats the way the world is. But the internet is bigger than these two companies and this argument has had a significant impact beyond the pay packets of their lawyers. I doubt there has been an internet user anywhere who wasn't affected by this process in some way. Surely they could have continued their negotiations without making us all suffer for it. I guess I don't expect companies like Microsoft to care but a bit of community consideration once in a while probably wouldn't hurt their bottom line.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Adobe CS4 : RIA Premium ?

This post is a consequence of a number of things I have been thinking about since Adobe Refresh last week. It came together while I was posting about using Illustrator to create Flex symbols. I was thinking about how little use I have for the Flash IDE at the moment. I had been using it to create an assets.swf with static skin elements. But I realise now that it is easier to use Illustrator for this.

At the moment Flex developers are disadvantaged by Adobe's packaging options. If we buy CS3 Web Premium we still need to go out and buy Flex Builder. What would be better is if one of the collections contained Flex Builder. In fact, what if there was a collection focussed on RIA development.

I had been thinking about this a little since seeing some demos of Thermo. Thermo is essentially a Flex for Designers that will integrate with Flex Builder (Flex for Developers). So lets imagine a studio with a designer and developer working on Flex based projects. Ideally we could have a CS4 RIA Designer Collection and a CS4 RIA Developer Collection and they could look a little like this:

CS4 RIA Designer Collection
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Adobe Thermo
  • Adobe Dreamweaver
CS4 RIA Developer Collection
  • Adobe Flex Builder
  • Adobe Flash
  • Adobe Dreamweaver
  • Adobe Fireworks
Finally, for the developer/designer we have the Premium collection:

CS4 RIA Premium Collection
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Adobe Fireworks
  • Adobe Flex Builder
  • Adobe Thermo
  • Adobe Flash
  • Adobe Dreamweaver

Using Illustrator Symbols in Flex

The most useful thing I took away from Adobe Refresh last week wasn't something new. In fact it's been there for months and I hadn't discovered it. In a nutshell; Illustrator objects (or groups of objects) can be turned into symbols. Exporting your Illustrator file to an .swf format makes those symbols available within your Flex application. For example, if we create an up state for a play button, create a symbol called play_btn_up and export our Illustrator file as assets.swf. Then we can style our play button using css :


Creating the Symbols within Illustrator is as simple as opening the Symbols panel and dragging our object onto the panel. You'll probably want to rename the symbol to something simple. But otherwise the job is done. This is ideal for us as our designers have been developing all our Flex comps in Illustrator. Until seeing this we'd been importing the relevant objects into Flash and exporting from there. Oddly enough publishing from Flash is much more work than exporting from Illustrator (because you need to setup your Library items if you want to use them as Symbols).

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Melbourne's Adobe Refresh : debrief

Yesterday I attended Melbourne's Adobe Refresh event. This event gave you a little bit of that excitement you get when you attend an event like MAX. Sure all the news had been blogged a month earlier. Personally, I looked at some of that news in detail and some I'd just glanced at. Refresh was about making some time to hear and see what matters in detail. We do a lot of Flex work. So it was the Flex related stuff that got me excited and there wasn't much that wasn't Flex related (in one way or another). The most interesting project for me is Thermo. The demo we saw showed a Photoshop comp converted into a working Flex application by selecting graphics (or groups of graphics) and telling Thermo what sort of component they are. This included creating a horizontal scrolling List and adding states and effects to the component. All this is done in the same format as Flex development so the converted comp will be ready for handing over to the developer (and back to designer for tweeks if necessary). This could make a very real difference to our workflow.

A lot of the other exciting things they demoed related to applications built with Flex ; things like Adobe Share, Buzzword, Adobe Media Player to name a few.

With Media Player they demonstrated some in player advertising. In case you've never seen it Media Player allows you to subscribe to video feeds and then watch selections from that feed when you are ready. One example feed they had was for CSI. Great idea but I found the advertising a bit invasive. I can see how the media owners might find this attrative but I wonder how comfortable the end user will feel. There are some very compelling alternatives out there for accessing TV shows. Media Player offers a very painless alternative as long as it isn't over-burdened with distracting features.

Some of the things (i.e Pacifica) seem like they might take a while to have an impact. But that doesn't mean I didn't come out churning over the potential these offered for the future.