Thursday, March 19, 2009

CSS 3 on the way for mobile and gaming web

John Allsopp gave an impassioned talk about CSS 3 at the March Canberra WSG meeting at the National Library of Australia. This talk, the approach John suggests and the technology it was about , could change the way the Australian Government does web pages and save lives.

This was impromptu talk due to the unavailability of the planned speaker. It had never occurred to me that anyone could be that passionate about Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), a highly complex and frustrating piece of web technology (the CSS standards are much bigger than the HTML one). CSS 3 is the newest and least supported of the CSS standards. Until this talk I had dismissed CSS 3 as something which would be good to have, but so little supported by web browsers that it was not worth looking at, and may never be supported.

John argued that new versions of browsers, particularly Firefox, Safari and Opera, had some useful CSS 3 features. The not so subtle subtext of his presentation was that web designers should give up trying to make web pages look identical on every web browser. Even if this were possible on desktop versions of browsers, it will make less and less sense as the web is accessed on hand held devices (such as the iPhone and Google Andriod smart phones) and games machines (such as the Wii). New devices will have very different size screens and user interfaces, so the desktop metaphor will not suit these.

John argued for designing web sites which will use advanced features on advanced browsers but still be compatible with old browsers. He argued that with new CSS features this can be done without lots of Javascript and CSS hacks, as used in the past.

All of that would have made an interesting academic argument, with a little more passion than usual, but hardly significant for day to day web design. However, John then went on to demonstrate some CSS features available now on newer browsers which can be used to create very elegant Apple Mac and iPhone type effects. The point he emphasised was these techniques were available now, did not require a large amount of code and were backward compatible.

What particularly struck me was how these features could be used for efficient hand held appliciaitons. CSS can be used to create elegantly shaded and curved buttons, without the use of any images. Such buttons will suit smart phones, without the need for large image downloads. Also animation techniques where the item selected changes size and colour can make maximum use of a small screen. At the same time the application will still be compatible with a desktop computer.

A few days ago I criticised the ABC for launching their "ABC Mobile" service with an interface which did not meet accessibility standards. Chris Winter, from ABC Innovation, responded to say they had fixed that problem. The ABC might like to direct their innovation at using some of these new CSS features. It should be kept in mind that the ABC provides information, not just entertainment and in particular the ABC provides emergency information during natural disasters. The techniques John was showing with CSS3 promise a way to provide visually appealing interfaces which are efficient and so would suit web pages designed for emergencies. I will be talking about this at a seminar on a "National Bushfire Warning System" in Canberra, 16 April 2009.

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