lost

The web we may have lost

The current blow to the open web that is the Net Neutrality ruling feels terrible to me. My generation saw the web emerge and many of us owe our careers to it.

There are a few reasons why the ruling is terrible. First of all are the things that everybody should worry about. Allowing ISPs to favour some traffic over others turns the web into a media of the elite. Mozilla’s Mitchell Baker explained this in detail in her CNN opinion piece. The other reason is that a web controlled by ISPs stifles innovation and opens a floodgate for surveillance as explained in this excellent Twitter thread by @jtm_.

I am not surprised that it came to this. The world-wide-web always scared the hell out of those who want to control what people consume and what their career is. The web was the equaliser.

Anyone can publish, anyone can consume and learn. And there was no way to protect your content. People could download, share and remix. From a pure capitalist point of view this is anarchy. From a creativity point of view, it is heaven.

Before we had the web all the information you wanted to access meant you either had to pay or you had to put a lot of effort in. I remember in school cycling to the library and lending out books, CDs and later DVDs. I also remember that I had to be on time or the thing I wanted to research wasn’t available. I didn’t have the money to buy books. But I was hungry to learn and I love reading.

When I got access to the web this all changed. My whole career started when I got online and I taught myself to start writing code for the web. I never finished any job education other than a course on radio journalism. I never went to college as we couldn’t afford it.

I went online. I found things to learn and I found mistakes I could help fix. I was online very early on when the web was, well – shit. I wasn’t tempted by thousands of streaming services giving me things to consume. Even downloading an MP3 was pretty much wishful thinking on a dial-up connection that cost per minute. I used the web as a read and write medium. I wrote things offline, dialled up, uploaded my changes, got my emails and disconnected.

As a kid I would ask my parents to stop at motorway gas stations to see trucks and cars from other countries. We didn’t have much money for holidays, so any time I could meet people outside my country was a thrill for me. You can’t imagine the thrill I felt when I had my first emails from people from all over the world thanking me for my efforts.

Using the web, I could publish world-wide, 24/7 and could access information as it happened.

This was a huge change to going to the library or reading newspapers. A lot of the information I gathered that way was outdated before it even got published. Editing and releasing is a lengthy process. There’s a flipside, of course. Materials published in a slower, more editorial process tend to be of higher quality. I learned that when I published my books. I learned that having a daunting technical editor and a more formal publishing format pushed me to do better. A lot of what I had blogged about turned out to be not as hot as I thought it was when I re-hashed it in book form.

That’s the price to pay for an open publishing platform?—?it is up to the readers and consumers to criticise and keep the publishers in check. Just because it is online doesn’t mean you should trust it. But as it is online and you can publish, too, you can make it better.

One great thing about an open web was that it enabled me to read several publications and compare them. I didn’t have to buy dozens of newspapers and check how they covered the same topic. I opened them one after the other and did my comparison online. I even got access to the source materials in news organisations. I had quite a chuckle seeing how a DPA or Reuters article ended up in other publications. A web without Net Neutrality wouldn’t allow for that. I’d be fed the message of the publisher that paid the most to the ISP. That’s shit. I might as well watch TV.

I spent 20 years of my career working on and for the web. I did that because when I started it was a pain in the backside to get online. I felt the pain and I very much enjoyed the gain. I had to show a lot of patience geting the content I wanted and publishing my work.

I didn’t have much money from my job as a radio journalist. I took a 10 pack of floppy disks with me to work (later on I used DVD-RWs and re-wrote them). I downloaded whole web sites and articles at work and read them offline at home. I still have a few CDs with “Photoshop tutorials” and “HTML tricks” from back then. Offline browser tools like HTTrack Website Copier or Black Widow were my friends.

At home, I didn’t “surf” as we do now. I opened many browser windows, loaded all the sites and then disconnected. It was too expensive to be online. I would disconnect and go through the browser cache folder to save images that loaded instead of looking at them loading. Dial-up meant hat I paid the same for every minute online as I would have paid for calling someone.

I’ve always wanted to make this better. And I wanted to ensure that whoever wants to use the web to learn or to find a new job or make some money on the side can do it.

And this is where I am angry and disappointed that there is even a possibility that Net Neutrality is in danger.

There is a lot to hate about the “cool viral video” PSA from Chairman of the FCC Ajit Pai

It is smarmy, arrogant and holy crap is it trying to be trendy and cool. But what riled me most about it is that the FCC thinks the main points of worry when it comes to the users of the web are:

  • Posting Pictures of food and animals
  • Shopping
  • Watching media-produced shows and movies
  • Be a fan of the same
  • Post Memes which are remixes of the same

And what scares me even more is the thought that they could be right. Maybe this debate now is a wake-up call for people to understand that the web is a voice for them. A place for them to be a publisher instead of a consumer or repeater of other content in exchange of social media likes and upvotes. It is time to fight for the web, once again.

I’ve always wanted to keep the big equaliser available for all. And I am excited to see what will come next. I look forward to see who will do amazing things with this gift to humanity that is an open publication platform. And how cool is it nowadays to have laptops and mobile phones to carry with you? You can sit in a cafe, access WiFi and you can be and do whatever you want. Wherever inspiration hits you or you try to find something out – go for it.

I sincerely hope that this is what the web still is. I understand that for people who grew up always online that the web is nothing special. It is there, it is like running water when you open a tap. You only care about the water when it doesn’t come.

And I hope that people still care that the web flows, no matter for whom or what the stream carries. The web did me a lot of good, and it can do so for many others. But it can’t do that if it turns into Cable TV. I’ve always seen the web as my media to control. To pick what I want to consume and question it by comparing it. A channel for me to publish and be scrutinised by others. A read-write medium. The only one we have. Let’s do more of the write part.

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Have we lost our connection with the web? Let’s #webexcite

I love the web. I love building stuff in it using web standards. I learned the value of standards the hard way: building things when browser choices were IE4 or Netscape 3. The days when connections were slow enough that omitting quotes around attributes made a real difference to end users instead of being just an opportunity to have another controversial discussion thread. The days when you did everything possible – no matter how dirty – to make things look and work right. The days when the basic functionality of a product was the most important part of it – not if it looks shiny on retina or not.

Let's get excited

I am not alone. Many out there are card-carrying web developers who love doing what I do. And many have done it for a long, long time. Many of us don a blue beanie hat once a year to show our undying love for the standard work that made our lives much, much easier and predictable and testable in the past and now.

Enough with the backpatting

However, it seems we live in a terrible bubble of self-affirmation about just how awesome and ever-winning the web is. We’re lacking proof. We build things to impress one another and seem to forget that what we do sooner than later should improve the experience of people surfing the web out there.

In places of perceived affluence (let’s not analyse how much of that is really covered-up recession and living on borrowed money) the web is very much losing mind-share.

Apps excite people

People don’t talk about “having been to a web site”; instead they talk about apps and are totally OK if the app is only available on one platform. Even worse, people consider themselves a better class than others when they have iOS over Android which dares to also offer cheaper hardware.

The web has become mainstream and boring; it is the thing you use, and not where you get your Oooohhhs and Aaaahhhhs.

Why is that? We live in amazing times:

  • New input types allow for much richer forms
  • Video and Audio in HTML5 has matured to a stage where you can embed a video without worrying about showing a broken grey box
  • Canvas allows us to create and manipulate graphics on the fly
  • WebRTC allows for Skype-like functionality straight in the browser.
  • With Web Audio we can create and manipulate music in the browser
  • SVG is now an embed in HTML and doesn’t need to be an own document which allows us scalable vector graphics (something Flash was damn good in)
  • IndexedDB allows us to store data on the device
  • AppCache, despite all its flaws allows for basic offline functionality
  • WebGL brings 3D environments to the web (again, let’s not forget VRML)
  • WebComponents hint at finally having a full-fledged Widget interface on the web.

Shown, but never told

The worry I have is that most of these technologies never really get applied in commercial, customer-facing products. Instead we build a lot of “technology demos” and “showcases” to inspire ourselves and prove that there is a “soon to come” future where all of this is mainstream.

This becomes even more frustrating when the showcases vanish or never get upgraded. Many of the stuff I showed people just two years ago only worked in WebKit and could be easily upgraded to work across all browsers, but we’re already bored with it and move on to the next demo that shows the amazing soon to be real future.

I’m done with impressing other developers; I want the tech we put in browsers to be used for people out there. If we can’t do that, I think we failed as passionate web developers. I think we lost the connection to those we should serve. We don’t even experience the same web they do. We have fast macs with lots of RAM and Adblock enabled. We get excited about parallax web sites that suck the battery of a phone empty in 5 seconds. We happily look at a loading bar for a minute to get an amazing WebGL demo. Real people don’t do any of that. Let’s not kid ourselves.

Exciting, real products

I remember at the beginning of the standards movement we had showcase web sites that showed real, commercial, user-facing web sites and praised them for using standards. The first CSS layout driven sites, sites using clever roll-over techniques for zooming into product images, sites with very clean and semantic markup – that sort of thing. #HTML on ircnet had a “site of the day”, there was a “sightings” site explaining a weekly amazing web site, “snyggt” in Sweden showcased sites with tricky scripts and layout solutions.

I think it may be time to re-visit this idea. Instead of impressing one another with codepens, dribbles and other in-crowd demos, let’s tell one another about great commmercial products aimed not at web developers using up-to-date technology in a very useful and beautiful way.

That way we have an arsenal of beautiful and real things to show to people when they are confused why we like the web so much. The plan is simple:

  • If you find a beautiful example of modern tech used in the wild, tweet or post about it using the #webexcite hash tag
  • We can also set up a repository somewhere on GitHub once we have a collection going

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A tale of bricks and lost manuals – a talk about open technologies and a new challenge

a tale of bricks and lost manuals

I just got back from Berlin where I gave a closing keynote at the “Lange Nacht der Startups” – an entrepreneur meetup with lots of hacking, celebrities and startups showing what they can do. I was asked to give a talk about Firefox OS (as Deutsche Telekom were a main organiser and they are a Mozilla partner bringing phones to the masses) and I thought I wrap it in a personal story. So here is the transcript of my slides which I almost stuck to (as I wrote it after my talk). Sadly there is no recording.

a big box of lego bricks

When I was a kid, I inherited something amazing from my older siblings: a massive box of random Lego bricks. This box was collected over the years and what got lost along the way were the original manuals telling you how to assemble them to achieve a certain result: a car, a ship, a boat, a house and many other things. Now they were just bricks and I had to use my own ingenuity and creativity to reach similar results.

the patent paintings of the lego brick

I was empowered to do so because of interoperability of the bricks. That was the genius of Lego: the bricks of old were utterly compatible with the new ones and adding a roof tile for example to a car made for an amazing spoiler.

What it is, is beautiful. Lego advertisment in the 70s

I built incredible things. Some of them needed my personal eye to really be what I told people they were but, for me, they rocked. When I went to the playground and other, richer, kids had fancy cars and planes and boats I naturally felt bit jealous. When I saw, however, that when they dropped one of the cars things were different. Their cars were broken, they had to go and pester their parents for a new one and throw away the one they were – just earlier – totally happy with. When I dropped my cars, bricks might fall off but I could re-assemble them. Or smugly turn them into a plane or a boat.

The beautiful concept of assembling things from reusable bricks came back to me much later when I became a web developer. I had HTML, CSS and JavaScript and the world was my oyster. I could make a poem look pretty or I could make things fly on the screen. The bricks empower me and they are plain to see. Others could learn from what I did. The manuals wrote themselves as the product allows those who know about the bricks to look for them and see how I put them together. This made me who I am today. Not an expensive course, not a degree, not a piece of paper or login that told me that now I am a maker.

German head of state doing the same closed hand gesture over and over again

I think this somehow got lost. We think software and especially the mobile world is about fixed states, closed environments and those who can afford accessing and using them. It is an unhealthy market driven by commercialism where things need to break quickly so you can sell more. And, personally, I don’t see it as creative.

Firefox OS Logo

Luckily I work for a company that sees things quite similar, and created Firefox OS. This is a mobile operating system, that gives the bricks of the web the credit they deserve. The OS itself and the applications are all written in HTML5, CSS and JavaScript – and all parts of the OS are open source. Nothing is hidden, everything is shared. The idea is to take the success of the open standards on the Desktop web and bring it to the mobile world.

Hobbes cuddling the world

Talking of the world – a big difference that we are making right now is that with partners like Deutsche Telekom and Telefonicá we’re bringing mobile connectivity to the world. The OS has been already released in Spain, Poland, Venezuela and Colombia. The next markets are coming this quarter. In Spain, for example, a phone running Firefox OS is available in the shops for 79 Euro, unlocked and without a contract. And this price already includes 30 Euro for buying apps for the phone. In Poland, phones are available for one Szloty with a contract or 404 without one. Apps can be bought without the need for a credit card – instead you can charge them to your telephone bill or pay with a pre-paid SIM card account. This goes right back to me being jealous of the rich kids with the fancy toys: software is flexible and can be accustomed to various needs and environments. A great mobile experience that is dependent on you buying very expensive hardware and be locked in to a 24 month contract only available in a certain geographical region to me is a big step backwards. It is called the World Wide Web, not Welcome Western World. Mobile web connectivity with the option to have apps that work offline and give a great experience is not something that only the rich need. On the contrary – there is a whole new market, full of information-hungry people who should be allowed to take part in the biggest collection of human knowledge.

Lego minifig blueprint

And this is where you come in: entrepreneurs, developers, designers, writers, testers, makers. We give you the inter-operable bricks and the platform to distribute your products on. We don’t treat web technologies as a second class citizen and ask you to pay to develop with us or learn a new technology – instead we empower you to use what already works, give it a better and richer experience and bring it to the people who need and want it but so far have been locked out.

Explorers needed

The mobile web is upon us, it is needed and it works. We will not be able to have Desktop computers and fast wired connectivity world-wide. But we have a mobile infrastructure that can be used and improved upon. The now and next generation of users are mobile first and we want you to reach them without having to limit yourself to one platform. Developing in HTML5 means you can convert your products to Android and iOS. Starting with iOS means you have to start from scratch when the next platform takes over. And there will be another one. There always is. The lure of building something closed and calling it the best never to be replaced is big and over and over again companies fall for it. Flash was amazing and the only way to deliver rich experiences, remember?

Scared minifig

Of course it is scary. Working in a flexible environment is not for everyone. I work from home or on the go and my time schedule is all over the place, seeing that the people I work with are scattered all over the globe. Sometimes my work day starts at 4 and ends a 2 in the morning. I cherish that. I like the flexibility and I found that I am surrounded by amazingly creative people who are in control of their own career, output and destiny. Much like being an entrepreneur is like. Take the plunge, trust the bricks, and I promise you can build for now and tomorrow. Cycling is scary the first time you try it but later it makes you independent of time-tables, much faster than a car in inner city traffic and you keep in shape while you are on the move. The same goes for freeing yourself of the idea of a closed environment being the only thing you could ever release something in.

Scared minifig

Yes, LEGO changed. Now we have Star Wars, Harry Potter and many other themed bricks. The base bricks, however, remain and still have the same magical empowering features they had in the past – turning consumers who break toys into makers who create them. And this is you on the open web using free and open technologies in ways I can not even begin to predict now. You are invited, you are free to choose, and there is much to discover. Join me and see the bricks and build things of awesome.

Scared minifig

Thank you.

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The Web We Lost, Heroku Automates Automation, Why moving elements with translate() is better – Hacks Weekly

The Web We Lost, Heroku Automates Automation, Why moving elements with translate() is better and more this week from Mozilla’s Developer Engagement team!

Weekly links

If there is anything you think we should read or know about, don’t hesitate to post a comment, contact us on Twitter or through any other means.
The picks this week are:

The Developer Engagement team

Mozilla’s Developer Engagement team work with writing articles, documentation – such as MDN (Mozilla Developer Network) – public speaking and generally helping and informing about open technologies and Mozilla products. If you are interested in following our work, here are the team members:

View full post on Mozilla Hacks – the Web developer blog

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Don’t Get Lost in the Clouds: Protect Your Database Investment with Alpha Five

The recent demise of Dabble DB follows on the heels of the earlier expiration of Microsoft Popfly and Coghead. These deceased applications confirm a fundamental problem with the Web-based development tool model: You don’t really own your business logic or your application’s future when you commit a database application to a Web-based development tool.

View full post on web development – Yahoo! News Search Results

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