SitePoint Podcast #182: Web Directions with John Allsopp

Episode 182 of The SitePoint Podcast is now available! This week our regular interview host Louis Simoneau (@rssaddict) interviews John Allsopp (@johnallsopp) about the series of conferences he works on, Web Directions and more.

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Episode Summary

Louis and John talk about the Web Directions conferences, what has been added to them in terms of startup talks, and his history of the web timeline at WebDirections.org/history using Timeline JS.

Browse the full list of links referenced in the show at http://delicious.com/sitepointpodcast/182.

Interview Transcript

Louis: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the SitePoint Podcast. With me on the show today, returning to the show, is Mr. John Allsopp. Hi John.

John: Hey. Good to be back. Thanks for having me.

Louis: It’s good to have you back. John is best known as one of the founders of the Web Directions series of conferences of which the flagship event, Web Directions South is coming up in just a couple of weeks, so I really appreciate you taking the time out of what I imagine must be a very busy schedule this time of the year.

John: Yeah, it gets hectic. You think you’d have all your ducks lined up, everything ready to go, but there’s always keynote speakers who can’t make it.

Louis: Yeah.

John: Actually, it’s the first time it’s ever happened, but it’s always very challenging, and, you know, I’m continuing to do “hacky” things that hopefully we can do at the conference, “Well, let’s just see if they work.” So I probably should have put the whole thing to be about a month ago, but, “No, no. Let’s just see if we can build this thing over here that’s really cool that people will talk about.”

Louis: Well, that’s what makes those conferences great. I definitely know from the ones I’ve attended that it’s always a great experience. So you guys have got a lot of great speakers this year.

John: Yeah, no. It’s a pretty amazing line-up. It gets sort of bigger and better each year. I think we’ve got 65 people this year, and one particular reason for that is we’ve added a start-up track to the conference this year.
Obviously, start-ups are the hot, hot thing, and, you know, there’s a lot flying around about the whole kind of starting up your own business thing. We’ve been doing that for a long time and been involved really since the early ’90s, I guess with what’s come to be known as start-ups, and I see a lot of hype and a lot of nonsense out there. What we’re really trying to do is address that by having people who’ve gone out and done it come back and share what they’ve learned. We’ve basically given people the brief to say what they wish they’d known before they started out. So that’s what that’s all about.
Then, of course, a great range of people across the design and development kind of world, and then people who kind of think big telling us about what they think is happening out there. So yeah, it’s lots of fun, very challenging to put together a great program year on year, you know, to get people to come all the way out here or across the country, but always very rewarding and a fantastic couple of days, which increasingly, we actually get to enjoy, whereas in the past we’d be so stressed that we probably wouldn’t see or do anything and just run around trying to put out fires. But now I think we’ve just kind of learned to accept that it goes okay, and we can participate as well.

Louis: Right. I should mention for anyone listening from outside of Australia, I don’t imagine there are very many people who are going to be able to swing last minute tickets to Australia for a conference that takes place in less than two weeks; however, it’s still pretty much available worldwide because you guys put up a lot of video and audio and slides from all your events.

John: We perhaps had one of the first fully-podcast conferences way back in 2005, which included what we believe is a world first which was the world’s first podcast fire alarm which went off right at the end of a presentation by the famous and fabulous Tantek Çelik. If it would have happened to anyone, I’d be happy to tell you, he literally had just finished. So we got audio and slides online from hundreds of presentations back several years, but we started out with video particularly so we have all the video from our recent HTML5 and JavaScript-focused conference down in Melbourne which a lot of SitePoint folks were at.

Louis: Yeah, it was a lot of fun.

John: So all the videos are online, except a couple of things that didn’t quite work out. That’s always going to happen, and going forward very hopeful that pretty much all the conferences we do will kind of have all the video online and I guess at some point hopefully, for those who aren’t fortunate enough to be here, even live, live streaming video so you can kind of participate to an extent online. So, you know, we’re trying to walk the talk here. We’re trying to kind of explore and use all the technologies, but I guess one step at a time.

Louis: Yeah, you mentioned that you’ve got the start-up track for the first time this year. Was it feedback that you got from attendees of previous conferences who said “Oh, it would be good to have some more business-focused content in the conference?” Or was it something you just sort of felt the general atmosphere of what’s being talked about on the web is a lot of people doing start-ups, and so you figured we should focus on that?

John: Look, I think it’s more of the second. I guess there’s a cohort of people who’ve been involved coming along to Web Directions for many years now, and I see this natural progression. We’ve watched people from students through their first jobs through running teams. Like I said, we’ve sort of seen this progression, and I think part of that progression for a lot of people is the sense that perhaps they want to go out on their own.
So really it’s in no small part focusing on people who have already been coming to Web Directions for a long time, giving them something in addition to the core professional content because we sort of see it as almost like a natural progression. Obviously not for everybody, but for quite a significant percentage of the, you know, the community of people who come to web directions. Now obviously, too, it’s such a hot, hot thing out there.
More broadly, you know, people might see it as a bit of a cynical thing. “Well yeah, it’s someone else doing a start-up thing,” but I guess as I said in the little intro, we’ve been essentially running start-up software and now event-focused conferences for nearly 20 years, and we learned a lot, and I’ve been involved with some very successful start-ups, TypeKit in particular. So, you know, I guess we’ve got some experience here, and we know a lot of people who’ve done very well, and we know a lot of people who gone out and tried and done various things. So we kind of feel we’re uniquely-placed to bring all these people together to share what they’ve learned and their experiences.
And I guess the other thing is we don’t really have a dog in this fight. You know, we’re not a fund. We’re not any start-up co-working space. It’s not to say there’s anything negative about any of those particular organizations. They have great roles and they really help the ecosystem, but I guess we have no other agenda. We’re not trying to kind of promote our investment fund. We’re not trying to promote, you know, anything other than really bringing these people together and connecting them with each other and helping them learn from each other. So I guess that’s another thing we can kind of bring, as Web Directions, to something that’s focused on start-ups.

Louis: Yeah, that’s great, because, I mean, it’s true what you say, the web industry does lend itself particularly well to people going out on their own and being able to start their own thing.

John: It’s funny. I look back over all the fantastic speakers that we’ve had over many years, particularly international ones and just off the top of my head I can think of very few who haven’t ultimately gone in that direction, whether that’s starting their own studio, whether it’s starting their own working space, or, of course, so many of them going out and starting more kind of traditional software, technology-focused start-ups. So, you know, it just seems such a natural progression for so many people in our industry that it kind of makes sense, I think, for us to provide an opportunity for people to kind of get more of a sense about that whole world.
Now, the other thing, just to say briefly around this particular track, is this is very much focused with people who haven’t necessarily started up yet. Now, that’s not to say that people like that won’t get something from it, but really it’s about helping people make some of the important decisions and think about some of the issues that maybe you think “Oh, we’ll worry about that later,” and of course later comes and it’s a big issue and you haven’t dealt with it.
So whether that’s the kind of organization that you create, whether that’s the responsibilities of the various founders, whether that’s of course funding models, you know, do you use Kickstarter, do you get Angel adventure capital, do you bootstrap, do you go through an incubator, all the way through to what about business models? You know, how are we going to actually generate revenue? Those sorts of things are what people really should think long and hard about before they take their awesome idea and make it a reality.
But while it might sound strange, for the most part people don’t, I think, think enough about those issues. We, you know, we love building stuff right, so we think, “Wow, I’m going to build this awesome app,” or “I’m going to build this awesome thing,” or “Make this great game,” and we focus on that, but really that’s only a small part of success or more importantly failure. I think unless you make other very good decisions around the business right from the beginning, I’ve said it more than once, people, you know, who followed a plan really do plan to fail.
So that’s what we’re really trying to focus on, you know, to help them make really good decisions about the kind of business they’re going to build, how they’re going to fund it, what it’s going to look like and to address, I guess, in the famous words of a former U.S. Defense Secretary, “The unknown unknowns.” Which, you know, I think it was Rumsfeld. He was kind of widely pilloried for that particular statement, but the term unknown unknowns, I think is really important because when you’re venturing into a new world, it’s what you don’t know you don’t know is what’s going to get you. So that’s what we want to at least try and illuminate. What are the things that you should think about you haven’t even thought you needed to think about yet?

Louis: Yeah, that’s great, and especially for, like you said, the majority of your audience is going to be more technical or designed-focused people who, as you said, you can become all- consumingly focused on the product that you’re building. Most of us didn’t get into doing web-designer development because we were interested in business; we got into it because we wanted to build things.

John: Right. I mean, I look at the experience from my own life that when people ask me what I do these days, you know, I kind of want to talk about all the things I build, and the books I’ve written, but truth is I’m kind of a businessman for want of a better term. You know, I spend my life in strategy meetings and partner meetings and business development and for the longest time that kind of got me down, but I sort of accept that’s a reality now.
Like it used to be I saw that stuff as the stuff I had to do but really my core business, my core work was, you know, playing with stuff, building new things, writing fantastic articles or crap ones or whatever, but the truth is once I accepted “Look, really you’re a businessman who does all this other stuff rather than a developer who has to do with a business,” I think it was very beneficial for my own mental health. I think it was beneficial for our business. I think it’s just a natural path we progress along, although I think, I would always recommend people were passionate about building things to keep that space to do that because as much as anything, I guess, unless you keep on top of technology you fail to see opportunities, you fail to see emerging risks and threats.
I think it’s no accident that if you look at very successful U.S. companies whether very big or very small in the technology space, they’re not run by MBAs, and they’re not run by lawyers, they’re actually run by technologists or technologists have a very important role to play. And the companies that are, big technology companies that are more run by kind of classic MBA business-types maybe don’t do quite as well. Anyway, so there’s an important place for both those things.
You know, I think it’s a reality people shouldn’t turn their back on but in order to be successful at building stuff and doing cool stuff, you know, you need to generate revenue and you need to make sure you don’t waste a whole heap of money. You need to make sure you focus your credit in importing the things that ultimately are going to sustain a great business, so and I guess, over time we recognize that. So that’s really what the start-up track is about is to help, at least over a couple of days, people start thinking more deeply about the business side of things.

Louis: Right. You touched a little bit there on not losing touch with wanting to build cool things, and I think your latest project is one that I thought was really cool. You put up this little timeline of the web on the Web Directions website at webdirections.org/history, and it’s just this sort of nice, I guess, slider-style timeline of a lot of major events mostly early on in the web and when things were introduced. Where did the idea come from to build this thing?

John: Well, probably the original idea, in some ways, goes back to something that I thought of about eight years ago on my honeymoon on the beautiful Cook Islands where I took with me the first two of The Baroque Cycle by Neil Stevenson, are fantastic. I think I recounted this recently when I was talking with Eric Meyer on the Web Behind as well, but we might have a chance to look at just, spend a couple more moments on it.
So basically The Baroque Cycle is just this massive, fantastic, entertaining, stimulating series of novels by Neil Stevenson which are all set in the late 17th and early 18th century. I might be 100 years out there, but anyway, so essentially the rise of the modern world.

Louis: I think that’s right.

John: So we see the rise of modern economics or modern finance, the idea that we move away from a cash economy to a credit economy. We see the rise of modern science, so natural philosophy becomes science. We see the rise of kind of a global trade system. So it actually addresses these really big philosophical concepts but in a very entertaining way. The characters are everyone from Isaac Newton to Half-Cocked Jack who’s this fantastic, crazy pirate figure who would make Jack Sparrow seem like someone you take home for tea, but what’s really interesting about it to me is its full of an amalgam of historically-accurate information and a whole lot of confected stuff, a whole lot of made-up stuff.
So we see the great fire of London, we see the plague in London in 1666-1667, that sort of time frame. We see, you know, Isaac Newton. We see, you know, the founders of the World Society, all sort of amazing historical characters doing historical stuff and woven through that we have these confected, created characters, someone who ends up effectively creating the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the backwoods of Massachusetts back in the late 7th to 8th century.
So what was interesting to me was to follow the events that happened and think about “Okay, which of these are real and which of these are made up?” So I imagine this project that I termed “WWWWWW” or something, it was the who, what, where, how, when, I don’t know. There’s an H there, but anyway, who, what, where, how, the idea was sort of essentially was going to be wiki-driven theme where you put all these, you know, you could put events in there and then it would pull it out and display that information. So you could sort of track it in various ways.

And my idea was “I’ll start with first few hundred Wikipedia style and hopefully other people will come and do it” and I thought, “Well, this is a really cool idea but we could do the whole world history like this” but of course I quickly, you know, I got married, we had a baby, and like many of the other projects in my life it was kind of stalled, but that’s alright. I have a million things in my life that have been like that and, you know, sometimes they re-emerge, they bubble up years later. That’s sort of what happened here.
I guess I was playing with a thing called Timeline JS that was a great technology similar to these and I’m not sure whether Timeline JS was built on top of it but it was called the Simile Project from MIT and the Simile Project was a simple way where you could define in comma separated values or JSON or other formats, a series of events and then it would pull it in and display it on a kind of timeline. The Timeline JS is kind of a much richer, more sophisticated version of that.
So I sort of came across that and I thought about-and we’re about to launch another project that I’ve done with it. But I just sort of started playing around with it and it very quickly seemed like a very good way of approaching what can otherwise be an incredibly complicated challenge which is trying to keep a sense of how the web emerged through standards, through ideas, through technologies, browsers, editors and things like that.
Because, you know, even those of us who were around more or less at the time kind of forget things, obviously, and we lose what came first which, you know, which version of Netscape came out before IE that had this feature. So I thought it was very important to maintain all that information, so, kind of, I guess it was a many-year project that combined various obsessions and interests of mine, and just finally popped out in a few hours, you know, Timeline JS is so simple to use, and really once I got up and running and saw that it was, you know, was worth doing. Sometimes you’ll have an idea and you’ll play around and you’ll actually implement it and “You know what? It’s not very interesting.” We’ve all probably done that, but this one I thought “Well, this is very interesting.”
So, it’s great now. All I do it people send me emails with suggested events. I’ll spend maybe an hour every couple of days finding, you know, I’ll think about something like “Oh, I haven’t really got anything about SGML,” so I’ll kind of spend some time researching that kind of history of GML and SGML and add events that way, so it kind of gives me an opportunity to go and do some research, add things, you know, here there and everywhere, and generally, I guess, keep myself connected with where we’ve come from so it kind of serves a lot of useful purposes.

Louis: I guess there is definitely a lot of information in some of the early spaces about very early web browsers and specifications and then as it goes on closer to the modern era, it’s a little bit sparcer, but I imagine there’s a lot of information yet to be included in there. But it does, as you were saying, some things do when you look at them, seem surprising in the order of which things arrived or how close together things were. You know, it surprised me both how young Firefox was and how old Ruby on Rails was and that those two dates, the release of Firefox 1 and Ruby on Rails 1 were not as far apart, you know, I would have given a decade between those two things happening because it certainly felt like a decade.

John: Yeah. Sort of, about a year, I guess.

Louis: Something like that, yeah, it looks like.

John: And then between them is AJAX.

Louis: Yeah.

John: AJAX is so, a term that I guess swept like fire through the sort of web design community. I think we’ve been stumbling around looking for a term that describes what we need, you know, like beyond that first or second generation web design, you know, and suddenly, the term arrived at just the right time, but what, a few weeks after Firefox 1 was released. But of course the online technology was implemented into XWare 5 going back kind of years and years before that.

Louis: Yeah, like I said, it’s surprising. You think of Ruby on Rails as a very recent development, something that’s been around for a few years, and it’s kind of gaining a lot of traction now and you think of Firefox as something that’s been around forever, and to see them that close on the timeline. Obviously, it’s really interesting to see a lot of history from well back in the day before I was involved in working with the web and seeing what some of the early browsers looked like and seeing it all on a timeline where it all sort of has a sense of history that you wouldn’t get from reading a Wikipedia page about the history of the web.

John: Well, that was sort of one of the things about it. I mean, you might have observed it, but a lot of this information’s available. I mean, you go to a Wikipedia page on the history of web browsers, there’s a ton of information there. But, you know, is it a particularly kind of illuminating way of sort of telling a story about the history of the web and it’s not. It’s really just a database of information, a very valuable one, whereas the idea behind this is very narrative-driven and Timeline JS, that’s what it’s about. It’s really about telling narratives through time.
So I think that this is, again, one of the things I’m trying to do as I put the pieces of information there is to sort of add a bit of extra connection between two different dates through time. So the release of Internet Explorer 5 for Windows has XML http requests, which is just kind of something that almost no one paid any attention to, but ultimately gave rise to asynchronous JavaScript because we could then send little pieces of information to and from between browser and server. So it’s beyond simply pieces of information; it’s a story, and it helps me to try and kind of find other threads to connect to the pieces of the story as well.

Louis: Yeah, well, I definitely have to commend you on the amount of work that went into it. I know you claim that Timeline JS makes everything nice and easy, but I do still appreciate that you must have put quite a few hours of your own time into this and it’s definitely something to check out if anyone listening wants to see it it’s a webdirections.org/history, and I believe there’s a submission form somewhere to put in ideas.

John: Yeah, if you basically just go to the front page I think there’s an email address to me there I think.

Louis: Yeah, there’s an email, yeah.

John: And then, there is actually at webdirections.org there’s a blog post with a submission form, so maybe we can find that URL and pass it around.

Louis: Yeah, I’ll throw that in the show notes as well.

John: If they want to give us detailed information great or just want to suggest something, it’s kind of interesting, people will say, “Well, what about social media?” and it’s like, well, you know the thing is you end up with a map that is a one to one map of the whole world which kind of isn’t a very useful map.” So the point at which I guess there’s an editorial approach. And for me, there might be things like, and I’m not sure I’ve put this in there, but there were these key websites.
There were, for example, there was a redesign at Wired Magazine in the early 2000’s which kind of was purely CSS based and sort of, was hailed certainly at the time as this exemplar of the ability of creating commercial, cutting edge websites that, you know, worked across multiple browsers with new standards because, you know, the idea was until then, well basically what about these older versions of Netscape and whatever. We can’t really do this. So while there’s certainly the place for these kind of exemplars, these kind of milestone sites, I guess I’m focusing more on technology than I am on the social currents and so on.

Louis: Yeah.

John: So I think at this point probably we won’t see, you know, the launch of Boo.com or Facebook.com, but see, who remembers Boo.com? Do you remember Boo.com?

Louis: No.

John: So that was kind of late 90s, probably the exemplar, there’s whole books on its failure. Basically, they got tons of funding and it was supposed to be this massive online kind of high-end retail fashion store, and people forgot it now, but that was, Boo.com was like-you just have to say Boo.com to basically pooh-pooh the entire Internet back in about 1999, and yet we’ve forgotten it now, right?

Louis: Yeah. Whereas something like the effect that the Wired.com and ESPN redesigns had on developer mindset and the way developers approached the web going forward was, those are historical, and it’s not only relevant for that company, but for the web at large. I guess you could make the argument that the recent Boston Globe redesign would probably fall into that category.

John: Well, I think our friend and somewhat colleague at SitePoint, Cameron Adams, I think he’s heading in that respect. He kind of blogged about using JavaScript before midi queries were out there, or certainly the more modern midi queries. Using JavaScript to create multiple-column layouts based on the width of a browser and, in fact, the City Morning Herald and I guess, as a consequence, The Age and other Fairfax newspapers were doing this style years ago, and these are the things we lose sight of sometimes.
It’s not to downgrade the importance of the Boston Globe redesign. Obviously, that’s going to be one of those moments that we refer to, but I think it’s important also to try and keep track of the other less, maybe famous, but in some ways, as significant events. So there are sort of things, I guess, I’m trying to document.
And it’s been good to have people kind of write to me and say “Look, what about this thing?” and I thought “Wow,” I mean, usually I’d heard of it, but the very first entry now in the Timeline is the Mundaneum, which was this idea of collecting the entire world’s knowledge in a single building, and basically, you know, it was very analog because the original ideas came from the late 19th century. In fact, it was built in about 1910, and I’d never heard of this despite the fact I’ve been very interested in this whole field for nearly a quarter of a century.
So it’s good for people, to like write to me and tell me things and I think “Wow.” So I’ve definitely learned things both by other people telling me or myself thinking “What was that? What was happening around then?” I’ll go and find something. They’ll be a reference in, you know, whether it’s one of the Wikipedia or the W3.org or these other records that I’m going back to and leads me on to something else. So, you know, it’s more than just copying and pasting out of Wikipedia.

Louis: Yeah.

John: But I’m relying on, it’s a lot on my memory to shape the story, but it’s also starting to take on a life of its own which I think is the best part of it all.

Louis: Yeah, really interesting to go back and see the stuff that sort of set the stage for the idea of hypertext well before anyone was thinking of markup languages per se. And I also wanted to commend you really quickly on using a really classic, old-school, under construction GIF as the image to represent the introduction of the GIF format in 1987.

John: Oh, it couldn’t go past that really. I was looking, there were a whole heap of them out there. The funny thing is there’s a huge page of them, and ironically, it actually almost pretty much crashes and burns any modern browser or any modern hardware when it’s trying to run, you know, a few dozen simultaneous animated GIFs. So it’s probably a technology I’m glad has past. I was thinking about the one with the guy shoveling stuff.

Louis: Yeah.

John: Another classic under construction. And then I think there were, didn’t Paul Irish, a couple days ago ask for someone to redesign that using only animated CSS or something?

Louis: I didn’t catch wind of that. I’m sure someone must have done it.

John: Right.

Louis: Because, yeah, the first few times you see something like, “Oh, I’ve designed a whole iPhone using no images and nothing but CSS,” you think “Oh wow, that’s really.” And then, you know, as they poured in over the course of the years, you get to the point where you think, “Okay, well you can clearly do anything with CSS if you have unlimited time and patience.”

John: And unlimited divs.

Louis: Yeah. There is one thing I did want to discuss with you briefly. I don’t know if you remember, the last time you were on the show, we were talking a little bit about the idea of what, at the time, were being called hybrid apps. I’m not sure if that terminology is still in use anywhere.

John: Yeah, not so much. It’s not used so much is it? I think it’s just apps these days and people will be less concerned about how you build them. But anyway, continue.

Louis: Yeah, so you had written, I think, an opinion piece at the time, and that was one of the things we wanted to talk about, and we just sort of discussed what the situation was with what the different technologies used to approach the mobile platform were. I guess your point of view, and mine as well at the time, was that the web is obviously the best choice, and I was wondering if your thinking on that has changed in any way in the intervening time. I know there have been a few things recently. One of them was Facebook’s move away from HTML5 with regards to their mobile apps, and then the other thing is hoards of iOS users move towards the web to access Google maps, and how you feel that plays into what your thinking is on the important of web technologies for the mobile platform.

John: I think underlying it all it that we live in a multi-platform world obviously. I mean, it’s a truism, and what that means is both multiple operating systems. So, you know, for the foreseeable future if you want to reach a significant percentage of people you’re going to have to build applications that work across all, either that or build multiple applications in different technologies to reach all sort of operating systems and it’s not just about operating systems, it’s device characteristics. So we’ve seen the launch of the iPhone 5, I think it was. What are they, up to five now?

Louis: I think it’s five, yeah.

John: Yeah, so I get confused now because there’s iOS 6 and iPhone 5, right? But what you see if you’ve got one of those is that the iPhone 4 apps or the iOS, the apps that were optimized for iPhone 4 have this pretty unsightly black bar across the top and the bottom.
So it goes to show that even the simplest changes to form factors of devices, when you use technologies that are completely designed for that device, in this case Objective C and all of that, the Apple’s Cocoa Touch, and so on. Basically, you have to redevelop even if, you know, Apple adds a few pixels to the screen, right? And this is what all those kind of lament about the number of Android, fragmentation Android platform.
The truth is there’s always been fragmentation. There’s been fragmentation of devices, of screens, of operating systems, and we’ve always had it. It’s not going away, right? So I think we’ve just got to get used to that.
Now, we could even celebrate it as a great thing, but let’s leave that aside. Let’s treat it as just a simple historical reality that is not going to change. So at this point, do you want to reach a whole heap of people with whatever you’re building? You can say, “Look, we’re going to pursue a niche of people and we’re going to go with a particular platform,” and that’s a perfectly valid approach. Or for the most part, whether you’re building something for a client, or you’re building something yourself, that’s a luxury, you know, you can’t afford. You can’t say to a client, “Well we’re not actually going to build you for anything other than this platform because we know this platform, we don’t know the other ones,” right? You know, I don’t think that’s the approach that’s going to work with most clients.
So, given that, what are you going to do? Are you going to build something that is optimized for iPad, iPad Retina, iPhone, iPhone Retina, iPhone 5, like suddenly we’ve got five or six form factors, they’re different. Okay. Now we’re looking at kind of all these other platforms. So we’re looking at Android. You know, 7-inch tablets, 10-inch tablets, 5-inch tablet, 4-inch phones and 3.5 inch phones, right?
Televisions. We haven’t even begun to see the impact of, I guess, smart TVs, whatever you want to call them, but basically they’re another screen that is going to become increasingly interactive, whereas in the past, you know, the screen was looked at far more than any other in our life is a television screen and it’s always been pretty passive and any interactions with it have been pretty much choosing the next thing we want to watch at this time. But it’s becoming an increasingly important way in which we interact with a whole heap of services.
So it seems to me, in the context of all that, and then, you know, I haven’t even mentioned in-car dashboards and there are just going to be screens on everything. That’s something I’ve been saying for a while, but we’re seeing it increasingly. As a consequence, if you’re building something to reach as many people as possible, I just don’t think there’s ultimately any alternative than to use web technologies to reach them.
Now whether you package them up and deploy them as native apps or not really comes down to circumstance. So at the moment I’m playing around with some new field communication stuff, you know, NFC, RFID stuff, right? Using mobile devices that have NFC on them.
Now I can build something using web technology and phone gap, but I have to access those device APIs, and I can’t do that in a browser. I’m going to have to do that in a native app, whether it’s Android or Blackberry or some other platform which support NFC.
Now here’s a circumstance in which I can use web technologies, and I can extend them a little bit using technologies like phone gap, and ultimately, I can build an application that is just as capable as if I’d used, you know, on Android I used Java, or on the Blackberry I used C++, or whatever particular approach that I wanted to use.
I tend to try and think in the broad swoop of history, right? That’s a luxury I have because, you know, I don’t necessarily have to build things day in and day out for clients, but I do build things day in and day out, I just have the luxury that I do them for me for the most part.
So, look, I guess if you look at the history timeline what we’ve just been talking about that is very much about this broad swoop of history. If you look at Type Kit which has been very successful, that came about through understanding the broad sweep of history over ten years of technological innovation around typography in the browser. So I think there’s a place, a very important place, for stepping back a little bit, taking a deep breath and having a look at where things really are headed.

So where do I think things are headed in the long run? I think the idea of native apps I think, as Scott Jansen recently talked about, he used the term, it’s kind of a local maximum, right? So if you think about artificial intelligence, or you look at any sort of algorithm that tries to solve a problem, a complex problem, basically, you can keep optimizing around a local maximum, but it might mean you’re missing a much bigger picture outside that.
I tend to think that’s true of applications. I think they’re something we’re familiar and comfortable with: the metaphors of desktops applications or desktop computing since the early 1980’s and before that, maybe the history of application- centric.
There’s one exception to that, a significant exception, which was Lisa, so, the precursor in a way to the Mac. Lisa was document-centric. You didn’t start applications. You opened documents, and, in fact, it had a rudimentary concept of compound documents. So I kind of think ultimately at the moment we’re getting things backwards when we focus on the application rather than what we’re trying to achieve, on whether that’s a piece of art, whether it’s the letter, whether it’s the book, whether it’s illustration.
I know there’s a lot there. I’ve just gone on for about ten minutes, but you knew what you were getting yourself into. So, to me, I think the web isn’t focused on content. Web technologies are about content. It’s very much about enabling different services to work together, and you know, we’re only beginning to touch the surface of that. If you look at the web- intense projects or the INT, EN, NTS, the idea is that it makes it easier to build compound content where, you know, this particular service will handle this particular feature of my application.
So I think in the longer sweep of history the web opens up these possibilities whereas native platforms tend to close them down. Although, you know, Android has Intense, Blackberry has Wave in Blackberry 10 and the playbook OS have a way of invoking other applications to do things for you, but I think the web kind of really starts allowing us to build those sort of solutions, and to me that’s where we’re headed.

Louis: Right. So for you, something like Facebook’s move away from HTML5 is a bit of a blip on the radar, and I should mention it’s a move away from HTML5 as a technique to build their native applications, but they still get the majority of their mobile usage through their browser anyway.

John: Right. And word is, there have been articles in the way they’ve went about building their application, and there seem to be some pretty inefficient uses of networks resources that have a lot more to do with performance challenges, right?

Louis: I seem to remember reading somewhere that they were actually shipping snippets of HTML over the wire and not caching things locally, so it seems like it was more of an organizational failure than a technological one.

John: Yeah. One of the challenges I think we have in our industry right now is we’re very opinionated, and it’s a bit ironic me saying that, but I like to think that like at least if we’re going to have opinions, we should back it up with research, right?

Louis: Right.

John: So I’m very akin to research. So whether it’s somebody kind of-there was quite a bit of critique around local storage going back, like, a few months back, some relatively high-profile people talking about local storage as being dangerous. The problem was, in theory what they were talking about was worth considering, right? But we don’t live in a theoretical world.
So what I did was I built some test cases, and I tested it and demonstrated for any practical purpose that you might talk about, you know, they were at least overstating the case. I think it’s really important to have ideas, have opinions, that’s great, but get out there and test them.
Now, I do that all the time. I like to think that, you know, I’d like to think that if I have an opinion I’ve at least tried to justify it or at least found evidence for it, and if I can’t find that evidence hopefully, change my opinion as well. So I think that’s one of challenges right now is we tend to take sides.
I mean, the whole HTML5 thing is really, it’s kind of largely seen as you’ve got native fans and you’ve got HTML5 fans, and they’re just in camps, and they’re battling it out. The truth is we have to be realistic about the technologies, why we use them, what their shortcomings are.
I recently wrote a white paper. It’s called HTML5 for Creatives, and it’s really focusing on creative directive types and people in agencies and people who are responsible for campaigns, right? Now typically at that decision making level, they’re not familiar with the ins and outs of specific technologies, and for the most part that’s fine. But what I wanted to address was a lot of these myths that are out there and the things you might hear about as a kind of creative director, and I go and speak on panels and things, and I hear stuff coming out of people’s mouth that is just kind of ridiculously, but I know where I came from. I wanted to try and address all those sorts of things.
One of the things that I was looking at around that were the, you know, some of these issues about Facebook performance, HTML5 because, you know, people use these things as a reason to do what they want to do, rather than a way to learn about how to do things better, right? So I sort of challenge anybody who has a strong opinion about these sort of things to go and test it, and I do that. I do that all the time.
I play around with technology, and one of the things I found out was at the moment, I don’t think you can use JQuery Mobile in a way to deploy apps that are going to work particularly well for most users, you know, native apps. It just doesn’t seem good enough for me in terms of performance. There’s other frameworks out there that do work well and that comes down to testing them out and researching them, rather than kind of, you know, saying “Oh, well Facebook didn’t work therefore HTML5 doesn’t work.”
That’s sort of, you can make some very bad decisions in that sort of way as far as I’m concerned. You know, you’re going to bet your entire future on somebody else’s kind of opinion that’s based on no evidence? I don’t know. But I suggest it’s really important for people to go out and do research and, you know, if you think this doesn’t work go and give it a try and if you can demonstrate why something doesn’t work, publish it. Show us what the shortcomings are. That’s what I do and a lot of really smart people do.
But, you know, opinions, they’re just, I think unfortunately opinions, people latch onto opinions that kind of concur with what they already think, right? And this is why I like a scientific approach because science is all about questioning what you already think, challenging it and demonstrating that it’s kind of on the right track or maybe it’s not.

Louis: Absolutely. So I’ll definitely throw up a link to your “HTML5 for Creatives” white paper in the show notes as well. As I mentioned at the start of the show, the Web Directions South Conference in Sydney is coming up in just a little over a week, but I believe you still do have tickets available. So if anyone happens to be in Australia and hasn’t registered that’s still available at webdirections.org. Am I right there?

John: That’s right sir. We’re on two weeks yesterday. I think there’s a SitePoint discount code, pretty sure. We can maybe post that. I think if you just sign up with the code SitePoint you might get a couple hundred bucks off.

Louis: All right, fantastic.

John: So, I’m pretty sure that’s out there. We often get quite a lot of people from the SitePoint family along and quite a lot of SitePoint readers and…

Louis: There will definitely be some folks along. I won’t be able to make it this year unfortunately, but there will definitely be a few people there, probably with some books and shirts. So anyone listening who’s going to be attending Web Directions South definitely go up and say hi to the SitePoint folks, and I will, as I mentioned, throw up links to all the stuff we talked about in the show on the website. And if people want to follow you on the web or on Twitter?

John: Pretty much anywhere I am JohnAllsopp, so @johnallsopp. I think on my app.net it’s JohnAllsopp. Pretty much go looking for John Allsopp, and you will find me. Please come and follow me. I try not to, I try to have a 90% kind of professionally-focused content out there, and I’ll be about 10% more on the personal side.

Louis: You’ve got to put at least, there’s got to be at least 10% toast though, so that doesn’t leave a lot. I think you need to scale it back maybe a little.

John: Personal toast or professional? 5% personal toast, 5% professional toast.

Louis: Right. I understand a little bit when I spoke with Jeremy Keith earlier in the year, he warned people who might be considering following him on Twitter that it was going to be at least 50% toast so…

John: Well he used to be a baker. So maybe that’s where it comes from.

Louis: Did he? Well maybe that’s, so maybe it is professional.

John: He bakes a mean loaf does Jeremy, so, yeah I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s been a while since he’s made any bread.

Louis: All right. Good to know.

John: There you go. That’s why he’s probably toast oriented.

Louis: Alright. Well thanks very much, John, for taking the time to talk to me this morning.

John: Great. Pleasure.

Louis: I know you must be super busy getting all your ducks in a row for the conference, so best luck with that and have a blast.

John: We shall. Come say hi if you come to the event, so come to the conference people, and we’ll catch you again soon.

Louis: And thanks for listening to this week’s episode of the SitePoint Podcast. I’d love to hear what you thought about today’s show, so if you have any thoughts or suggestions just go to sitepoint.com/podcast and you can leave a comment on today’s episode, you can also get any of our previous episodes to download or subscribe to get the show automatically. You can follow SitePoint on Twitter @sitepointdotcom, that’s sitepoint d-o-t-c-o-m, and you can follow me on Twitter @rssaddict.
The show this week was produced by Karn Broad, and I’m Louis Simoneau, thanks for listening and bye for now.

Audio Transcription by SpeechPad.

Theme music by Mike Mella.

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  • Mike

    Not on i-Tunes yet?