Monday, 23 April 2012

Preparing for MSIE Overtaking Day

    It's been a trope of the web developer's existence for the last decade: Microsoft Internet Explorer won the browser wars in the 1990s, all other browsers are irrelevant. The customer has this firmly lodged in their heads from the days when MSIE had over 90% of the market and demands support for IE in all its forms over support for any other browser. We may just about have won the war over abandoning IE6 support, but we are still demanded to code in all the workarounds demanded by its just-as-creaky younger siblings.
    It might have been true in the mid-2000s to manipulate the famous phrase about IBM to "nobody ever got fired for supporting MSIE". But as a quick look at StatCounter's Global Stats will tell you, over the last couple of years Google Chrome has come from nowhere and is rapidly converging on MSIE's market share. Extrapolate the graph forward a few months, and it becomes obvious that sometime this summer, probably in June, Chrome will overtake MSIE as the world's most popular browser.

    That's right, June 2012 will see MSIE Overtaking Day.

    You might think it would be unwise to break out the champagne though. After all, the top spot is just passing from one big company to another, won't it just be a case of "Here's the new boss, same as the old boss"? In that we're fortunate: unlike MSIE with its proprietary approach to rendering HTML, Chrome is a Webkit browser, underpinned by open source and web standards. So if we code to those standards we can expect it to work without too many tweaks on all browsers that support them.

    No more browser-specific stylesheets, no more special Javascript hacks, no more compatibility libraries.

    But the title of this piece is "Preparing for MSIE Overtaking Day". We're already there, as developers we're used to coding web standards, all our sites already work in Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera. It is the non-technical people who need preparing, all those marketing people at the customer, the legal people and the developer project managers who are stuck in that 2000-era trope. I was shocked not too long ago to encounter a site whose contract specified individual browser versions. Not even "version X and above", so when a legitimate bug was reported in a recent browser the response came back that it wasn't supported because the browser wasn't several years old. That kind of thinking is simply not acceptable.
    So we have to think away from the browser in the post-MSIE world of frequently released standards-compliant browsers. We have to sell web standards such as HTM5 rather than support for particular browsers to the non-technical people we encounter as web developers, and we have to hammer home that message using the clearly visible statistics.
    Otherwise we'll still be coding for MSIE7 in 2017 just like some of us had to support MSIE6 in 2010 And that just ain't funny, not at all.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Accessibility: it's an engineering problem

    A  little over a week ago, the British paralympian athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson gave an interview in which she decried the state of accessibility for people with disabilities in the UK and described the experience of having to crawl off a train because the rail employees who had been booked to provide her with a ramp had failed to materialise.
    It has been interesting to watch the commentary unfold over the intervening days. On one hand we have seen many other stories from people with disabilities of being denied the use of services, of being stranded or of being forced to great inconvenience to gain access to things which should be as easy for them as for anyone else. Meanwhile there has been a chorus of discontent from the kind of people who read the Daily Mail, who see the disabled as a fantastically privileged minority who have vast amounts of hard-working able-bodied people's money squandered on them and should accept their lot and stop whinging. To paraphrase one of their battle cries: "If being disabled is so good, why don't you go and live the dream!".
    It's slightly uncomfortable to realise that while the experiences of the people with disabilities are unfortunately too real, there is also a germ of truth in the root of the bitterness from Mail readers. As a country, we have spent a vast amount of money over the last couple of decades on improving accessibility, so where have we failed?
    An exercise I would counsel anyone able-bodied to try is to accompany a wheelchair user across a British city. A simple walk becomes a lengthy traverse; it is sobering to realise how many wheelchair obstacles you pass on foot without realising it.
    Meanwhile the world is festooned with dubious paraphernalia with the aim of improving accessibility. Cash machines have been moved closer to the ground without a thought being given as to whether they need redesigning for use from a perspective of someone with limited mobility or reach. Small business premises sport unused ramps, electric lifts, and disabled toilets used only as dusty storage rooms.
    One is left with the feeling that a vast exercise in box-ticking has been completed. Everywhere has 'done' accessibility because they have the ramps, signs, and lifts to prove it, yet real-world accessibility for people with disabilities remains as elusive as ever.
    I look at this and see not an accessibility problem but an engineering problem. Of course Tanni Grey-Thompson was let down by the rail company, but was the real failure not in the equipment she was provided with? It seems inconceivable that in an age in which we can create robots that can travel to Mars and operate autonomously for years at a time, yet we can't design a lightweight personal mobility aid for someone in a wheelchair that is capable of letting them traverse the kind of step you might encounter between a train and a platform or anywhere else. The Mars robots definitely are rocket science, the mobility aid definitely isn't! Or it shouldn't be, anyway.
    Of course, we engineers have a major failing, we see everything as an engineering problem, we live in a black-and-white world. Engineering can't always fix social or political problems. But engineering is nothing if it isn't the art of making machines to solve physical problems in the real world, and rather evidently the engineering available to people with disabilities isn't fit for purpose. By my observation the basic design of a wheelchair hasn't changed in many decades, is this really a technology that's reached its zenith?
    Perhaps if our Government had spent less time and money patting itself on the back for a successful but ultimately useless box-ticking exercise and instead invested in research and NHS funding for mobility aids that allowed people with disabilities to render some of their accessibility problems irrelevant, there would be no need for any of this. People with disabilities would be able to go where they wanted and get on with their lives just like anyone else.
   But why on earth would any politician want to do that, it wouldn't win any votes from Mail readers, would it!