You’re welcome: cutting the mustard then and now.

EVERY TIME I hear a young web developer cite the BBC’s forward-thinking practice of “cutting the mustard,” by which they mean testing a receiving web device for certain capabilities before serving content, I remember when my team and I at The Web Standards Project invented that very idea. It’s a million web years ago, by which I mean fourteenish human years ago, so nobody remembers but me and some other long toothed grayhairs, plus a few readers of the first edition of Designing With Web Standards. But I like you, so I will tell you the story.

Back then in those dark times, it was common practice for web developers to create four or more versions of the same website—one for each browser then in wide use. It was also a typical (and complementary) practice to send server-side queries to figure out which browser was about to access a site’s content, and then send the person using that browser to the site version that was configured for her browser’s particular quirks, proprietary tags, and standards compliance failings.

The practice was called “browser detection.” Nobody but some accessibility advocates had ever questioned it—and the go-go dot-com era had no time or care for those folks.

But we at The Web Standards Project turned everything on its head. We said browsers should support the same standards instead of competing to invent new tags and scripting languages. We said designers, developers, and content folks should create one site that was accessible to everyone. In a world like that, you wouldn’t need browser detection, because every browser and device that could read HTML would be able to feast on the meat of your site. (And you’d have more meat to share, because you’d spend your time creating content instead of crafting multiple versions of the same site.)

To hasten that world’s arrival, in 2001 we launched a browser upgrade campaign. Those who participated (example participant here) employed our code and content to send their users the message that relatively standards-compliant browsers were available for every platform, and inviting them to try one. Because if more people used relatively standards-compliant browsers, then we could urge more designers and developers to create their sites with standards (instead of quirks). And as more designers and developers did that, they’d bump against still-unsolved standards compliance conundrums, enabling us to persuade browser makers to improve their standards compliance in those specific areas. Bit by bit, stone by stone, this edifice we could, and would, erect.

The code core of the 2001 browser upgrade campaign was the first instance of capability detection in place of browser detection. Here’s how it worked. After creating a valid web page, you’d insert this script in the head of your document or somewhere in your global JavaScript file:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =

We even provided details for various flavors of markup. In HTML 4 or XHTML 1 Transitional documents, it looked like this:

<script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
// -->

In STRICT documents, you’d either use a global .js file, or insert this:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
// -->

You could also just as easily send visitors to an upgrade page on your own site:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =

Non-WaSP members (at the time) J. David Eisenberg, Tantek Çelik, and Jim Heid contributed technical advice and moral support to the effort. WaSP sysadmin Steven Champeon, the inventor of progressive enhancement, made it all work—under protest, bless him. (Steve correctly believed that all web content should always be available to all people and devices; therefore, in principle, he disliked the upgrade campaign, even though its double purpose was to hasten the arrival of truly standards-compliant browsers and to change front-end design and development from a disrespected world of hacks to a sustainable and professional craft. ((See what I did there? I’m still respectfully arguing with Steve in my head.)))

Discovering rudimentary DOM awareness or its absence in this fashion was the first time web developers had tested for capabilities instead of chasing the dragon in a perpetual and futile attempt to test for every possible browser flavor and version number. It was the grandparent, if you will, of today’s “cutting the mustard.” And it is analogous as well to the sensible responsive design practice of setting breakpoints for the content, instead of trying to set appropriate breakpoints for every possible device out there (including all the ones that haven’t been invented yet).

Which reminds us that the whole point of web standards was and is forward compatibility—to create content that will work not only in yesterday’s and today’s browsers and devices, but in all the wonderful devices that have yet to be invented, and for all the people of the world. You’re welcome.

—CHICAGO, Westin Chicago River Hotel, 1 September 2015

Hat tip: John Morrison

Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.

The two principles are:

  1. Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
  2. Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.

The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.

The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.

A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.

And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:

It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.

I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)

To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.

I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)

Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”

Also published in Medium.

Big Web Show № 132: Modern Layouts with Jen Simmons

Jen Simmons

THE BIG WEB SHOW is back from its break. My guest this week is Jen Simmons (@jensimmons) of The Web Ahead. We discuss moving beyond cookie-cutter layouts on the web; the ins and outs of podcasting; tradeoffs when designing a website; learning from your users; Jen’s journey from theater to technology; and more. Sponsored by Dreamhost. Enjoy The Big Web Show № 132.

URLS (great links in the show notes!)

No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart

Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.

Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.

Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code

My website is 20 years old today.

MY WEBSITE is 20 years old today. I’m dictating these remarks into a tiny handheld device, not to prove a point, but because, with gorgeously ironic timing, my wired internet connection has gone out. It’s the kind of wired connection, offering the kind of speed, ‘most everyone reading this takes for granted today—a far cry from the 14.4 modem with which I built and tested the first version of this site, shipping it (if you could call it that) on May 31, 1995.

I’m no longer dictating. I’m pecking with my index finger. On the traditional computer keyboard, I’m a super-fast touch typist. I mastered touch typing in high school. I was the only boy in that class. All the other boys took car repair. They laughed at me for being in a class full of girls, which was weird and stupid of them on at least five levels. Maybe they wanted to work in an auto body shop. I wanted to be a writer and an artist. Learning to type as quickly as I could think was a needed skill and part of my long self-directed apprenticeship.

My first typewriter cost me $75. I can’t tell you how many hours it took me to earn that money, or how proud I was of that object. I wrote my first books on it. They will never be published but that’s all right. Another part of the apprenticeship.

After touch typing at the speed of thought for decades, I found it tough learning to write all over again, one finger letter at a time, in my first iPhone, but I’m fluent today. My right index finger is sending you these words now, and probably developing early onset arthritis as a result, but I am also fairly fluent with with my left thumb when situations compel me to work one-handed. The reduced speed of this data entry ritual no longer impedes my flow. 

And since WordPress is an app on my phone, and my AT&T 4E connection never fails me, even when the cable modem internet connection is out,  today I can update my site leagues faster than when I was chained to a desk and wires and HTML and Fetch and static files—20 years ago, before some of you were born. 

I wanted to launch a redesign on this 20th anniversary—in the old days I redesigned this site four or five times a year, whenever I had a new idea or learned a new skill—but with a ten year old daughter and four businesses to at least pretend to run (businesses that only exist because I started this website 20 years ago today and because my partners started theirs), a redesign by 31 May 2015 wasn’t possible. 

So I’ll settle for the perfectly timed, gratitude-inducing, reflection-prompting failure of my cable modem on this of all days. That’s my redesign for the day: a workflow redesign. 

Boy, is my finger tired. Too tired to type the names of all the amazing and wonderful people I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. (Just because a personal site is personal doesn’t mean it could have happened without the help and support and love of all you good people.)

When I started this site I wrote in the royal “we” and cultivated an ironic distance from my material and my gentle readers, but today this is just me with all my warts and shame and tenderness—and you. Not gentle readers. People. Friends. 

I launched this site twenty years ago (a year before the Wayback Machine, at least two years before Google) and it was one of the only places you could read and learn about web design. I launched at a tilde address (kids, ask your parents), and did not think to register until 1996, because nobody had ever done anything that crazy. 

On the day I launched my pseudonymous domain I already had thousands of readers, had somehow coaxed over a million visitors to stop by, and had the Hit Counter to prove it. (If you remember the 1970s, you weren’t there, but if you remember the early web, you were.) Today, because I want people to see these words, I’ll repost them on Medium. Because folks don’t bookmark and return to personal sites as they once did. And they don’t follow their favorite personal sites via RSS, as they once did. Today it’s about big networks. 

It’s a Sunday. My ten year old is playing on her iPad and the two cats are facing in opposite directions, listening intently to fluctuations in the air conditioning hum. 

I’ve had two love relationships since launching this site. Lost both, but that’s okay. I started this site as a goateed chain smoker in early sobriety (7 June 1993) and continue it as a bearded, yoga practicing, single dad. Ouch. Even I hate how that sounds. (But I love how it feels.) 

I started this site with animated gifs and splash pages while living in a cheap rent stabilized apartment. PageSpinner was my jam. I was in love with HTML and certain that the whole world was about to learn it, ushering in a new era of DIY media, free expression, peace and democracy and human rights worldwide. That part didn’t work out so well, although the kids prefer YouTube to TV, so that’s something. 

My internet failure—I mean the one where an internet connection is supposed to be delivered to my apartment via cable—gets me off the hook for having to create a visual tour of “important” moments from this website over the past 20 years. No desktop, no visual thinking. That’s okay too. Maybe I’ll be able to do it for for this site’s 25th anniversary. That’s the important one, anyway. 

Hand pecked into a small screen for your pleasure. New York, NY, 31 May 2015. The present day content producer etc.

20 Years Ago Today: Bill Gates Wakes Up And Smells The Internet.


TODAY marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’s famous letter about the web, and my first website,, created with Steve McCarron and Alec Pollak for Donald Buckley of Warner Bros and optimized for Netscape 1.1.

Gates’s memo to employees, published this day twenty years ago and entitled “The Internet Tidal Wave” accurately identified the web as a threat to its kingdom of binary desktop software, and set Microsoft on course to “own” the browser, thereby holding back the threat for about fifteen years. A transcript of Gates’s memo is available at, along with a mixed bag of then-and-now analysis. (Hat tip to Alan K’necht for the link.)

Today, of course, Microsoft embraces open web standards, while companies that didn’t exist at the time of the memo (like Google) or were insignificant competitors seemingly on their way to the grave (like Apple) enjoy the godlike position Microsoft once held—and used every trick in the book to hold onto.

The Batman Forever site was much shorter-lived and far less influential than the Gates memo, although we did manage to introduce web design ideas like animated entrance tunnels and metaphor-based navigation—things we later abjured. My partner Steve got out of web design and is a VP Creative Director director at Publicis. My partner Alec stuck with web and software design, but from the agency side. I stayed in web design, and I even still call it that…although I also sometimes just call it design. Our first web client Donald Buckley is a huge deal at Showtime.

“Jeffrey Zeldman Presents” turns 20 on May 31.

Progressive Enhancement FTW with Aaron Gustafson

IN EPISODE № 130 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”), I interview long-time web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson, author of Adaptive Web Design, on web design then and now; why Flipboard’s 60fps web launch is anti-web and anti-user; design versus art; and the 2nd Edition of Aaron’s book, coming from New Riders this year.

Enjoy Episode № 130 of The Big Web Show.

Show Links

A Bit About Aaron Gustafson
Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with Progressive Enhancement
Responsive Issues Community Group
Easy Designs – Web Design, Development & Consulting
Web Standards Sherpa
Code & Creativity
WebStandardsProject (@wasp) | Twitter
A List Apart: For People Who Make Websites
Genesis – Land Of Confusion [Official Music Video] – YouTube

Achieving Empathy for Institutions with Anil Dash

Anil Dash

IN BIG WEB SHOW № 115 on Mule Radio, I talk with Anil Dash, a hugely influential entrepreneur, blogger, and web geek living in NYC.

Things we discuss include:

How government, media, and tech shape the world, and how we can influence them in turn. Our first meeting at SXSW in 2002. How selling CMS systems teaches you the dysfunction at media companies and organizations. Working for the music industry at the dawn of Napster. RFP-EZ. The early days of blogging.

Designing websites for the government—the procurement problem. If we’re pouring all this time into social media, what do we want to get out of it? How big institutions work and how to have an impact on them. Living in “Joe’s Apartment.”

Why, until recently, federal agencies that wanted a blog couldn’t use WordPress or Tumblr and how the State Dept got on Tumblr. Achieving empathy for institutions. Being more thoughtful about what I share and who I amplify on social media. The launch of Thinkup, and a special offer exclusively for Big Web Show listeners.

Enjoy Big Web Show № 115.

Sponsored by An Event Apart, the design conference for people who make websites. Save $100 off any 2- or 3-day AEA event with discount code AEABWS.