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The Daily Report

24 September 2003 :::

5 pm | 9 am edt

More than a must-read, Joe Clark’s “Compatibility of Weblogs and ISSN” is a must-link-to.

Many independent web periodicals, including the one you’re reading, have long held an ISSN number (ours is 1534-0309). Once you obtain such a number, your publication officially exists in a standardized encyclopedia of periodicals maintained by the world’s librarians. But of late, indie web publishers’ requests for an ISSN number have been put on indefinite hold or turned down for vague or spurious reasons. Clark shoots down these objections while explaining what is at stake:

For the first time in history, A.J. Liebling’s maxim that freedom of the press belongs to whoever owns one has actually come true. In the past, only corporations and institutions could afford to publish. Now it is possible for individuals and groups to publish. Their intentions and the form of their work are comparable to established publishers’; the difference is they now have access to a medium they can afford.

If you believe in the web as a democratic medium and care about the credibility of independent publications, bookmark Joe’s article and...

  1. Read it.
  2. Link to it. :::

Patents: W3C on amber alert

Yesterday the W3C launched a Patent Advisory Group “to study issues ... raised by the court case of Eolas v. Microsoft.” There’s a mailing list for public discussion, a home page which presumably will track the group’s activities and announcements, and a FAQ.

The FAQ is most interesting for what it does not say. It does not say whether the patent can successfully be challenged, how it might change websites and browsers, or what actions web designers, developers, and site owners can take. It does not say these things because nobody knows. It is all a bit like the U.S. Homeland Security Department’s color-coded terror threat alerts: be afraid, but maybe not very afraid. :::

23 September 2003 :::

4 pm | 2 pm edt

Is you is or is you ain’t my patent?

Last week the Eolas plug-in patent lawsuit spelled trouble not only for Microsoft but for all web users, designers, builders, and site owners (and companies like Macromedia). Within days, some speculated that Microsoft chose to lose the suit because it would hurt competitors worse than it hurt Redmond. (Nice conspiracy theory, but we disagreed.) Now Eolas’s Mike Doyle is shocked, shocked to discover that folks are peeved by his suit’s potential to damage the web. Doyle claims he is willing to settle with Microsoft. Reported by CNET’s Paul Festa, who broke the original story last week. Hat tip: Jeff Wilkinson. :::

Put your money where your mouthguard is!

Open source accessibility testing

Accessibility testing can be hard and expensive. Tim Roberts wants to change that. His open source Waizilla Project hopes to produce a free cross-platform tool, powered by Mozilla, that can test your site against the W3C’s Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI) guidelines. A Waizilla developer site and mailing list have launched, and the project is currently recruiting volunteers. Designory (“The Design Agency”) is hosting the project for free. [Post amended 4:00 p.m. EDT.] :::

CSS conversions on parade

Purists might point out that not all these sites validate and that not all of them use structural markup. True enough. We link to them, however, because they are nice sites, and mainly because they demonstrate that CSS conversion is on, bigtime. :::

22 September 2003 :::

3 pm | 12 noon edt

The big tease

A List Apart version 3.0 is coming soon. :::

In no particular order...

19 September 2003 :::

10 am | 9 am edt

Veen on business case for web standards

Enough said. :::

List-o-matic creates and formats menus

You say you’d like to use CSS and semantically correct XHTML lists to generate navigation menus, but you can’t even draw a straight line? Accessify’s new List-o-matic has you covered. The free online tool lets you generate inline lists complete with title attributes and then apply other people’s vertical or horizontal CSS styles to them (including one of ours).

Even if you’re a CSS expert, the tool could save you an hour or two of coding time each time you start a new project. Such a deal! You’ll want to tweak the resulting CSS to match your site’s design, but other than that, the List-o-matic does everything for you.

We wouldn’t be surprised to see someone come up with a Dreamweaver Extension based on Accessify’s free online app. :::

Externals dep’t gains girth

Recently added to our Externals department and described therein:

...and others. :::

17 September 2003 :::

? | ? | 4 pm | 3 pm | 11 am edt

Best Flash intro ever

Histology-World {{ WARNING: Epileptics, do not follow this link as it could induce seizure }} is the Citizen Kane of Flash intros about histology. Histology was never so exciting! Please enjoy Histology-World, and don’t leave before the exciting finale. Hat tip: David Simmer. :::

Following up

Following up on issues raised in yesterday’s Report:

The not-for-profit Internet Software Consortium (ISC) has issued a patch to cut off Verisign’s anti-competitive “wildcard” DNS trickery at the knees. Background is available at Wired, and discussion is going strong at Slashdot. (Hat tips: Webchick, Jim Ray, and others.)

Later in the same Report, although we linked to material indicating as much, we failed to make explicit that Virtual PC’s incompatibility with the Mac G5 is not the fault of Virtual PC, Connectix, or Microsoft. Virtual PC relies on on a feature of G3 and G4 chips which is not available in the G5.

Finally, in that same Report, we mentioned that, through no fault of its own, Microsoft now enjoys a monopoly in Windows emulation software. That’s true in the commercial Macintosh space, but there are alternative (mostly open source) Windows emulators available for various platforms including Macintosh: readers hastened to tell us about Wintel for Mac OS X, Bochs, and VMware. Hat tips: Matthew Lavelle, Hiroto, s t e f, Michael Bustamante, Randy Elliott, and many others. :::

Does Microsoft want to lose the plug-in patent case?

In today’s New York Times, Steve Lohr confirms what was in Paul Festa’s CNET article on 11 September and in our assessment the following day. In that 12 September Report, we chose not to discuss a dark theory: namely, that Microsoft might willingly lose the case because doing so would harm its competitors worse than it hurt Redmond.

We dismissed that idea, not because Microsoft has a history of fair play, but because the company is not ready to capitalize on the annihilation by patent litigation of Real Networks, Macromedia’s Flash, Sun’s Java, and other competitive products and companies. It is not positioned to survive such a holocaust because its next generation product – one that could fare quite nicely in a world without plug-ins – is not on the market yet and will not be available for years.

Nevertheless, the “losing to win it all” theory has been coming to light in mainstream publications that are finally beginning to cover the case.

In “A Pyrrhic Patent Victory,” eWeek’s Jim Rapoza wonders why Microsoft’s lawyers weren’t able to beat the Eolas patent case, given that there are reams of prior art:

A ... paranoid—yet still plausible—reading of events is that Microsoft wanted to lose. After all, Microsoft spent $150 million to kill Netscape on the Mac. Spending $520 million to damage its Web and multimedia competitors would be a relative bargain.

David Berlind espouses a similar notion in ZDNet’s “The Patent Fight That Could Disrupt the Internet [sic]”:

Never in Bill Gates’ or Steve Ballmer’s wildest dreams could Microsoft have hatched such a dastardly plan where a tiny company successfully sues for patent infringement and, as a result, Microsoft has to turn off access to its competitors’ technologies for almost every user of the Web (since most use Internet Explorer). At the very least, to keep Web-based content that was designed for the Windows Media Player from being interrupted, Microsoft could hardwire the Windows Media Player into Internet Explorer.

Imagine that. The world’s dominant Web browser supporting nothing but Microsoft technologies. After several governments, hundreds of lawyers, and still more trustbusters worked for nearly a decade to put an end to Microsoft’s monopolistic behaviour and predation, a federal court in Chicago hands a cornerstone of the Web experience to Microsoft on a silver platter.

One is always tempted to think the worst of Microsoft, and one is often right. But in this case, everyone except Eolas loses. If Longhorn (the upcoming Microsoft OS, powered by web services, that no longer distinguishes between “browser” and “operating system”) was out there already, well, this could be a golden opportunity to force hundreds of millions of Windows users to upgrade to that system – and blame the compulsory upgrade on the courts.

If Longhorn was out there and Microsoft had just lost this case, nobody, not even the Pope, would give Redmond the benefit of the doubt.

But Longhorn is years away, and the patent case hurts Microsoft almost as much as it hurts Redmond’s competitors and hundreds of millions of human beings who use, design, build, manage, or own websites.

Some web commentators have shrugged the whole thing off because they don’t use Flash in sites they design. This calls to mind a famous quotation from World War II about public indifference “when they came to take the gypsies.”

Other commentators have suggested that IE’s plug-in neutering will be good for browsers with a lesser market share, such as Safari, Opera, and Mozilla. According to this theory, when Flash or Quicktime stops working in your Uncle Morty’s browser, he’ll nip on over to and download Firebird.

This not only assumes that most web users are hip to alternative browsers (whereas one in seven users does not know how to turn off the computer) but it also assumes that Eolas will not bring similar patent infringement suits against other browsers that use plug-ins. This belief is based on a year-old Cringely column, in which Eolas’s sole employee, Mike Doyle, portrays himself as a seeker of justice. Make that Charles Bronson-style justice: if the highest courts won’t punish Microsoft after finding it guilty of every anti-competitive crime on the books, well, move over, Rover, and let Mike Doyle take over.

Doyle may indeed be motivated by a desire to see (vigilante) justice done, although half a billion smackers don’t hurt. He may in fact refrain from suing other web software companies. We will see. But whether he sues others or doesn’t, the decision in the patent case will cause destruction, expense, and no small amount of suffering, and has set a dangerous precedent in favor of patents that cause destruction, expense, and suffering. And for that, nobody, not even Doyle, should be happy. :::

16 September 2003 :::

11 am edt

In this violent world, writing about web design sometimes feels as relevant as critiquing pastries on The Titanic. But that’s what we do. And we have many goodies for you today. Pass the life preserver and bon apetit!

Monopoly watch

Verisign, who bought the Network Solutions near-monopoly some years back, is now using DNS trickery to try to claim all non-registered .com and .net domains for itself. Not very sporting. In addition to expanding their monopoly, the practice creates technical problems for all internet users and builders: “Non-browser applications, such as FTP clients etc., will now incorrectly log that they have contacted the host you asked for when in fact they should have returned an error ‘hostname unknown.’ The same for traceroute, ping ... any of these will not behave in a manner expected.” Hat tip: Martin Lucas-Smith.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has secured another monopoly: its Virtual PC is now the only Windows emulator on the market. (Microsoft bought Virtual PC from Connectix in January. Competitive products SoftWindows and Real PC are defunct.) Microsoft’s Virtual PC is not compatible with Apple’s new G5 series computers and Microsoft has not announced a release date for a compatible version. The G5 is arguably the fastest desktop PC in the world. But if you get one, you’ll need to hold onto your old G4 (or buy a cheap PC) if you hope to do cross-platform web development testing.

Note: see 17 September followups for updated information. :::

Stuff most excellent

Davis Polk & Wardwell
Designed by Gail Dedrick, Davis Polk & Wardwell has retooled with XHTML and CSS and with an eye toward Section 508 accessibility compliance. It may be the first large international law firm to plunge into the world of standards-based design.
Regarding The Fireland
Standards-based makeovers of popular blogs are all the rage. (See Noel D. Jackson’s CSS/semantic makeover of Dan Benjamin of Hivelogic enters the fray by recoding Josh Allen’s beautifully written Fireland. Mr Allen has long been one of the most interesting independent writers on the web, and he’s a pretty swell designer to boot. Mr Benjamin is a talented and generous software developer, front end designer, and writer.
Do Not Worry
We will sleep better knowing this.
Designing With CSS in Macromedia Dreamweaver MX 2004
A fine tutorial by Drew McLellan of all in the <head> and The WaSP’s Dreamweaver Task Force.
From those wonderful people who brought you Listamatic, Listutorial is a superfine step-by-step breakdown of techniques used to control the presentation of humble, structured list markup. (See also Mark Newhouse’s venerable “Taming Lists” from A List Apart, September 2002.)
Union Fonts
Union Fonts is an independent type foundry featuring the work of international type designers. You’ll find some nice fonts here, and the site itself sports some subtle design ideas. For instance, the “View By Name” widget in the View Fonts section cleverly emulates the experience of typing. It is pleasurable to roll over the “keys,” and that pleasure might encourage you to keep clicking through the listings. The site is not without usability problems. (No Home button, for starters. There’s a star at the top which seems to be intended as a logo, but it’s not clickable.) Too, the validator finds 166 errors in 191 lines of markup. Damn shame. Swell fonts and some good design ideas in spite of these problems.
Pixelzentrum is an emporium of pixel art and visual amusement – and it’s also more or less standards compliant, albeit with a glitch here and there.
Omana Man
Found at Pixelzentrum, this portfolio features the work of a wonderful illustrator with a light, whimsical touch.
Esquire cover gallery
Over half a century of compelling art direction, photography, and design may be viewed in this gallery of 857 Esquire covers.
Karelia Weblog
From Dan Wood, creator of Watson.
Classic Window Management for OS X
Mac OS X has many swell features, but its window management is counterintuitive, confusing, and deeply frustrating. Robb Timlin’s unobtrusive Classic Window Management hack solves the problem, costs nothing, and installs in moments. Hat tip: Eric Meyer.
This oldie but goodie helps you identify fonts by answering simple questions.
It’s a wrap!
The design challenge and the winning entry. :::

12 September 2003 :::

6 pm | 10 am edt

IE, Flash, and patents: here comes trouble

IE Patent Endgame Detailed: A federal judge “rejected Microsoft’s post-trial claim that Eolas had misrepresented the facts in the patent case, which claimed the software giant had stolen browser technology relating to plug-ins. The ruling came after a $521 million verdict against the software giant last month, and ends Microsoft’s first attempt to challenge the result.”

Besides paying over half a billion dollars to the patent holder, Microsoft is supposed to cripple its market-leading browser so that IE/Windows will no longer seamlessly play Flash, Quicktime, RealVideo, or Adobe Acrobat files, Java applets, and other rich media formats. Once the company does this, any site that uses these technologies will no longer work in the browser most people use.

Microsoft is appealing the ruling, but it is also struggling to develop strategies to cope with the likelihood that its appeals will be denied.

One such strategy is to use scripting languages to launch external players (such as an external Flash player). Doing so would disrupt a previously seamless user experience and might create a new generation of accessibility and usability problems. It would also cost money. Lots of money. Site owners would need to pay developers to build new versions of their sites using workarounds, not to enhance user experience, but to dance around the behaviors the patent holder considers infringement:

According to [W3C] sources, Microsoft said ... it believed a simple dialog box inserted between the selection and the launch of a Java applet or an ActiveX control would maneuver IE out of the patent’s definition of an “automated interactive experience.”

Microsoft also is said to have proposed other ways to launch applications in a way that could not be held to infringe on the patent, but would avoid the ungainly dialog box solution.

Even these clumsy, expensive, painfully disruptive approaches might not satisfy the patent holder. If they do not, then where rich media is concerned, the web could soon look like 1993 all over again.

The patent ruling may eventually apply to other browser makers such as Opera Software and Netscape, although it is hard to see how Eolas could expect a small company like Opera Software to come up with the funds necessary to develop a crippled version of its browser, let alone coughing up tens or hundreds of millions in penalty fees. Asking the company to do so would kill its browser, removing a consumer choice in a market that is already low on options.

The implications for Macromedia, maker of the most popular plug-in media in the web’s history, are not good.

If the patent ruling stands, it will hurt web users, site owners and designers, and software companies (possibly ruining some of those companies) and will chill web development in untold ways. We find ourselves in the unaccustomed position of rooting for Microsoft.

Let it also be noted that the patent pertains to plug-in launching only. It does not cover HTML, XHTML, XML, CSS, JavaScript/ECMAScript, the DOM, or other web standards. [RELATED – Ray Ozzie: “Saving the Browser,” a non-lawyer’s look at prior art.] :::