Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

Spotify to music subscribers: drop dead

SINCE AT LEAST 2010, subscribers to Spotify’s paid music service have asked the company to include the ability to sort playlists alphabetically in the desktop player. It’s the sort of drop-dead obvious feature that should have been built into the player while it was still in alpha. Yet, after six years of requests by paying customers, the feature still does not exist. Many good people work at Spotify and take pride in working to create the best possible music service. But the management in charge of feature requests does not seem to care about or respect customers.

Spotify subscribers organize their music in playlists. Any serious music listener will soon have dozens, if not hundreds, of playlists. They appear in the sidebar in reverse chronological order of the date of their creation. From a programmatic standpoint, the order is random. The inability to sort playlists alphabetically soon makes listening to one’s entire collection problematic. You ignore most of your playlists because you can’t find them, and waste time recreating existing playlists because you’ve forgotten they exist—or can’t find them.

For years, Spotify users have taken to the company’s message boards to request that this basic, rudimentary, obviously necessary feature be added. And for years, Spotify’s official message-keepers have strung users along. Reading these message boards is a study in corporate indifference. In this board, for example, which began in 2012, one customer after another explains why the ability to alphabetize their list of playlists is necessary if they are to continue using the service. It’s almost comical to watch the customer support folks react to each post as if it is a new idea; or attempt to pacify the customer by assuring her that staff is “working around the clock to implement this feature.” That last comment was made in 2015, three years into the thread; there’s been no word about the feature since.

The desktop player does let users change the order of a given playlist by dragging it up or down. That feature would suffice for someone who had three playlists. It might even work for someone with a dozen playlists. But for someone with several dozen or more playlists, manual drag and drop is not only no solution, it’s actually insulting.

What Spotify has done is create an all-you-can-eat buffet, and equipped its customers with a toothpick in place of a knife and fork or chopsticks.

The problem can’t be that difficult to solve, as Spotify has added alphabetization of playlists to its phone and tablet apps. Yet the desktop, a primary source for folks who listen to music while working, remains as primitive as it was in 2010.

Six years of alternately pretending not to know that your paying customers require a basic tool to manage their subscriptions, and pretending to be working on a solution, shows a basic disregard for the paying customer. Which kind of goes along with a disregard for the working musician, who isn’t exactly getting rich off the Spotify royalties that have replaced CD sales.

Apple Music has rubbed me the wrong way since Apple first crammed it into their increasingly dysfunctional iTunes player (whose poor usability is what drove me to Spotify in the first place). I hate that Apple Music shows up on all my Apple devices, even though I don’t subscribe to it, and even after I’ve turn it off in Settings. In this regard, Apple today is like Microsoft in the 1990s. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

But, as obnoxious and overdesigned as it is, there’s one thing I like about Apple Music: it just may drive the complacent management at Spotify to actually start listening to their customers.

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Pinterest giveth, and Pinterest taketh away

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)
AS MY design career has taken on more and more strategic and managerial freight, I’ve done less and less hands-on design. This year, I decided to change that. As part of my reimmersion, I found myself reading less, and absorbing visual information more. Enter Pinterest.

I’d played with the app when it first came out—who didn’t?—but it didn’t stick with me the way a handful of apps do. It didn’t become an obsession, and so I gradually forgot about it. That’s just how apps work for me. They’re heroin, or they’re nothing.

But the moment my days began filling with sketching, and coding, and Photoshop comping, the genius of Pinterest, and the addictive high it provides when used obsessively and compulsively, was revealed to me.

In borderline religious ecstasy, I became a Pinterest junkie, compelled to collect and catalog every artist I’ve ever loved—every type designer, illustrator, filmmaker, social absurdity, comic book character, and book designer; every half-forgotten cartoonist; every city or nation I’ve visited.

Using Pinterest not only revived long-dead visual design brain cells, it created new ones. Work-related layouts and color schemes came easier as I spent more and more “downtime” collecting and cataloging half-forgotten styles, genres, and artists—and discovering new ones.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

I ♥ Pinterest

As part of this work—for work it is; call it “research” if you prefer—I spent hours rearranging Boards on my profile for maximum aesthetic effect and rhythm. And more hours choosing and replacing the cover illustration for each Board. (If you don’t use Pinterest, here’s a summary: it lets you pin any image you find on the web, or on your own computer desktop or mobile device, to a virtual whiteboard. Pinterest calls each whiteboard you create a “Board,” and each image you affix to it a “Pin.” Part of the fun comes from sequencing Boards on your profile for aesthetic or educational reasons; choosing the featured image for each Board is likewise important and fun.)

Until a few days ago, you could edit and re-edit the featured image for each Board whether you were using Pinterest on the web (that is, via desktop computer), your phone, or your tablet. Doing these things worked differently on the different devices—choosing the featured image was actually faster and less tedious on iPhone and iPad than it was on the web—but the functionality was available in all three places, because Pinterest recognized that brands exist between devices, and that folks interact with your service on different devices at different times, as they choose.

Likewise, until a few days ago, you could change the order of Boards on your profile via drag and drop whether you were using Pinterest on the web or your tablet. (Likely because of screen space constraints, this functionality was not available on iPhone, where the display of Board content necessarily differs from the more desktop-design-focused method used on the web and on iPad.) Users like me changed the order of Boards to create visual interest, set up ironic contrasts, create visual rhythms up and down the screen, and so on. I’m a designer. I have my ways. These details are important to me—and, I imagine, to many other users, since Pinterest is a drug for visual obsessives.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

An unexpected change

Then, a few days ago, Pinterest released an update that removed this functionality from the iPhone and iPad (and, I’m assuming, from Android as well). There was no blog post announcing the change. And no rationale offered for taking away features that mattered a lot to users like me. Pinterest knows these features matter, because Pinterest has our data. That’s the difference between making a digital product folks interact with via the internet, and making, say, a toilet plunger. If I manufacture toilet plungers, I can make assumptions about how folks use my product, but I probably don’t have much real data. If I make an application people use via http, I know everything.

Now, it’s not like people were complaining about the ability to edit their Boards: “We have too much freedom! This software provides too many delightful functions. Please remove two of them. But only from my mobile device.”

No. The features are still there on the website. So Pinterest knows people like these features.

And it’s not like the features are too difficult to put into mobile devices, since they already existed in those mobile devices.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

A failure to communicate

You may ask why I’m telling you all this instead of telling it to Pinterest. Good question. The answer is, I tried telling Pinterest, but they don’t provide a forum for it. And that is the biggest problem. A company that makes products people love should have a way to communicate with those people. Not grudgingly offer them a few character-limited form fields on a “survey” page that isn’t even referenced in the site’s navigation.

When the features stopped working on my iPhone and iPad, I assumed something had gone wrong with my apps, so I deleted and reinstalled them. (Remember, there was no announcement; but then why would any company announce that it was taking away loved features for no apparent reason?)

When deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, I sought help and contact pages on Pinterest (and was only able to find them via third-party search engine).

In trying to file a bug report, I ended up in a pleasant (but confusing) conversation with a very nice Pinterest employee who explained that I wasn’t experiencing a bug: the software engineers had made a conscious decision to remove the functions I use every day … and had no intention of restoring them. She wasn’t able to tell me why, or point me to a URL that would offer a rationale, but she did tell me I could use Pinterest’s “Recommend a feature” form to “recommend” that the software engineers put those features back.

Since “Recommend a feature” is hidden from site navigation, the kindly person with whom I was in dialog provided a link where I could type in a few characters requesting that Pinterest restore the “drag Board order” functionality. There wasn’t room in the form fields to explain why I thought the feature should be restored, but at least I was able to make the request. The form asked if I was a Business account user, which I am. I don’t remember when or why I bought the Business tier of service. Maybe for the analytics. Maybe just because, as someone who makes stuff myself, I choose to pay for software so I can support the good people who make it, and do what I can to help their product stick around.

(It’s the same reason I remained a Flickr Pro user even after Yahoo gave the whole world 2GB of photo storage space for free. If everything is free, and nobody pays, services you love tend to go away. Half of web history is great services disappearing in the night after investors were dissatisfied with only reasonable profits.)

I don’t know why my paid status mattered to Pinterest, but I couldn’t help feeling there would be a prejudice in favor of my comment if I checked the box letting them know I was a paying customer. Even though it was information they requested, checking the box made me feel dirty. I also wondered why they were asking me. I mean, don’t they know? I gave them the email address they use for my login. I was logged in. They know my status. Are they just checking to see if I know it, too?

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

There can only be one (feature request)

But I digress. Because here is the main point. The moment I submitted the tiny, inadequate form requesting the restoration of a recently removed feature, the site set a cookie and sent me a message thanking me for completing the “survey.” It wasn’t a survey, but I guess one task completion message is as good as another.

Then I tried to use the inadequate form to report my second concern—the one about the removal of the ability to choose a featured image for my Board. The way this had always worked on the tablet was far superior to the tedious, painstaking way it works on my desktop. On the tablet, you could scroll through all your images with the flick of a finger, select the image you wanted, and complete the task in a few seconds. On the desktop, you had to click your way through every image on your Board in reverse chronological order. It’s the difference between flicking through a calendar, and clicking backwards from today, to yesterday, to the day before yesterday, and so on. The tablet version was fast, easy, intuitive—you interact directly with your content; you can see all relevant content at a glance. The desktop version is cumbersome and 1999-ish. If I had to pick which platform must lose the functionality I relied on, I would not have chosen the tablet. No customer who used the feature in both places would.

But I wasn’t able to share even a few characters of this thought with Pinterest, because once you submit a “survey” requesting a feature, a steel wall in the guise of a cookie slams down, and you cannot make a second feature suggestion.

Not even the next day. (Which is today. Which I just tried.)

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

This is a love letter

And that is why, as a hardcore fan and user of Pinterest, a service I love and use compulsively, I am using the public web rather than Pinterest’s somewhat unhelpful help center, to share my request with the brilliant software engineers who create this fabulous product.

And with designers, because these are the mistakes we all make when we create products and content sites. We think we are all about the people who use what we create. But we are probably frustrating the pants off them with our arbitrary design decisions and inadequate customer feedback mechanisms.


Also published on Medium.

The Year in Design

  • Mobile is today’s first screen. So design responsively, focusing on content and structure first.
  • Websites and apps alike should remove distractions and let people interact as directly as possible with content.
  • 90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.
  • Boost usability and pleasure with progressive disclosure: menus and functions that appear only when needed.
  • One illustration or original photo beats 100 stock images.
  • Design your system to serve your content, not the other way around.
  • Remove each detail from your design until it breaks.
  • Style is the servant of brand and content. Style without purpose is noise.
  • Nobody waits. Speed is to today’s design what ornament was to yesterday’s.
  • Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

Also published in Medium

Translated into German (also here) by Mark Sargent

Translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Sachsé

Translated into Turkish by omerbalyali.

Translated into Spanish by Tam Lopez Breit.

Ad Blocking Phase II

screenshot of Choice app from Been, Inc.

THE WORLD has finally caught up with Been, Inc. Three years ago, this tiny start-up company shared my studio space in New York. Their product idea was remarkably original: instead of passively accepting the data collection and loss of privacy that comes with most ad networks on the web, what if people had a choice—to either block ads and third-party trackers entirely, or earn rewards for letting ads through?

The initial web-based product, playfully designed by Monkey Do, took the scariness and complexity out of tracking issues, and returned the decision making power to the consumer. Unfortunately, the mainstream web wasn’t ready for ad blocking, and consumers en masse either weren’t ready to think about privacy, or simply didn’t know the company’s value proposition because of its nonexistent marketing budget. (The only thing that kills products faster than no marketing is poor execution—although a handful of products have survived both.)

To stay afloat in the face of mass indifference, the company temporarily pivoted, using a portion of their technology to facilitate sharing of web content between consumers, much like the late lamented Ma.gnolia or Pocket’s new Recommended section. But where Ma.gnolia and Pocket were/are text-powered, the pivoted Been app was primarily visual, which helped it gain traction in the eduation market. Grade-school teachers and kids loved using the app for research projects—and their support helped the company stay in business long enough for the internet to catch up with their ideas.

Version 2.0 of their Choice app for iOS is the product of years of work on user privacy, data ownership, and control. iOS fans can download it at www.been.mobi/getv2edu.

The company’s site explains the push-button mechanics through which you can choose to block ads and third-party trackers in your apps and Safari, or earn rewards by letting ads through and sharing (strictly non-personal) information with Been. (Earn Mode is limited to US users for now.)

When I foolhardily put down my deposit on a New York studio that was larger and more costly than what I needed, my hope was that it would attract a like-minded community of designers and tech companies from whom I would learn and be inspired. That was certainly the case with my friends at Been! I wish them great success at helping to bring the changes our web needs.

Progressive Enhancement FTW with Aaron Gustafson

Book cover art - Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences With Progressive Enhancement, 2nd EditionLONGTIME developer, lecturer, and web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson and I discuss the newly published update to Aaron’s best-selling industry classic “love letter to the web,” Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences With Progressive Enhancement, 2nd Edition (New Riders, 2015) in Episode № 140 of The Big Web Show—everything web that matters.

Topics covered include: Aaron’s superhero origin story as a creator of progressively enhanced websites and applications; “we’re not building things we haven’t built on the web before;” “creating opportunities for people outside your comfort zone;” development in the world of Node.js; “every interface is a conversation;” “visual design is an enhancement;” “interaction is an enhancement;” nerding out over early web terminal interfaces; Microsoft, Opera, and more.

Sponsored by DreamHost, Braintree, and Thankful.

Deal

Save 35% off Aaron Gustafson’s Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences With Progressive Enhancement, 2nd Edition when you enter discount code AARON35 at checkout.

URLS

https://www.aaron-gustafson.com/about/ – About Aaron
http://adaptivewebdesign.info/2nd-edition/ – Adaptive Web Design Second Edition (“95% new material”)
[PDF] – Read the first chapter free (PDF)
http://adaptivewebdesign.info – First Edition, May 2011 (read the entire first edition free)
http://webstandardssherpa.com – Web Standards Sherpa
https://github.com/easy-designs/batch-ua-parser.php – UA Parser Script by Aaron – on Github
https://www.aaron-gustafson.com/notebook/ – Notebook: Aaron’s blog
https://www.aaron-gustafson.com/speaking-engagements/ – Engagements: Aaron’s speaking page, using Quantity Queries
http://alistapart.com/article/quantity-queries-for-css – “Quantity Queries for CSS” by Heydon Pickering in A List Apart
http://alistapart.com/author/agustafson – A List Apart: articles by Aaron Gustafson
http://alistapart.com/article/goingtoprint – Eric Meyer’s “CSS Design: Going to Print” in A List Apart
https://www.whatsapp.com – Whatsapp

№ 139: Every Time We Touch—Josh Clark, author of “Designing For Touch”

Author Josh Clark on The Big Web ShowTOUCH introduces physicality to designs that were once strictly virtual, and puts forth a new test: How does this design feel in the hand? Josh Clark’s new book, Designing For Touch, guides designers through this new touchscreen frontier, and is the launchpad for today’s Big Web Show conversation.

In a fast-paced, freewheeling conversation, Josh and I discuss why game designers are some of our most talented and inspiring interaction designers; the economy of motion; perceptions of value when viewing objects on touchscreen versus desktop computer; teaching digital designers to think like industrial designers (and vice-versa); long press versus force touch; how and when to make gestures discoverable; and much more.

Sponsored by DreamHost and BrainTree. Big Web Show listeners can save 15% when ordering Designing For Touch at abookapart.com with discount code DFTBIGWEB. Discount valid through the end of January 2016.

URLS

Big Web Show Episode № 139
Big Medium
Designing For Touch

Zen & The Art of iTunes Failure 

REBUILDING iTunes library from scratch over two days got app working again. Fine use of lazy weekend.

Had to sacrifice all custom playlists dating back to 2002, including An Event Apart playlists and delivery room mix from Ava’s birth.

Playlists still exist on old iPod but can’t be copied from it back to iTunes. (All software I’ve tried freezes & fails.)

Playlists still exist as code snippets inside .itl file in old iTunes folder, but numerous trials prove iTunes can’t launch from that folder any more. Thus I can’t temporarily launch from old folder, export playlists, switch back to safe new folder, and import them, thereby saving them.

And iTunes can’t import old .itl files. I Googled. I tried anyway.

13 years of custom playlists. From before, during, and after my marriage. Including one my daughter called “princess music” and danced to when she was three. Gone.

But, really, so what? Over time we lose everything. This loss is nothing. Attachment is futile. Always move forward, until you stop moving.

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 =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}

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 =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->
</script>

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

<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->

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

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.yourdomain.com/yourpage.html"
}

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