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Fronteers 2008: what’s next for HTML, CSS and IE?5

I’m writing this on the train, heading back home after the Fronteers 2008 conference in Amsterdam. Fronteers is a rather unique initiative: a bottom-up trade organisation of Dutch front-end developers. At this yearly conference they get together, share ideas and invite inspirational speakers. I’m really glad I took the opportunity to attend, as I picked up quite a few interesting facts and ideas. Let’s jump straight into some of my highlights.

Bert Bos (W3C) on the evolution of the box model

Opening Fronteers 2008 was Bert Bos, a mathematician who stood by the cradle of CSS back in 1994, together with Håkon Wium Lie. Because of his scientific approach, he tends to see things from a slightly different perspective than most front-end developers do. This can lead to rather boring theoretical noodling, but nevertheless I was glad to hear they’re tackling some real world issues as well.

For example, all proper layout apps have had text alignment options like justify-center for ages, allowing you to dictate how the last line of a justified block of text should be aligned. With the text-align-last property, that will finally be able in CSS too. Next, the ability to automatically size text so that it exactly fits in a certain block level element. And finally they are working on something I like to call float: center; although it will likely be a combination of width: fit-content; (to make the box shrink to its contents) and margin: 0 auto; (to center that box). Great stuff.

Anne Van Kesteren on HTML5

Looking back at it, I feel just a little ashamed I was so unfamiliar with HTML5. The presentation by Opera’s Anne Van Kesteren was a real eye-opener for me. I was even more surprised to learn that — although Ian Hickson recently revealed a depressing 15-year roadmap for HTML5 — quite a bit of HTML5 nuggets are being implemented by browser vendors today. A brief overview of my favorites:

  • The video and audio elements, providing a clear, extensible syntax with an extensive API to plug into it. WebKit apparently supports these right now, so I can’t wait to start testing them.
  • We’ll be able to sandbox iframes to allow them to communicate to the parent page, while the seamless attribute will make the iframe behave like a regular block level element inheriting all styles — praise the Lord!
  • Offline use is another big topic, allowing SQL storage to web apps, and offering the possibility of local sessions. As you’ll read below, the IE8 team have already implemented this in their latest beta.
  • The figure element will standardize the way we group images and their captions.
  • And more gems like a standard date input field, a standard way to provide autocompletion results for input fields, etc.

Pete LePage on IE8

One of the sessions I was most looking forward to was Pete LePage on Internet Explorer 8. Pete’s a Senior Product Manager for IE, working from the developers’ side. He’s on a mission to convince us IE8 will not be EVIL!! In short, I think he did a great job of explaining the current position of the IE team and the different perspectives of stakeholders, and showcasing the progress made so far. No an easy job in front of an audience who have no doubt cursed you and your kids in their late night debugging hours. Of notable interest:

  • I’m not a Javascript nut, but I bet a lot of people will be happy with the fact that IE8 has native JSON support, mutable DOM prototypes, a Web Sockets API (for cross-domain notifications), and fixed getElementsByID().
  • HTML5 storage, with both local SQL storage and session store. Excellent for offline use, less bandwidth, less http requests, etc. Exciting stuff, no doubt.
  • By default broadband users will get 6 simultaneous connections, instead of the regular 2. I’m eager to see what effect this will have on actual load times, and perceived load times.
  • Developers will have a way to plug their AJAX work-flow into regular browser navigation, so back and forward buttons work like they should, and we can bookmark and share complete and correct URLs.
  • While they may not be that new or innovative, some IE8 features like the Web Slices and the improved Open Search abilities (with customizable search suggestions) are really interesting. Particularly because they are implemented using open standards, and as such easy for us to deploy.

Random tidbits

  • Geeky jokes and nerdy tongue-in-cheek were plenty as usual, but I particularly loved Bruce Lawson‘s notion of the Guantanamo bay of validation — all validation errors are guilty until proven otherwise. A perfect metaphor by Opera’s accessibility expert that stresses both the importance and relativity of validation at the same time.
  • Stephen Hay spoke about organizing, authoring and documenting CSS, and I was glad to see a lot of his best practices and tricks are part of my work-flow as well. Go take a look at his slides.
  • After I queried Andy Clarke about the lack of news concerning the CSS Eleven — remember them? — he honestly replied that they did have some kind of a false start. He did add however that the intentions were positive, and we might hear more in the not too distant future. His own session was inspiring too — nothing new but it did spark some renewed interest in the possibilities of position: absolute;.
  • There was an interesting talk about certification for front-end developers. It’s a fact that this has always been absent for HTML/CSS, while it is commonplace for languages like PHP, Java and to a lesser degree Javascript. There’s a specialised Fronteers committee working on certification, and they have made great progress so far. If you speak Dutch, you can even try the example questionnaire.
  • Just as fantasai promised in a comment on my previous blog post, we heard about the new level 3 draft of the backgrounds and borders module at the conference. I was very pleased to see some excellent additions and nifty solutions, including my own suggestion to allow inset box shadows.
  • Check the pictures tagged with fronteers2008 at Flickr.

All in all this was a very good conference, in terms of both content and organisation. We may often have the feeling HTML and CSS are progressing at an excruciatingly slow speed, but things are definitely moving.

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