Monday, May 23, 2005

Editorial: Thanks, programmers, for going back to older technologies

I've been meaning to throw up a note here for awhile now, thanking programmers at places like Google and Flickr for dumping their Flash interfaces this year and switching back to older technologies (like dHTML, Javascript and CSS) to make their sites function instead. And why is this such a big deal? In two words - 'universal usability.' For example, dHTML stands for "dynamic HyperText Markup Language," and is basically an attempt to add cool interactive elements to plain HTML while still not having to get rid of the HTML altogether. So, if a browser that understands dHTML goes to a website programmed in dHTML, it will get all the bells and whistles that come with that language - like, the ability at the new Google Portal to drag and drop the different items on the page to change their order. But, if a browser that doesn't understand dHTML (like "Blazer," the one that comes with the Palm Treo) goes to such a website, the "d" part of the dHTML is simply ignored and the rest of the content still published - so I still get all the items at Google Portal that I normally would on a desktop browser, and still displayed elegantly on my tiny little screen, but merely lacking the ability to change their order through drag and drop.

Now compare that to something like a Flash-based interface, which both Gmail and Flickr were using not even a year ago; since that is a proprietary piece of software, you need a proprietary plug-in for your browser to even view Flash-programmed material, with you getting nothing but a blank screen if you don't have said plug-in. And since the owners of Flash don't make a plug-in for mobile browsers, you're pretty much screwed if you ever try to visit one of these sites through your Palm or other wireless device, making the entire website itself completely and utterly inaccessible. Flash is an excellent option for some projects, don't get me wrong (when it comes to online animation, for example, or interactive artist portfolios, it literally can't be beat), but is a terrible choice for overall site navigation; as Jakob Nielsen and other usability experts remind us over and over, the name of that game is always how many different types of browsers can elegantly open the material at your site, even if some of them can't access all the bells and whistles that come with the newest browsers.

dHTML is perfect for accomplishing something like this, and especially when you combine it with the power of other older technology, like Javascript, CSS and XML. I mean, this is what that new school of web programming called AJAX is all about - the term stands for "Asynchronous Javascript And XML," and is nothing more than an attempt to take these old technologies and to combine them in new and innovative ways, led by these smartypants I was mentioning at places like Google and Flickr. It's what lets us access things like Gmail and our Flickr accounts from our cellphones and mobiles, when even a year ago we couldn't, while still letting desktop visitors have access to all those cool interactive features that make them go "whoa." Speaking as someone whose online access would be severely handicapped without these new AJAX innovators, I'd like to thank them for all their hard work, and to encourage other programmers out there to turn first to these old technologies before diving head-first into something new and proprietary.