Everything is becoming, nothing isPlato
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I feel privileged to announce my application to join the Guild of Accessible Web Designers (GAWDS) has been accepted. The Guild, originally founded by Jim Byrne is still in development and has an admirable member community with some of the finest and most reputed accessibility developers in the world. A principle objective of the Guild is to
…promote a vision of the future that assumes accessible web design to be relevant, obtainable and not at odds with successful business practice or good visual and usable design.
With the official opening of the Guild set for the middle May, I hope I can find considerable time beyond client commitments to contribute extensively to the community.
Following on from my previous entry on the new Opera pre-production release, I just want to take a quick look at the extensions that expand the functionality of Firefox. Several friends and clients have test run Firefox (and previously Firebird) over the last 12 months, some even making it their regular browser. Yet nearly all of these users appear baffled when, on booting up this amazing browser that I am raving about, they are faced with a minimalist and featureless interface. Of course I point them to the Extensions repository and recommend a few useful addins to get them on their way, yet on revisiting clients months later, they are still using the minimal install or (worse still) have resorted back to the Exploder family!
I feel part of the problem here is that many users have an expectation of what a web browser is, based on their experience with Exploder, and so when a new browser is presented to them it is just regarded as Exploder in another guise. Plus of course lack of business time to install extensions (along with the profile backups and chrome editing this generally entails). This is not all doom and gloom though, since Firefox is after all a Technology Preview and not intended for direct public consumption.
Personally, I am a Firefox fanatic! I cannot get enough of this browser and its multitude of extensions. Right now I have four profiles set up, each serving a different purpose: manual reader; development browser; blogging browser; and research browser. On top of this I have two test profiles I use to put new or updated extensions through their paces to ensure none of the established profiles get mangled. The one rant I do have with the current installation process is the occasional extension (bar the script libraries) that automatically throws itself into the application directory without first confirming this is o.k. with me. Several times this has led to a complete reinstall due to the extension interfering with extensions in another profile. Ideally the XUL developer in question could specify when an extension will behave like this.
Anyway, enough of the rant. The intention of this entry is to list those extensions I have found most useful, in part for my own reference, and so I can point clients and friends to this entry to give them an idea of extensions worth taking time out to install. (Extensions marked with an asterisk * may not offer installation to profile directory).
Here are a couple of aesthetic extensions which add minimal but nice functionality:
Essential developer extensions that I cannot do without:
I have had all of these running under the same profile at some time or other with no conflicts. I would strongly recommend creating a new profile whenever you install new extensions beyond these, to avoid damaging current working profiles. I normally take the following process:
"C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\Firefox" -profilemanagerfrom the command line (note the path to Firefox will depend on your installation).
"C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\Firefox" -p profile_basic. Install the extension. Provided it prompts where to place the extension, choose profile - normally this just entails clicking OK.
"C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\Firefox" -p profile_ext.
I am not suggesting this is a fail safe method, but after several hours lost reinstalling the application, profiles and extensions following an impulsive installation of a far from stable extension, I take caution when installing new extensions into my working profiles until I have confirmation of their stability. If the advanced test fails  yet the basic test succeeded , then a conflict exists with one of the currently installed extensions. If you want the new extension, the best option is to create a new profile for it. This is how I have come to have several different working profiles serving different purposes. It is also a perfect excuse to flavour each profile with a different theme. With a low RAM running machine I tend to go for the grayscale themes like Breeze and Smoke.
I hope perhaps this entry will point a few more people towards experimentation with Firefox. Believe me you will not look back once you start playing!
Relates to Browsers
I only stumbled on the latest pre-production Opera release yesterday by chance. While testing a site, an overflow controlled floated
was failing to scroll in Opera 7. Since I knew my version (7.11) was out of date, and working on the assumption that most dedicated Opera users update on a regular basis, I thought it
would be better to test the page in a newer version, than rework my CSS file to resolve this error. On loading the Opera download page I discovered that version 7.5 Beta has just been released on Thursday (22nd April).
This new version has received a considerable overhaul, with a completely innovative look to the user interface and several new features. All the familiar accessibility and testing tools, which had originally lured me to Opera prior to the Firebird (and now FireFox) Renaissance, are still there. But this new version is a long way removed from the early 7 releases. The remodelled interface offers:
…a fresh, light appearance, smaller buttons, and quicker access to key browsing features in the panel selector.Opera press releases, April 22, 2004
relevant text ads and related searches offered through Google. This is an intuitive business strategy to perhaps counter the lack of incentive to purchase the browser and get banner adverts removed. It benefits Opera with more adverts served and a higher potential click through rate. It benefits the user with less obtrusive adverts, adverts that may be of interest and more screen space to work with.
All in, I found it a very pleasurable experience test driving this beta release of a radically improved browser. The release is complemented by improvements in OperaMail, the web based mail client, which now allows collection of a number of POP3 mail accounts within the webmail interface.
Even so, I can't see my allegiance to Firefox altering. The vast collection of Firefox extensions now available offer all the features present in Opera and more besides. Not forgetting the ability to customise the browser with multiple identities and the ability to further extend the functionality with my own XUL. However, the off-the-shelf and fully loaded Opera could be much more appealing to the home user who does not want to get embroiled in the intricacies of installing XPI's and modifying chrome files.
The Opera forums show there is a little way to go before this becomes a production release, but the browser market is certainly hotting up! AOL is marketing version 10 to the home user here in the UK and developers eyes are turned towards the Mozilla 1.7 RC 1 and its improved functionality (including support for SVG). The Opera team have certainly laid down a credible contender.
Oh, and as for the non-scrolling
DIV - it works fine!
This entry is a little late in the day, since with massive work commitments I forgot to post it, but on 14th April, Amazon released a beta version of its new search portal, A9.com. As well as the search results (supplied by Google), the portal offers two additional panels - Book Results shows results from an Amazon search on the keywords; Search History provides a chronological and actual history of keywords searched. The latter feature can be integrated with the browsing history offered by the A9 Tool Bar (IE only!) to offer quite a powerful tracking mechanism for intensive searches. A9 also offers a simple query mechanism direct through the URL by simply typing the keywords after the base URL (eg <a href="http://a9.com/severn solutions">http://a9.com/severn solutions</a>) - beneficial for those browsers that don't offer Quick Search features.
John Battelle discusses the Amazon/Google relationship in this venture, and the potential opportunities provided by the search history facility, while Resource Shelf plucks out some of the current weaknesses of the current beta release.
The Tool Bar offers a number of additional features. However, as is so often the case with search tool bars, it is only compatible with IE. Perhaps, someone has already followed the step taken by relatively new Eurekster to produce a XUL version of the tool bar for the blossoming number of Mozilla and co users. As for the design of the portal interface with three resizable panels: It is clear and usable on the major web browsers, but perhaps accessibility could be improved - Lynx illustrates the reliance of the panels on client-side scripting where they fail to work.
Relates to Accessibility
The DRC formal investigation into web accessibility has released its findings today in this comprehensive report (PDF File, 406KB).
This report demonstrates that most websites are inaccessible to many disabled people and fail to satisfy even the most basic standards for accessibility recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium.
Organisations that offer goods and services on the Web already have a legal duty to make their sites accessible. It is clear from the investigation that these duties are not being fulfilled. The Commission's policy is to seek improvement in the first instance through advice and conciliation, and this report contains a range of recommendations to help website owners and developers tackle the barriers to inclusive design. However, where the response is inadequate, we shall be vigorous in the use of our enforcement powers; these range from namedparty Formal Investigations which can lead to sanctions against the owners of inaccessible websites, to the provision of support for test cases being brought by individual disabled people.
DRC Formal Investigation Report: Web Accessibility, Foreward vi.
The report raises some criticism of the overall ability of the WAI Guidelines and automated test suites for validating accessible sites and the WAI have posted a rebuttal to some potentially misleading analysis in the report.
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