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New GAWDS Member

Relates to Web Standards and Accessibility

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.

Posted on Apr 24, 2004 at 15:13:08. [Comments for New GAWDS Member- 0]

Choosing Firefox Extensions

Relates to Firefox and Co and XUL

This post is now out dated. I have posted a similar posting relating to Firefox 1.0PR and my selection of the best extensions here.

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).

  • MozLib and JS Lib - Essential base script libraries for some extensions. (Automatically installed to application directory)
  • All In One Gestures - Mouse gestures are a must, and this offers extensive options.
  • Link Tool Bar - Link metadata is essential for assistive technologies. This brings the same usability to the browser.
  • Paste and Go * - Use it once, and you will not be able to do without it!
  • RSS Reader Panel - A simple to set up and use syndication interface based around a bookmarks folder of choice.
  • Advanced Search Side Bar * - Why search just Google when you can search them all at once!
  • Tabbrowser Extensions - On installation choose the session management option too to reload collections of pages with one click.
  • Quick Note - I had some conflicts with early releases of this but it seems stable now, and an efficient way to collate data through the context menu.
  • Toolbar Enhancements - Brings back all those missing buttons. Plus create your own tool bars and place them any which way.
  • ConQuery - Quick search on selected text through the context menu.

Here are a couple of aesthetic extensions which add minimal but nice functionality:

  • Cute Menus - Just adds extra icons onto the context menu.
  • Grippies - Click on, click off to show hide side bar.

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:

  1. Create two new profiles (profile_basic, profile_ext). Run "C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\Firefox" -profilemanager from the command line (note the path to Firefox will depend on your installation).
  2. Copy all files from the normal profile to one of these new profiles (profile_ext) - this will be the test profile to ensure no conflicts occur with the current extensions in the working profile.
  3. Make a backup of the chrome folder in the Firefox application directory - this ensures recovery if the extension unwittingly installs in the application directory.
  4. Start up Firefox with the basic profile - "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.
  5. If all works fine, shut down Firefox and start up again with the extended test profile - "C:\Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\Firefox" -p profile_ext.
  6. If this works fine and the extension is installed in the profile and not the application directory, then finally install it into the working profile.
  7. The two test profiles and backed up chrome directory can all be removed.

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 [6] yet the basic test succeeded [4], 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!

Posted on Apr 24, 2004 at 15:11:55. [Comments for Choosing Firefox Extensions- 1]

The Opera Revolution

Relates to Browsers

I only stumbled on the latest pre-production Opera release yesterday by chance. While testing a site, an overflow controlled floated DIV container 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

  1. The Main tool bar is disabled by default, with the key navigation controls (including Opera's Fast Forward, Rewind and Magic Wand) relocated to the address bar. At lower screen resolutions, this does reduce the width of the address bar considerably, but then most users do not look at addresses while surfing.
  2. Considerable screen real estate has been reclaimed with advertising banners reduced to the equivalent of a full window width tool bar, sitting below the menu bar. This serves up several adverts at once in the form of condensed Google Adwords. An option is given on the initial boot of the browser (and through the preferences) to receive 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.
  3. Much of the browser functionality is found in the already commonplace Panels (or Hotlist). These have taken on a more permanent residence on the left hand side of the screen in a dedicated tool bar.
  4. Earlier releases of version 7 had already taken a big step forward with the integration of the comprehensive M2 EMail Client. This software is further extended with syndication of RSS Newsfeeds and Weblogs. In contrast to most aggregators which syndicate content into a dedicated interface, here each RSS feed equates to a mail folder with all entries viewable in the mail pane. The aggregation can be customised to pull content on a regular temporal basis from hours to minutes (more beneficial to the broadband market than dial-up connections). While first time I have experienced this approach to syndication, a not dissimilar aggregation interface is also in the very early stages of development for Thunderbird.
  5. The other major addition is an IRC compatible chat interface. Personally, I had never really used IRC before, but I was impressed with the ease of set up to the wealth of development chat rooms on irc.freenode.net.

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!

Posted on Apr 24, 2004 at 15:08:20. [Comments for The Opera Revolution- 1]

New Amazon Search Portal

Relates to SEO and XUL

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.

Posted on Apr 24, 2004 at 15:07:18. [Comments for New Amazon Search Portal- 0]

DRC Report Arrives

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.

[snip.]

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.

Posted on Apr 14, 2004 at 15:12:42. [Comments for DRC Report Arrives- 0]

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