January 5, 2013

Everything Old is New

Welcome to 2013!

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the first GUI based, cross-platform web browser – NCSA Mosaic – which was launched upon an unsuspecting public in March 1993. In the span of less than 2 decades, a technology that was then firmly in the realm of science-fiction (and über-nerdism) has gone on to irreversibility alter the course of humanity – yes, it’s that big a deal.
[Photo: George Santayana] And while the history of the web as we know it has a short timeline (when it comes to history), there is enough of a timeline now that we should be able to learn from our past mistakes. As George Santayana (1863 -1952) wrote in 1906, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.“.

Which brings us to the topic of this post. My observation is neither new nor revolutionary – many others are observing and are equally concerned about what I am seeing too, but I am struggling to figure out how to stop what I am seeing: I need to get this off my chest.


The latest incident that sparked my frustration comes from a DM exchange I had with a colleague on twitter, where I commented that using justified text has some fairly serious accessibility issues for Dyslexics and some screen magnifier users, who will often see the enlarged white-spaces between words in the justified text, rather than the words themselves. The phenomenon is well known, and is referred to as “Rivers of White”.

When I pointed out this problem, my colleague replied “I am using (CSS3) hyphenation — for browsers that support it.” followed by “Graceful degradation is that the text is still fully readable in older browsers. Dyslexics can always upgrade.

Putting aside the fact that it may very well not be “fully readable” to the user-groups I just pointed out, the comment about “Dyslexics can always upgrade” floored me. WTF? I had originally seen the justified text in question via my smart-phone (Galaxy S III, so not some low-level feature phone), and I checked it in no less than 5 different browsers I have installed on my phone (Samsung’s native web-kit build, Dolphin, Firefox, Opera Mobile and Opera Mini), and the problem remained. (Perspicacious readers will notice one specific browser missing from that list…)

Fast forward a few days, and the following “News” item crosses my radar: Many Windows Phone users report being cut off from Google Maps, and significantly from that article, the following quote from a Google representative:

The mobile web version of Google Maps is optimized for WebKit browsers such as Chrome and Safari. However, since Internet Explorer is not a WebKit browser, Windows Phone devices are not able to access Google Maps for the mobile web. (source: http://gizmodo.com/5973295/google-maps-has-never-been-accessible-on-mobile-internet-explorer)


Now I’m getting hot under the collar. A few choice searches later, and low-and-behold I come across this (apparently quite serious) Google Groups question: Does google has any “Best viewed in Chrome” official icon or something, with chrome download links? (I really wish I was making this up!!)

Do I really need to go on?

Let’s be perfectly clear: I am not opposed to progress, nor am I looking to restrain developers from trying, and using, the latest in web technologies. Progress is inevitable, and generally a good thing. I fully understand that without implementers, the browsers will stop (or not even consider) supporting a feature (remember, I have battle scars going back over 6 years now on the longdesc issue), so I get “use it or lose it” only too well. But we’ve already been down the monoculture road before, and all these new young developers who are blithely telling us to “upgrade” (and only too often, to Chrome) need a good shake and a slap – been there, done that. Have you not already tripped over IE 6 on your journey?

While I’m at it, lets also dismiss the Google Conspiracy issue shall we? I don’t believe that Google is being “evil”, but by the same token, they are a for-profit business, not some benevolent charity, and it takes a lot of shekles to provide a free lunch to every employee and guest each day. That cash has to come from somewhere, and so Google will do what it has to do to continue to be a profitable company. Chrome is their native browser, and they use it and promote it at every chance they get: on their phones, their hard-drive free Chromebooks, and via OEM style bundling (updated any Adobe products lately?) Fair game, and that’s business.

However, we, the masses that feed the internet every day, have a responsibility to ensure that the web works for everyone, not just Chrome users. We do that by using and supporting Web Standards, a lesson that we’ve been trying to teach here,there, and everywhere else too.

In 2013 it is simply inexcusable to be saying things like “Dyslexics can always upgrade” or that your site/app/service “is optimized for WebKit browsers such as Chrome and Safari” to the point that it will not work in other browsers, or that it imposes a real hardship on your users. We tried that in the 90′s, and trust me, it didn’t work then either. STOP THE MADNESS (Again already!).

[Icon: Best Viewed in Chrome (animated)]
[Icon: Best Viewed in Chrome]

[Cartoon: Grumpy Old Man shaking his cane](And for those of you who want to dismiss me as some grumpy old man [sometimes true B.T.W.], go right ahead – it will be your loss in the end. Meanwhile, here’s some retro-snark for you – feel free to use it where-ever you choose.)

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Everything Old is New by John Foliot is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Posted by John

I am a 16 year veteran of Web Accessibility, living and working in Austin, Texas. Currently Principal Accessibility Strategist at Deque Systems Inc., I have previously held accessibility related positions at JPMorgan Chase and Stanford University. I am also actively involved with the W3C - the international internet standards body - where I attempt to stir the pot, fight hard for accessibility on the web, and am currently co-chairing a subcommittee on the accessibility of media elements in HTML5.

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