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Ten questions for Simon Willison

1-June-04

Simon Willison

Simon Willison is a seasoned Web developer from the UK, currently working in Lawrence, Kansas. By day, he develops web applications, specialising in both client- and server-side development, for the Lawrence Journal-World. By night, he writes about web standards and technologies on his web development weblog - as well as writing regular articles for Sitepoint. He recently became a member of the Web Standards Project.

[1] Russ: You are well-known and respected in PHP, Python and CSS communities. You develop web applications and regularly write for two blogs. On top of this, you are a member of WaSP. Where do you find the time?

Simon: Actually I'm up to three blogs now - in addition to my personal tech blog and my SitePoint blog I have A Year in Kansas (no longer online), where I talk about my adventures in the US. Time is constantly a problem - there are never enough hours in the day, and I always feel like there are things I'm not paying enough attention to. I'm trying not to take on any more projects as I'm feeling pretty stretched as it is. The delightful thing about the internet is that it's full of interesting problems waiting to be solved.

[2] Russ: You specialise in both client and server-side development. What is your main interest?

Simon: I really couldn't say, as it varies on an almost weekly basis. Professionally, I've been doing a lot of work with Python for the past six months and absolutely loving it; it really is a great platform for server-side web development. My principle client-side interest at the moment is what I like to call unobtrusive Javascript, a term that I think was coined by Stuart Langridge. Javascript gets a bad press but can actually be used to remarkably elegant ends, particularly if you focus on enhancing the underlying document without making parts of it inaccessible to Javascript-free user agents.

I've also been learning the ins and outs of Linux server administration, while simultaneously adapting to my new life as a Mac OS X user (I switched back in January). Finally ridding my life of dependence on Microsoft software for good has been a refreshing experience.

[3] Russ: You started your own blog in June 2002, so it will be two years old soon. Do you have plans to continue as is, wind it up or expand?

Simon: My blog has been an incredible asset to me. It's got me jobs, introduced me to hundreds of great new people and really helped me keep track of the things I'm interested in. Often I'll search for something on Google and be directed to an old entry on my own site that I'd forgotten I had written! It's certainly not going to go away. I believe you should only blog about things that interest you so the topic of my blog will change as I develop new interests.

One thing long time readers may have noticed is that my volume of posting has gone down, but the length of individual posts has gone up. Part of this is due to time constraints (in the beginning I was posting five or more entries every day) but my blogging patterns have also been heavily influenced by my blogmarks side-blog. Instead of writing up a full entry to justify a link to something of interest I can now hit a bookmarklet, type in a quick sentence and post it instantly to my blogmarks. It's liberating to say the least. It also allows me to link to things that have nothing to do with my blog's principle topics, such as Homestar Runner cartoons.

[4] Russ: Over the last two years, you have used your blog to promote web standards regularly. What do you feel is important about web standards?

Simon: Using standards is about doing things the right way. It's also about keeping the web "clean" - the more standards compliant pages there are the easier it is for people to come up with new ways of consuming the web, from new browsers such as Safari to smart new services like Technorati and Feedster. People who design just for one browser infuriate me because they're being incredibly short sighted; look at what happened to all that content created just a few years ago that only worked in Netscape 4.

Technology changes. People change. If you want your web content to be relevant years from now you need to stick to a recognisable standard so future devices will be able to make sense of it. At the moment, market forces demand that everyone replicate the bugs of the most popular browser in order to read the web. Bugs are undocumented: will browser implementers still be replicating the same bugs in 5 or 10 years time? If you stick to the standards they can be used to decipher your content in the future - not just by other people, but also by your future self.

[5] Russ: You recently made reference to David Siegel's infamous "Killer Tables" and concluded "It's a shame that the workarounds he created are still in use on so many sites". Do you think this is true, or has the tide turned?

Simon: There's a huge disconnect between those of us who understand standards based development and the rest of the world. It's easy to forget that a huge proportion of the people who work on the web don't even know what a doctype is. Without a doubt most sites are still built with terrible markup, but the web is a huge place. The benefits of a standards-based approach are becoming self evident to people who take the time to investigate them. There are still numerous problems: the learning curve for CSS is pretty tough for people who have already learnt to design with presentational HTML, and is further compounded by ever present browser bugs in the most popular browsers. Things are definitely getting better though.

[6] Russ: Last year you began a series called "CSS ain't Rocket Science" - a solid basic introduction to CSS. Do you have any plans to continue the series?

Simon: Not in the form I left it; for one thing, I'm now being paid to write articles on client-side development for SitePoint, so any future material of that sort will be published there. I also think that the main format I used in the tutorial is no longer relevant: I focused on taking existing designs and recreating them using CSS, often taking a well-natured poke at people who were outspoken against modern techniques at the same time. As a community we're moving beyond that now - there's less interest in replicating old designs and more in pushing the boundaries of what CSS can do for us that just wasn't possible before.

[7] Russ: You are now a member of the Web Standards Project. What does this mean? Do you have any specific role to perform?

Simon: I'm part of the hive mind. I've actually contributed to WaSP a lot less than I had wanted to due to the pressures of other projects, but I'm starting to get more involved now with efforts such as the web standards interview series. I was lucky enough to meet up with a group of WaSP members in person at the SxSW interactive conference and I can tell you, these people are even more passionate about what they do in person than they are online.

[8] Russ: During the browser upgrade campaign, WaSP provided web developers with focus and support. Apart from "Recent Buzz", WaSP seems to have gone quiet. What's happening behind the scenes?

We're still buzzing away. There's been something of a changing of the guard, with older hands moving in to retirement and fresh blood (such as myself) moving in to take up the slack. It's certainly been a tough transition, moving from lobbying a small group of browser and tool developers to targetting the millions of developers active on the web today. In a sense, the battle has moved outside the WaSP stable: every day more and more people discover the benefits of standards for themselves. I keep an eye on a number of web development discussion forums (outside of the stalwart standards communities such as Webdesign-L and CSS-Discuss) and discussions of CSS and standards based techniques are increasing on a daily basis - it's really a massive change from one or two years ago. The challenge for WaSP is to take the message to the silent millions who don't involve themselves with these communities. This is a problem that is being tackled more by WaSP members individually than WaSP as a whole; we have an impressive number of book authors on the team for example.

[9] Russ: Until Longhorn is released, web developers are stuck with IE6, with its many interesting characteristics. How do you deal with this browser and what do you think of solutions like Dean Edwards' IE7?

Simon: I was pretty excited about IE7 when it first came out, but now I'm not sure it's as important a development as I had first thought. Don't get me wrong: it's an ingenious piece of work. I'm just not sure that the benefits and reliance on Javascript are worth the extra page weight. It also has problems in that it doesn't safely replicate CSS precedence rules, meaning it could introduce new problems even as it solves other ones.

I look upon the IE feature freeze as something of an opportunity: we've got a good two years to really nail the current set of IE bugs, discover workarounds and practise "progressive enhancement" to give an enhanced user experience to more standards compliant browsers. The stagnation of IE (which hasn't seen a major update in over two years now) is also a great opportunity to introduce users to new, more productive browsers. Demonstrating tabbed browsing in Firefox to someone and seeing their eyes light up when they realise the importance of middle clicking to open a link in a background tab never gets old.

[10] Russ: You wrote your first article in January 2004 - "Simple Tricks for More Usable Forms", which was very well received. What's in the pipeline? Is there a book lurking around in the back of your mind?

Simon: I feel like I'm getting in to my stride at SitePoint now. I have a number of articles in the pipeline, and I'm trying to cover ground which hasn't really been touched on by other sites.

I'd love to work on a book some day, but I've heard enough horror stories about the technical book industry to know not to expect to make much money out of it. I'll be back at University in October to finish my degree, and from what I've heard the amount of work involved in the last year of my course will be more than enough to keep me occupied. It would be fun to contribute a chapter or two to something though. I've been technically reviewing a book on CSS over the past few months and it's been fantastic - you get paid money for reading someone else's work and making suggestions. All the fun of being an author without any of the writing!

Russ: Thank you for the interview, Simon!
Simon: Thanks for inviting me!

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