Day 1: @media ajax November 2007

@media ajax 2007 So I went to the @media ajax conference earlier this week, and thought I’d just write up a quick summary of the event/sessions.

This event was one of the premier JavaScript/ajax events including speakers such as Brendan Eich (Mozilla, and inventor of JavaScript), Douglas Crockford (Yahoo, and creator of JSON), Derek Featherstone (Further Ahead), John Resig (jQuery), Jeremy Keith (author of Bulletproof Ajax), and Dion Almaer & Ben Galbraith (Ajaxian).

Every session was of interest. By no means are these a complete set of notes of everything said, just an overview and my impressions of it:

Overall

Great. Good to hear from some of the key people in this field. Though the conference felt more about JavaScript than just AJAX (but that was a good thing IMO).

A number of sessions talked of how JavaScript was hated and considered too basic for serious programmers until just recently and yet, without having really changed that much over the 10 years, is now well-respected, incredibly powerful, and very misunderstood!

The State of AJAX

By the guys who run Ajaxian.

Interesting talk noting various improvements in just a few short years, and some of the innovative things that are coming, from Mozilla (Tamarin, Screaming Monkey etc), Google (Gears, GWT), various frameworks (JQuery, YUI, dojo, etc), and of trends such as AJAX on desktop apps (Adobe AIR, Slingshot, Silverlight, Prism etc).

They presented a pie chart showing almost 50% of web developer’s time was typically wasted on sorting out problems with IE/Microsoft! Made people laugh, because how true it unfortunately is. (It was interesting — though not unexpected — that in almost every session there was some note, minor or major, of how much Microsoft/IE had stagnated/held back the web.)

Google Gears’ use of worker pools and other features to improve both security and performance was mentioned, which was quite interesting. (Gears has many things being considered for HTML 5 — including the much-talked about off-line storage — but because Gears requires a separate install on the user’s browser, I hadn’t really given it much attention. I am certainly interested to learn more now.)

The other point they made was that AJAX-based apps were now raising the bar on web apps; from form to function to the “wow” factor. They mentioned an interesting usability study looking at two apps with the same functionality, except one just looked better. They asked people around the world (not just US and/or Europe) which one they thought they were more productive with. They all said the better looking one. Whether it was true or not wasn’t the point; the wow factor was.

But I’m a bloody designer!

Interface designer Mike Stenhouse provided the perspective of a designer who, being comfortable on the design/HTML/CSS end of things in the past, perhaps with simple JavaScript stuff (image rollovers etc) would leave the construction and server-side programming to others. However, with web applications much has changed. For example, more programmers are coming to JavaScript and even “taking JavaScript away from the designer.”

He talked about how he found himself being more involved in day to day discussions and decisions and that agile development was a good fit for this changing, even for a designer. He found himself being involved both as a customer representative as well as part of the team, even involved in pairing with developers (not to write code necessarily but to appreciate the coding issues and to allow developers to appreciate the design issues).

It was interesting (and good) to hear a designer talking about the merits of Test Driven Development and even Behaviour Driven Development!

Real World Accessibility for Ajax-enhanced Web Apps

By accessibility expert, Derek Featherstone.

While he covered techniques that should be reasonably well known now for people who have been following web standards etc for the last few years, he presented it really well so hopefully those not as interested or aware of the issues should be better armed now.

Fundamentally he reiterated that markup still matters; that the structure of the HTML was still fundamental and should come first.

How To Destroy The Web

By Stuart Langridge, author and one of the founders of the Web Standards Project’s DOM Scripting Task Force.

This was a funny, tongue-in-cheek, look at how not to do web development or further the web.

Planning JavaScript and Ajax for Larger Teams

By Christian Heilmann, JavaScript expert, now Yahoo! UK lead web developer, standards evangelist and trainer.

Good discussion on the importance of team development. Also made a point that front end stuff like CSS and JavaScript should be treated as application code; with a build process.

Mentioned tools like JSLint for quality, minification and consolidation for performance, all things I have been interested in looking into further.

Another decent idea around team motivation and knowledge sharing was the “lightning talks” — 5 minutes to present a problem, 5 minutes demo the solution, 5 minutes to discuss (and then share with the world, through blogs, wikis etc). We have tried hour long sessions with our teams which are really good, but when our development is fully underway, these are sometimes sacrificed, unfortunately. These shorter “lightning talks” are an interesting idea, which I hope we try out.

He also talked about architecting JavaScript (thinking of modules instead of pages, providing configuration capabilities, custom events, etc). All good stuff which I have been trying to do more of lately (not always perfectly though), so nice to see that being mentioned.

Afternoon Coffee Break

No, not a session, but a break! The reason this was useful for me was that as a work colleague and I were talking near the cookies and coffee area, Stuart Langridge came over, so I quickly told him I liked his session and we started talking about various things.

He had very briefly mentioned something called Comet which I asked if he could explain further. All he said was, “why not ask the guy who invented the term” pointing to another guy just standing right next to us, Alex Russell (one of the speakers for the second day)!

It was a great discussion on the idea behind Comet (rather than the client polling the server continuously for something, being able to push data and events from the server to the client, all while using the existing HTTP infrastructure, which is not built for this type of communication. In short it involves having a script element request a resource from the server, but the server never returning, just blocking until different messages/events/data needs pushing. Simple in idea but involves some complexities to overcome. I will be trying to look into this further.)

Ajax at Work: A Case Study

By Peter-Paul Koch (ppk), known for his useful quirksmode web site of tips and tricks and understanding browser incompatibilities.

Ironically for an ajax conference, the only session that actually looked at the technical aspects of ajax. He compared using XML, JSON, CSV, and HTML as the data being returned from an AJAX request, looking at pros and cons of each. (As expected, ultimately XML or JSON are better than CSV or HTML in most cases, but it all depends on the situation.)

Conclusion

So, all in all, a decent day, getting to hear from some well known people. Can’t say I technically learned much, but I don’t think that was the goal of the day as such; more to share ideas and connect.

Day 2 was for the more technical stuff, and had even more well known people talking.

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