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Article  |  UX

14 Things I Learned at WebVisions - Day 1

Reading time: ~ 5 minutes

I visited sunny Portland, Oregon (I’ve lived here for 7 years but let’s pretend, shall we) to attend this year’s WebVisions conference. Did you know that Portland has over 400 days of sunshine per year? Don’t attempt to do the math- it’s complicated. To extrapolate from my WebVisions experience, I’ve determined that Portlandites predominantly use MacBooks, are all men, wear ill-fitting trousers, and smell kinda funny. Besides that, I’ve compiled a list of 14 THINGS I LEARNED AT WEBVISIONS, the first half of which are presented here in no particular order. Enjoy!

Convention Center hall

There’s nothing wrong with socks and sandals

For the most part, Phillip Kerman’s talk, titled either “How to be a javascript hack” or “How not to be a javascript hack,” depending on which resource you consult, went over my head. If you’re interested in either hacking or not hacking, check out the lecture page. I did pick up a couple good tricks, one of which I interpreted as “Wear socks and sandals. It is comfortable and airy, while still feeling warm and protected.”

You can do crazy things with Open Type fonts and CSS3

Thomas Phinny, whose sweet typography shirt immediately won me over, spoke animatedly about all the crazy stuff one can do with CSS3 and OpenType fonts. Ligatures, fractions, ordinals, swashes, contextual alternatives and improved small caps styling are just a few of the typographic niceties supported by CSS3 in conjunction with OT fonts. This means smarter, prettier, subtler text on the web. Thomas demonstrated some oddball experiments taking advantage of this technology, such as a font that ‘censors’ itself by replacing certain letters or words that the font deems too colorful. But the real power of the new typographic controls that CSS3 introduces can be seen in practical yet understated examples: script letters flowing together, fractions that actually look like fractions, and small capitals that aren’t just shrunk-down capitals. We’ve take all this for granted in print; but the web has yet to experience these typographic freedoms- until now, that is.

Thomas Phinney Thomas Phinney wearing the raddest type shirt ever

Dude invented some weird web page creation GUI that he thinks is revolutionary, but I think looks like Dreamweaver MX

John Brinnand, who works or worked at eBay (and specializes in “computer and network security,” according to a LinkedIn profile), enthusiastically explained some mysterious product that he claims would solve the problems of web apps; namely, their design, development, and maintenance. John feels that Rich Internet Apps (RIA’s) are massive and much too time-consuming to deal with. After a lengthy introduction, John showed us a WYSIWYG editor built upon the Dojo framework, that outputs massively long JSON arrays rather than HTML. It seemed to me like his editor was a significant and troublesome dependency, and his tool looked like Frontpage- why was this better? I asked John, and his response was something along the lines of, “You can use my tool to nest a box within a box within a box within a box, until the entire browser window is black! Can you do that with Dreamweaver?? Also, this tool is 3 years old and I’ve never seen a corrupted JSON string!” Pretty sure that didn’t answer my question, but I was too frightened to ask again. For those curious, he unfortunately didn’t give any information about his game-chaiging tool- including whether or not it is available to the public, or how to follow its development.

I hope I win an iPad3

I gave my business card to the nice people at the WebINK booth in hopes of winning the iPad3 giveaway. WebINK, a web font service in the vein of Typekit and Fontdeck, has a lovely website, offers access to a ton of nifty fonts, and boasts a number of helpful tools, including a PhotoShop plugin and a bookmarklet. I have been relatively happy using Typekit on personal projects, but will definitely give WebINK a try- there’s a free Development account that allows access to all 4000 fonts, with a limit of 10 visitors per day.

Faruk Ateş is damn stylish, but his session was disappointing

I truly dislike the “rockstar programmer,” “coding ninja,” “badass” persona. I find that sentiment thoroughly immature and embarrassing. It reeks of overcompensation for childhood teasing (I was teased as a child, and I’m sure I overcompensate for that trauma in some way – just not by attempting to conflate sitting in front of a computer with martial arts expertise). Faruk Ateş has significantly contributed to the web community; along with a few others, he developed Modernizr- an incredible feature-detection javascript library that has most definitely expedited the adoption of modern web capabilities. But his talk, “The Web’s Third Decade”, was condescending and self-congratulating. He described those web developers who neglect to use every vendor-prefix as “jerks” or “morons” or some other such insult. A hasty coding decision is not, in my opinion, enough information upon which to make a value judgement of someone. We’re not ninja super-heroes, and web developers who haven’t stayed current aren’t villains. Faruk spoke a bit about vendor-prefixes, a bit about CSS preprocessors, and a bit about responsive images- overall, an uninspired and haphazard collection of predictable topics. I expected more from someone so bright and visionary, and I’ll continue to follow Faruk’s work in hopes that the glimpse I caught was uncharacteristic.

Faruk Ates Faruk, doing his thing

PhoneGap and PhoneGap Build are the inspiring tools I will use to build my mobile app, which will undoubtedly make me crazy rich

Kevin Hoyt, Developer Evangelist with Adobe, gave a fascinating and thorough talk about developing and building HTML5 ‘hybrid’ mobile apps with the help of PhoneGap. I was, however, a bit distracted by the dollar symbols dancing before my eyes as I fantasized about the millions I will surely make selling my cross-platform game / musical tool / productivity app / whatever.
Step 1: Design an awesome mobile app that takes advantage of the phone’s native API’s, like geolocation, the camera, and compass.
Step 2: Create a HTML/CSS/JS web site that approximates that vision as closely as possible.
Step 3: Download and use PhoneGap to package up my new mobile app; or, better yet, upload my files to PhoneGap:Build which will magically output “app-store ready apps for Apple iOS, Google Android, Windows Phone 7, Palm, Symbian, Blackberry, and more.” PhoneGap and PhoneGap:Build are both free.

Social Media can be a surprisingly creative medium

I haven’t fully embraced social media. At least for me, Twitter (and, oftentimes, Facebook) is at best like eavesdropping and at worst like attempting to converse with a stop sign. Or maybe it’s more like sending out party invites, dejectedly hoping I’ll get at least a few RSVPs. Anyway, Baratunde Thurston, author of How to Be Black and former Director of Digital at The Onion, opened the conference with a hysterical keynote that shifted the way I think about Twitter, specifically, and social media in general. The talk, “Correspondent from the Future,” was supposedly an “analysis of the issues raised in his exploration of the future.” I interpreted the message as an exaltation of the artistic, creative, and comedic potential of community; specifically, community aided by the internet and social media. Baratunde described personal projects like a foursquare mayoral campaign and a #HowBlackAreYou twitter fight, and Onion articles that spawned Yelp reviews of fake places- all examples of the collective internet truly breathing life into art. It is always nice to be reminded that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Baratunde was a delight- follow his stuff; and then contribute to the world.

Stay tuned!

Tune in tomorrow for the second half of this 2-part series. Will I win an iPad3? Will I regretfully witness any barefoot people sitting on the floor next to me? Will I make a best-selling mobile app? For all this, AND MORE, read tomorrow’s heart-pounding conclusion to “14 Things I learned at WebVisions”!

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