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Extended Dash

It’s been interesting to see the back-and-forth over Dashboard the past few days.  Dave‘s posts have been greatly illuminating, and I belatedly discovered Tim Bray‘s initial reaction and further thoughts on the topic.  Dave has now done a test implementation of adding a default namespace for Dashboard widgets, using the namespace URI http://www.apple.com/2004/xhtml-extended/.  That doesn’t (yet?) point to an actual document, but that’s okay; URIs don’t have to refer to a specific resource.  They just have to be unique.  This is in contrast to URLs, which in theory have to point to something that actually exists.  Although clearly reality has a long way to go before it catches up with that theory.

As Dave points out, his approach not only makes it possible for HTML to be extended without breaking with existing standards, it also provides a handy “pay attention to the Dashboard stuff” trigger and it opens a clear path toward supporting XML-based widgets in the future.  This is all kinds of cool, and I can’t see any real drawbacks.  If you do, let Dave know, or comment on this post; I’ll collect them (since Dave doesn’t presently have commenting on his site) for his review.

Despite it being Dave’s second choice, the “create a new DOCTYPE” idea is something I want to discuss in a little more detail, if only to illustrate how it can work.  Here’s a markup example of an amazingly stupid and useless widget using a hypothetical DashboardML DTD.

<!DOCTYPE html SYSTEM
  "http://www.apple.com/dtd/2004/dashboardml-10.dtd">
<html>
<head>
<title>myWidget</title>
<style type="text/css">
body {background: aquamarine;}
</style>
<script type="text/javascript">
function startup() {
  alert('Happy!  Joy!');
}
</script>
</head>
<body onload="startup();">
<canvas blah="foo" yadda="baz">
<h1>Widget!</h1>
<div class="main">
<p>So cool.</p>
<p>So fine.</p>
</div>
<img src="yar.gif" composite="punchout" alt="Yar!">
<p id="footer">copyleft nobody</p>
</body>
</html>

By referring to a DTD defining a language that looks just like HTML except for the canvas element and composite attribute, along with any other additions, the markup stays free of explicit namespacing and works the way authors already expect.  It really is that simple.  IBM already does something like this, having created an “IBM XHTML 1.1 Transitional” DTD that’s used throughout their Web presence.  The comments at the top of the DTD file explain how it’s different than regular old XHTML, but the executive summary is that it permits some old table-and-spacer-era markup hacks in an XHTML environment.  If you run an IBM-XHTML compliant document through a validator that loads and uses IBM’s DTD to check over the document’s markup, then the document will validate.  The same thing could be done for Dashboard—or for any other project, really.  That’s the beauty of it.  We aren’t constrained to HTML any more, nor even to XHTML.  We’re only constrained by what clients will support… as always.

(It was pointed out to me via e-mail that XHTML is perfect for this, because it’s already modularized so all you have to do is tack on another module.  That would be quite true, except for Dave’s statement that the Dashboard widgets won’t be using XHTML.)

The other potential problem with my suggestion, according to Dave, is that the DOCTYPE is used to pick a rendering mode in current browsers.  Dave says he doesn’t want to restrict widget authors to one mode or the other.  Now, I’d personally have no problem forcing all widgets to be rendered in standards mode, but that’s probably just my inner purist talking.  If it were important to allow quirks mode, then create a transitional DashboardML DOCTYPE that triggers it; use the default (above) for triggering standards mode.  This would be consistent with current DOCTYPE switching schemes.

Regardless, at this point, I think we’re pretty well assured that things are headed in the right direction.  That’s very much thanks to Dave’s openness and genuine interest in doing the right thing, not to mention his swift response times.  Where things go from here, we’ll see, both at Surfin’ Safari and (I expect) by way of submissions to and work by the WHAT WG—which itself will be the subject of a post in the near future.

DashboardML

Now we know more about Dashboard, and according to Dave, the widgets are indeed HTML, not XML.  Fortunately, hastily-applied bandages kept my ruptured vein from killing me.  As for my TiBook, some quick squeegee work saved the display, but now the keys are kind of sticky.  How’s that for an image?

As most people who know me are aware, I’m very much a real-world kind of guy.  That side of me is in favor of what’s being done to make Safari and the Dashboard more useful.  The additions to HTML and the DOM are indeed minimal—so far.  I’m sure the first few proprietary extensions to IE/Win were minimal, too.  After all, it’s just a tag called MARQUEE.  What’s one more element?

I also recognize that HTML is far too limited for anything except simple document structuring.  It doesn’t have interesting controls like sliders, and it certainly doesn’t provide any joy for people who want irregular shapes.  SVG does provide such things, but Dave’s point about it being a huge task to implement is understandable.  If only Quartz had been based on SVG instead of another technology… but there’s no sense crying about spilled milk under the bridge now, I suppose.

Of course, the theorist in me is quivering in outrage.  The browser-wars veteran isn’t too thrilled either.  For years, we heard Microsoft and Netscape say things like “standards are secondary to customer demands” and “standards aren’t as useful as the cool new proprietary features we’re adding”.  These things need not be inimical to standards support.  They should not require a breaking of standards.

As I observed previously, making Dashboard widgets be XML would solve the problem, or at least could fairly easily.  Dave says that won’t happen:

…it was suggested that the widgets be written in XML rather than HTML and that all of the new tags and attributes be namespaced. However, this would have dramatically increased the complexity of crafting Dashboard widgets. People know how to write HTML, but most of those same people have never written an XML file, and namespaces are a point of confusion.

I agree about namespaces being confusing; the only reason I have any comfort level with them is because we had to define multiple namespaces for the XML format we used on DevEdge, and I made enough mistakes using them that I eventually came to understand them.  Sort of.  To an author who’s only ever seen HTML or even XHTML, they would likely be very annoying.  I’d like to point out, though, that I suggested not namespacing everything, but creating a whole new DashboardML that used a whole bunch of elements that looked and acted the same as XHTML, with whatever additions were needed.  Thus the beginning of the document (after the DOCTYPE) might look something like this:

<html xmlns="http://www.apple.com/2004/dashboardml">
<head>
<title>This is an example</title>
</head>

So instead of pointing to the XHTML namespace URI, you point to the DashboardML namespace URI.  The end result is that you can have a document that looks exactly like XHTML, except for the additions (composite and so on).  It seems like it would be fairly simple to do, but again, I can’t say that with any authority.

So let’s assume that, for whatever reason, the above approach isn’t possible within the Tiger timeframe.  There is another way, one I mentioned briefly in my last post.  That would be to create a new DTD for DashboardML, one that’s a direct copy of the HTML 4.01 DTD with the needed additions.  It could look like this:

<!DOCTYPE html SYSTEM "http://www.apple.com/dtd/2004/dashboardml-10.dtd">

That would point to a DTD that defines DashboardML.  DashboardML would be exactly like HTML 4.01 (or whatever version they wanted) in every respect except for the additions of the canvas element and the composite attribute.  The advantage is that they can add more things if needed, and not pollute the HTML space.  Since Apple’s working with the WHAT WG to get these things accepted, then perhaps the WHAT WG should host the DTD.  Then it might look something like:

<!DOCTYPE html SYSTEM "http://www.whatwg.org/dtd/2004/whatml-10.dtd">

The URI could be anything, so long as it pointed to an actual DTD.  I don’t even care where it lives, so long as it lives somewhere.  I should also point out that this would need to be done even if the widgets were XML, as opposed to an HTML-like language.  Either way, they keep Dashboard extensions out of the HTML space.

Why should we even bother?  One word: validation.  By providing a DTD that defines the markup language being used to create the widgets, validation becomes a snap.  That’s important, because with validation, widget authors can keep their markup clean.  It will help them with their development efforts.

Here’s another reason to bother: reducing confusion.  “But Eric, a new DOCTYPE will increase confusion!” you might be thinking.  Maybe at first, although overall I doubt it will.  The confusion-reducing aspect is that when widgets get published on the Web—and they will be published on the Web—there will be an obvious indication that the markup is not traditional HTML, but something really close to it.  Browsers can then do what they’ve always done: handle what they understand, and ignore what they don’t.

It’s been argued that Dashboard widgets are intended for a closed environment, and not to sit out on the Web.  True, but that won’t change anything.  Within a week of their appearing in the WWDC build of Tiger, Dashboard widgets appeared on the public Web (they’ve since been pulled offline).  This won’t exactly tail off as more widgets are built.  If anything, we’ll see more and more widgets getting out into the wild—for example, when people find a widget they like and adapt it for use on their public sites.  The calendar is the most obvious example that comes to mind.  In order to keep things straight, widgets need to have their own DOCTYPE.  If nothing else, it will provide a convenient explanation when someone throws a widget onto their site and it breaks in other browsers.  (“Yeah, see, that uses DashboardML and only Safari supports it…”)

Over at the WaSP, Anders Pearson wrote:

Overall, though, it’s not that big a deal. Safari does an excellent (not perfect) job of supporting the various HTML, XHTML, and CSS specs as they’re written and ultimately, that’s what’s most important. If developers don’t want to use the extensions, they don’t have to.

As long as these extensions happen within a new document type, then I agree.  Allowing them to operate within any document bearing a W3C DOCTYPE would be a big, big mistake.

Wrapped in Canvas

In his most recent post on the underpinnings of the Dashboard, titled Introducing the Canvas, Dave Hyatt said the following:

Another extension we made to HTML is a new element called the canvas. This element is essentially an image element that supports programmatic drawing.

And then, a bit later on:

In addition to the canvas element, we’ve also introduced a new attribute onto the img element. The composite attribute allows you to control how an image gets composited.

Wait a minute.  Did I just get hit over the head and magically transported back to 1994?  New HTML elements and attributes?  What the bleeding hell?!?

[insert sound of forehead banging repeatedly on desktop here]

I hope I’m reading his post incorrectly.  I hope that what Dave is really saying is that Dashboard widgets are actually XML, albeit an XML that looks very much like HTML except they’ve added some nifty stuff to it.  If so, great, fine, no problem.  XML lets you do whatever you want, really.  But if these are widgets that use actual HTML DOCTYPEs, and yet add this stuff, then the throbbing vein in my forehead is going to rupture and spray blood all over my shiny TiBook.  We just left that tag soup party.  I really don’t want to have another steaming, fetid bowl of it plopped down in front of me.  Not even one that exists in a ‘closed’ environment like OS X.

Even if Dashboard widgets are currently built around invalid HTML documents, it seems like there’s still plenty of time to convert them to well-formed XML, thus (largely) solving the problem.  Heck, there’s even time to create a DTD for the widgets, thus permitting the widgets to be both well-formed and valid.  I’m all in favor of that approach.  As a measure of last resort, a new HTML DTD could be written for “Dashboard HTML 1.0″ or something like that.

But if it’s all really broken HTML 4.01, not XML, then there’s a serious problem.  From a forward-compatibility perspective, the Dashboard would be no better than Microsoft’s CSS-like extensions, the ones that let authors change the appearance of the browser’s scrollbars and other such wackiness.  In fact, they’d be much worse because there now exists the ability to create the Dashboard within the open framework the W3C has (slowly and painstakingly) created.  To ignore that would be the worst kind of regressive move.

Polishing iChat

In between fighting with paperwork and other annoyances, I took the same promotional iChat image I used in yesterday’s post (and which I originally pulled from the Tiger iChat page) and faked a series of textured tabletops beneath the video chat windows.  They’re rough approximations of what I think could be done, put together with some texture images I had lying around and off-the-cuff fiddling in Photoshop.  In case you’re wondering, the four textures are “stone” (an indeterminate speckled gray), wood, marble, and what I call “sea foam”.  I didn’t do a water distortion version mostly because I was spending less than an hour on the attempt, and I didn’t feel like trying to recreate the whole scene in a 3D modeling environment just to get the right reflections.

So now you can see it just the way it looked to me when I imagined it.  Well, not precisely, but really close.

As for the idea of having documents show up in that workspace, they could be in-perspective sheets of paper lying on the surface, with a thumbnail preview of the contents visible on the sheet, or they could be little icons floating in space above the tabletop (or else sitting on it).  Either one would work fine for me.  The “sheet of paper” idea extends the visual metaphor Apple’s clearly pursued, but it could also quickly chew up the space available to either side of the little “me” preview window.  Little floating icons (or boxes, whatever) would be more compact, while still participating in the metaphorical space.

Now, if the application let you warp or otherwise texturize the chat windows themselves, then we’d be off to the races.  Imagine putting Etch-A-Sketch frames around the windows—and imagine running a filter that made each frame look like it had been drawn on the Etch-A-Sketch!  Killer.  For that matter, you could turn each chat window into a Gameboy Advance, and run a pixelizing filter on the streams.

Like I said before, if you’re going to have gratuitous eye candy, you may as well go for the gusto.

Tiger Watching

Over at Daring Fireball, John Gruber pointed out that Tiger‘s Dashboard isn’t quite as much of a Konfabulator rip-off as it first appeared.  His primary point was that the principles in Dashboard and Konfabulator aren’t anything new, and haven’t been for a couple of decades.  However, it was his highlight of a comment by Dave Hyatt that really caught my eye.  Dave said:

I wanted to blog briefly to clear up what the widgets actually are written in.  They are Web pages, plain and simple (with extra features thrown in for added measure).  Apple’s own web site says “build your own widgets using the JavaScript language”, but that’s sort of misleading.  The widgets are HTML+CSS+JS.  They are not some JS-only thing.

So… with the skills I already possess, I can create my own Dashboard gadgets, as can thousands of similarly skilled designers?  How cool is that?  I’m already itching to get my hands on the Dashboard developer information, so I can find out what these things can do and how I can bend them to my will.  As a trivial example, if I can get information via SOAP, and I can’t imagine why I wouldn’t, then I can use the weather data service I recently linkblogged to grab the current and next-seven-days’ forecast for any location in the United States, not to mention present the resulting information in a really beautiful way via the Dashboard.  Since the service returns results for latitude/longitude coordinates, it would be best crossed with a dataset correlating city names to lat/lon coordinates.  That shouldn’t be terribly difficult.

In fact, Web services in general could get a huge boost from the Dashboard.  Search gadgets for Amazon, Google, and any of a thousand other sources would be a snap.  Infoaggregators, pulling in data from various sources into one place, would become very simple.  Creating point-and-click editors for OS and application preferences should be trivial.  You’d also have the ability to grab information about the machine itself (memory usage, disk usage, CPU activity, top listings, etc.) and present it in truly useful and beautiful ways.  The possibilities are nearly endless, and my few fairly pedestrian ideas likely don’t even begin to touch on what can be done by a really creative programmer.

That’s especially true if, extrapolating from Ian Hickson‘s recent comments, the Web Core contains XFormsWebForms 2.0 support, thus making advanced controls available in Dashboard gadgets.

Then there’s iChat AV.  I’d like to see it permit audio chatting with AIM users, as opposed just video chats, but then I think that should have been possible already.  What really got me stoked was (of course) the gratuitious eye candy.  A picture of the iChat AV interface for OS X 10.4.  As Apple says:

iChat for Tiger introduces a new kind of interface for video conferencing. In its three-dimensional view, your buddies seem more like they’re in the room with you, making it easier to follow the conversation. Their images are even reflected in front of them, just as if they were sitting around a conference-room table.

Well, that’s true if you often hold meetings around conference-room tables made entirely of smoked glass.  What Apple really needs to add to iChat is the ability to pick different surfaces for the “tabletop” beneath the video windows.  They could include a highly polished, dark mahogany surface, for example, to really convey that upscale conference room feeling.  Or a reflective granite surface, for a feeling of solidity.  Hell, how about having the video portals hang above rippling water, with the video images reflected in the waves?  It seems like Core Image has all the pieces necessary to make any of those things happen, and then some.

For that matter, making it simple to drag an image file onto that tabletop and have it mapped on seems a snap.  You should be able to put your company logo there, embossed or glazed or otherwise applied to the tabletop, whatever its base surface effect.  Basically, you should be able to make the tabletop look even more killer than it already does.  Why not?  If you’re going to include major eye candy, then no sense holding back.

Addendum: in the comments, Jason Lustig pointed out something I failed to mention, which is that the tabletop is good for much more than just awesome visual effects.  It also makes a great shared workspace, a place where one participant could drop a file for everyone else to pick up.  As he put it, “just like if you were passing out sheets at a real meeting!”.  Exactly—and, of course, the document could even resemble a real document by generating a thumbnail of the document’s actual appearance, and mapping that onto the virtual sheet on the tabletop.  Whee, more eye candy!  I hope the Apple programmers add that ability to iChat before Tiger is released.

Add things like Automator, and this definitely looks like an OS upgrade well worth buying.  I really hope that “the first half of 2005″ means “in January, but we wanted to hedge our bets”.

Chat Lunatique

So there was a big deal made out of the fact that iChat AV 2.1 and AIM 5.5 can do videoconferencing.  Apple’s iChat page and a press release from AOL both proudly announce how the two can interoperate.  For example, here’s an excerpt from the AOL press release:

The new live video instant messaging feature in AIM 5.5 is fully compatible with iChat AV 2.1, Apple’s breakthrough video conferencing technology. Now AOL users from a PC can tap into the worldwide community of iChat AV users on Macs. iChat AV 2.1, the latest version of iChat AV was released by Apple today…

This would be ideal for me, as my father has AOL and the latest version of AIM for Windows XP.  He’s also moving to Florida, where he’ll have broadband.  So I view this as the perfect way for him to keep in closer touch with us, and to be able to see Carolyn as she grows, even though he’ll be living a thousand or so miles away.  When she gets older, it will be a way for her to keep in touch with him as well.

Now, neither Dad nor I own a camera yet, but we do both have microphones, so I thought I’d test out the audio chat capability.  So far, zippo.  He and I have both made sure we have the right versions of our client software.  We can’t establish an audio connection.

So, has anyone gotten this to actually work, and if so, how?  I’ve opened up all the ports I can find that even seem to be halfway relevant, as per an Apple KB article I found, and have checked my router to be sure it’s allowing traffic on those ports, but I still can’t establish an audio connection with AIM users.  Text chatting, no problem, but I don’t even get an audio-chat icon in my Buddy List.  I do get one for all the iChat users in my List, and have audio-chatted with a number of them.  Do we both have to own a camera for this to work?  I had figured, you know, if video conferencing was supported then audio conferencing must be supported, but perhaps that would be expecting things to make too much sense.

If anyone out there has a solution, or even a pointer to information about it, comments are most welcome.

Functional Changes

I’d just like to say that Mac OS X Hints is one of my favorite Web sites.  That’s where I found out how to hack the OS to fix the New Folder/New Finder Window keystroke combinations, for example.  Just a couple of days ago, I was wondering if there was a way to get the function keys to be actual function keys, instead of requiring use of the “fn” key to make them work.  As it turns out, there’s a new preference setting in 10.3.3, and I’ve already toggled mine.  Now I can play Myth again!  Not that I have any time to do so… and if I did, I’d be more likely to keep working toward the end of Metal Arms: Glitch in the System anyway.

Thematic

CSS seems to be the theme of late, so I’ll keep running with it and bring back the meyerweb themes of old (as several people had e-mailed to ask if I could do).  They won’t be available for the general site; instead, I’ve set up an example page where you can play with them for yourself.  As noted, some images used in the themes are copyrighted, while others are not.  The thematic styles themselves are now explicitly under a Creative Commons license, so do as you please with the styles, assuming you stay within the license terms.  Which shouldn’t be difficult; it’s a straight NonCommercial license.

Two of my favorite movie-and-music moments happen in the same film: The Matrix (which itself inspired one of the old meyerweb themes).  The first is the sparring program scene, where the upbeat video-game-like music goes along perfectly with the video-game flow of the sequence.  The second is the lobby shootout scene, where the video-game-like music goes along… you know.  The music used for the lobby scene is “Spybreak!” by The Propellerheads, albeit an edited version.  In fact, the version on The Matrix‘s soundtrack CD is edited down from the original Propellerheads version, which is almost twice as long, off of the album “Decksanddrumsandrockandroll”.  A while back, I assembled a personal mix called “Der Funkengrüven”, and it ended with the soundtrack version of “Spybreak!”, the only one I had available.

I’ve always wanted to use the album version instead, but I was never sure if it was worth it to buy the CD just for that song.  So I dropped into the iTunes store, called up the album, listened to the high-quality half-minute excerpts available there, and have decided to buy the album.  My only real dilemma now is whether to buy it via the iTunes store for $9.99, or to spring for a couple of extra bucks to get the physical disc in a jewel case and everything at Buy.com.  It’s my first real experience with the iTunes store, and I have to echo what everyone else has been saying: Apple got it right.  The store just works.  I wish the excerpts were a little longer, say 45 seconds or even a full minute, but that’s just picking a nit.  If I didn’t harbor lingering affection for owning albums in a physical form, I’d already have paid to download it, and I still might.  For an oldster like me, that’s saying something.

Sadly, I can’t use the iTunes store to replace my long-lost copy of “The Bobs“, but maybe I could use the store to acquire some Neil Young music…

August 2014
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