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Archive: 'Standards' Category

CSS Grid!

The Grid code is coming!  The Grid code is coming!  It’s really, finally coming to a browser near you!  Woohooooo!

Whoa, there.  What’s all the hubbub, bub?

CSS Grid is going to become supported-by-default in Chrome and Firefox in March of 2017.  Specifically, Mozilla will ship it in Firefox 52, scheduled for March 7th.  Due to the timing of their making Grid enabled-by-default in Chrome Canary, it appears Google will ship it in Chrome 57, scheduled for March 14th.  In each case, once the support is enabled by default in the public-release channels—that is to say, the “evergreen” browser releases that the general public uses—every bit of Grid support now in place in the developer editions of the browsers will become exposed in the public releases.  Anything Grid will Just Start Working™®©.

Are those dates an ironclad guarantee?

Heck no.  Surprise problems could cause a pushback to a later release.  The release schedule could shift.  The sun could explode.  But we know the browsers already have running code for Grid, and when they mark something as ready for public release, it usually gets released to the public on schedule.

So Grid support in March, huh?

Yep!

How long until I can actually use Grid, then?  Two or three years?

March 2017.  So about four months from now.

But it won’t be universally supported then!

Rounded corners aren’t universally supported even now, but I bet you’ve used them.

Now you’re just being disingenuous.

Look, I get it.  Base layout’s a little different than shaving pixels off corners, it’s true.  If you have a huge IE9 user base, converting everything to Grid, and only Grid, might be a bit much.  But I’m guessing that you do have a layout that functions in older browsers, yes?

Of course.

Then my original answer stands: March 2017.  Because any browsers that understand Grid will also understand @supports(), and you can use that to have a Grid layout for Grid-enabled browsers while still feeding a float-and-inline-block layout to browsers that don’t understand Grid.  Jen Simmons wrote a comprehensive article about @supports(), and I wrote a short article demonstrating its use to add layout enhancements.  The same principles will apply with Grid: you can set up downlevel rules, and then encapsulate the hot new rules in @supports().  You can retroactively enhance the layouts you already have, or take that approach with any new designs.

Writing two different layouts for the same page doesn’t sound like a good use of my time.

I get that too.  Look at it this way: at some point, you’re going to have to learn Grid.  Why not learn it on the job, experimenting with layouts you already understand and know how you want to have behave, instead of having to set aside extra time to learn it in a vacuum using example files that have nothing to do with your work?  You’ll be able to take it at your own pace, build up a new set of instincts, and future-proof your work.

Can’t I just wait until someone creates a framework for me?

You could, except here’s the thing: as Jen Simmons has observed, Grid is a framework.  Using a framework to abstract a framework seems inefficient at best.  I mean, sure, people are going to do it.  There will be Gridstraps and GAMLs and 1280.gses and what have you.  And when those are out, if you decide to use one, you’ll have spend time and energy learning how it works.  I recommend investing that time in learning Grid Actual, so that you can build your own layouts and not be constrained by the assumptions that are inevitably baked into frameworks.

Grid sounds like tables 2.0.  I thought we all agreed tables for layout were a bad idea.

We agreed table markup for layout was a bad idea, particularly because at the time it was popular, it required massive structural hacks just to get borders around boxes, never mind rounded corners.  The objection was that it took 50KB of HTML tags and three server calls just to do anything, and 100 times that to set up a whole page’s layout, plus table markup locked everything into a very precise source order that played merry hell with any concept of accessible, searchable content.  The objection wasn’t to the visual result.  It was to what it took to get those results.

With Grid, you get the ability to take simple, accessible markup, and lay it out pretty much however you want.  You can put the last element in the source first in layout, for example.  You can switch a couple of adjacent bits of the page.  Questions like “how do I order these elements to get them to lay out right?” become a thing of the past.  You order them properly, and then lay them out.  It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a clean separation between structure and presentation.

Not only that, but thanks to CSS transforms, clipping paths, float shapes, and more, you don’t have to make everything into a perfectly-edged grid layout.  There is so much room for visual creativity, you can’t even imagine.  I can’t even imagine.  Nobody can.

So Grid solves every single layout question we’ve ever had, huh?  Layout Nerdvana for all?

Oh, no, there are still things missing.  Subgrid didn’t make it into these releases, so there will still be some gridlike layouts that seem like they should be simple, but will actually be difficult or impossible.  You can’t style a grid cell or area directly; you have to have a markup element of some sort to hang there and style.  All grid areas and cells have to be rectangular—you can’t have an L-shaped area, for example.  Grid gaps (“gutters”) can only be of uniform size on a given axis, very much like border-spacing in table CSS.

You can usually fake your way around these limitations, but they’re still limitations, at least for now.  And yeah, there will probably be bugs found.  If not bugs, probably unexpected use cases that the spec doesn’t adequately cover.  But a lot of people have worked really hard over an extended period of time on stamping out bugs and supporting a variety of use cases.  This is solid work, and it’s going to ship in that state.

What happens if Firefox or Chrome pushes Grid back a release or two, but the other ships on schedule?

In that case, it will take a little longer for your @supports()-encapsulated Grid rules to be recognized by the tardy browser.  No big deal.  The same applies to MS Edge, which hasn’t caught up to the new Grid syntax even though it was the first to ship a Grid implementation—with different rules, all behind prefixes.  Once Edge gets wise to the new syntax and behaviors, your CSS will just start working there, same as it did in Firefox and Chrome and any other browser that adds Grid.

All right, so where can I go to learn how to use it?

There are several good resources, with more coming online even now.  Here are just a few:

  • The Experimental Layout Lab of Jen Simmons — great for seeing layout examples in action using a variety of new technologies.  If you’re laser-focused on just Grid, then start with example #7, “Image Gallery Study”, but the whole site is worth exploring.  Bonus: make sure to responsively test the top of the page, which has some great Grid-driven rearrangements as the page gets more narrow.
  • Rachel Andrews’ Grid By Example — a large and growing collection of examples, resources, tutorials, and more.  There’s a whole section titled “Learn Grid Layout” that’s further broken up into sections like “UI Patterns” and “Video tutorial”.
  • CSS-Tricks’ A Complete Guide to Grid — a boiled-down, pared-down, no-nonsense distillation of Grid properties and values.  It might be a bit bewildering if you’re new to Grid, but it’s the kind of resource you’ll probably come back to again and again as you’re getting familiar with Grid.
  • CSS Grid Layout specification — if all else fails, you can always go to the source, Luke.

But remember!  If you hit these sites before March 2017, you’ll need to make sure you have Grid support enabled in your browser so that you can make sense of the examples (not to mention anything you might create yourself).  Igalia has a brief and handy how-to page at Enable CSS Grid Layout, and Rachel also has a Browsers page with more information.

I’ve been hurt by layout promises before, and I’m afraid to trust.

I feel you.  Oh, do I feel you.  But this really looks like the real thing.  It’s coming.  Get ready.

Workshopping

I’m criminally behind in sharing this with everyone, so I’m jumping straight to the bottom line here: I’m teaching a workshop on advanced CSS layout techniques in October, and co-teaching another workshop on CSS animation in November with the inestimable Val Head.  Both are courtesy O’Reilly & Associates, and will be conducted at their offices in Boston.

A few more details:

  • New CSS Layout (October 17-18) is two days of deep diving into flexbox, multicolumn, grid, and related technologies.  There will be a heavy emphasis on Things You Can Use Today, including bugs and how to handle them, with a keen focus on using everything in a progressively enhancing way.  In other words, you should walk away knowing how to use new technologies right away, without leaving behind users of older browsers, and have a good sense of what you’ll be able to do in the next 6-12 months.  This will be hands-on, interactive, and very much a dialogue with technical instruction.  If you’re looking for two days of watching me drone in front of a slide show, this is not that.  I’m not even sure I’ll have any slides at all—I’ll probably spend the entire time in BBEdit and a browser instead.  The class size is limited to 40 people.
  • CSS Animation (November 17-18) is another two days of diving deep into the topic.  For this one, I’ll spend the first day going through every last piece of CSS transition and animation syntax, with generous helping of transform.  On the second day, Val will show how to put that syntax to use in a way that serves and strengthens your design, instead of undermining it.  It’s basically a day of learning how the tools work, and a day of learning how to properly use the tools.  Again, class size of 40; and again, very much hands-on and interactive.

So that’s what’s up.  Looking for ways to seriously expand your skills in layout or animation or both?  Come, join us!

Unsupportable Promises

Over the past year and a half, the CSS Working Group has been working on a CSS Conditional Rules Module Level 3 module.  Now, don’t get overexcited: this is not a proposal to add generalized, formal if/then/else or switch statements to CSS—though in a very limited way, it does just that.  This is the home of the @media rule, which lets you create if/then conditions with regard to the media environment.  It’s also the home of the @supports rule, which lets you…well, that’s actually more complicated than you might think.

I mean, what do you think @supports means?  Take a moment to formulate a one-line definition of your understanding of what it does, before moving on to the rest of this piece.

If you’ve never heard of it before and wonder how it works, here’s a very basic example:

body {background-color: white;}
@supports (background-color: cornflowerblue) {
	body {background-color: cornflowerblue;}
}

The idea is that if the browser supports that property:value combination, then it will apply the rule or rules found inside the curly brackets.  In this sense, it’s just like @media rules: if the conditions in the parentheses are deemed to apply, then the rules inside the declaration block are used.  The module refers to this ability as “feature queries”.

There are some logical combination keywords available: and, or, and not.  So you can say things like:

body {color: #222; background-color: white;}
@supports ((background-color: cornflowerblue) and (color: rgba(0,0,0,0.5))) {
	body {background-color: cornflowerblue; color: rgba(0,0,0,0.5);}
}

Okay, but what does that actually mean?  Here’s what the specification says:

A CSS processor is considered to support a declaration (consisting of a property and value) if it accepts that declaration (rather than discarding it as a parse error). If a processor does not implement, with a usable level of support, the value given, then it must not accept the declaration or claim support for it.

So in that first sentence, what we’re told is that “support” means “accepts [a] declaration” and doesn’t drop it on the floor as something it doesn’t recognize.  In other words, if a browser parses a property:value pair, then that qualifies as “support” for said pair.  Note that this sentence says nothing about what happens after parsing.  According to this, a browser could have a completely botched, partial, and generally unusable implementation of the property:value pair, but the act of recognizing means that there’s “support”.

But wait!  That second sentence adds an additional constraint, after a fashion: there must be “a usable level of support”, the lack of which means that a browser “must not…claim support”.  So not only must a browser parse a property:value pair, but support it to “a usable level”.

But what constitutes a “usable level”?  According to everyone who’s told me that I was wrong about vendor prefixes, any browser implementation of a feature should be complete and error-free.  Is that what’s required to be regarded as a usable level?  How about if the implementation has one known bug?  Three?  Ten?  Can any of them be severe bugs?  What about merely serious bugs?  What if two browsers claim usable support, and yet are not interoperable?

So.  How does the definition of @supports match the one-line definition I asked you to formulate, back at the beginning?  Are they exactly the same, or is there a difference?

I suspect that most people, especially those coming across @supports for the first time, will assume that the word means that a browser has complete, error-free support.  That’s the implicit promise.  Very few people think of “supports” as a synonym for “recognizes” (let alone “parses”).  There’s a difference, sometimes a very large one, between recognizing a thing and supporting it.  I’m sure that browser teams will do their best to avoid situations where a property:value pair is parsed but not well supported, but it’s only a matter of time before a “supported” pair proves to be badly flawed, or retroactively made wrong by specification changes.  Assuming that such things will be allowed, in an environment where @supports exists.

If feature queries were set with @feature, as media queries are set using @media, or even if the name were something along the lines of @parses or @recognizes, I’d be a lot less bothered.  The implicit promise would be quite a bit different.  What I feel like we face here is the exact inversion of vendor prefixes: instead of a marker for possible instability and a warning that preserves the possibility of changing the specification when needed, this pretends to promise stability and safety while restricting the WG’s ability to make changes, however necessary.  My instinct is that @supports will end up in the same place: abused, broken, and eventually reviled—except this time, there will be the extra bitterness of authors feeling that they were betrayed.

The Stinger

(In television, the “stinger” is the clip that plays during or just after the closing credits of a show.)

On Friday, the Web Standards Project announced its own dissolution.  I felt a lot of things upon reading the announcement, once I got over my initial surprise: nostalgia, wistfulness, closure.  And over it all, a deep sense of respect for the Project as a whole, from its inception to its peak to its final act.

In some ways, the announcement was a simple formalization of a longstanding state of affairs, as the Project has gradually grown quieter and quieter over the years, and its initiatives had been passed on to other, more active homes.  It was still impressive to see the group explicitly shut down.  I can’t think of the last time I saw a group that had been so influential and effective recognize that it was time to turn off the lights, and exit with dignity.  As they wrote:

Thanks to the hard work of countless WaSP members and supporters (like you), Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the web as an open, accessible, and universal community is largely the reality. While there is still work to be done, the sting of the WaSP is no longer necessary. And so it is time for us to close down The Web Standards Project.

I have a long history with the WaSP.  Way, way back, deep in the thick of the browser wars, I was invited to be a member of the CSS Action Committee, better known as the CSS Samurai.  We spent the next couple of years documenting how things worked (or, more often, didn’t) in CSS implementations, and—and this was the clever bit, if you ask me—writing up specific plans of action for browsers.  The standards compliance reviews we published told browsers what they needed to fix first, not just what they were getting wrong.  I can’t claim that our every word was agreed with, let alone acted upon, but I’m pretty confident those reviews helped push browser teams in the right direction.  Or, more likely, helped browser teams push their bosses in the direction the teams already wanted to go.

Succumbing to a wave of nostalgia, I spent a few minutes trawling my archives.  I still have what I think is all the mail from the Samurai’s mailing list, run through Project Cool’s servers, from when it was set up in August 1998 up through June of 2000.  My archive totals 1,716 messages from the group, as well as some of the Steering Committee members (mostly Glenn Davis, though George Olsen was our primary contact during the Microsoft style sheets patent brouhaha of February 1999).  If I’m not reading too much into plain text messages over a decade old, we had a pretty great time.  And then, after a while, we were done.  Unlike the WaSP itself, we never really declared an end.  We didn’t even march off into the sunset having declared that the farmers always win.  We just faded away.

Not that that’s entirely a bad thing.  At a certain point, our work was done, and we moved on.  Still, I look back now and wish we’d made it a little more formal.  Had we done so, we might have said something like the WaSP did:

The job’s not over, but instead of being the work of a small activist group, it’s a job for tens of thousands of developers who care about ensuring that the web remains a free, open, interoperable, and accessible competitor to native apps and closed eco-systems. It’s your job now…

And so it is.  These last years have shown that the job is in very good hands.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” said Margaret Mead.  I see now that the way those small groups truly change the world is by convincing the rest of the world that they are right, thus co-opting the world to their cause.  Done properly, the change makes the group obsolete.  It’s a lesson worth remembering, as we look at the world today.

I’m honored to have been a part of the WaSP, and I offer my deepest samurai bow of respect to its founders, its members, and its leaders.  Thank you all for making the web today what it is.

Sixth Annual Blue Beanie Day

I just recently stumbled across a years-ago post where I said, almost as an aside:

Web design isn’t like chemistry, where the precipitate either forms or it doesn’t. If chemical engineers had to work in conditions equivalent to web developers, they’d have to mix their solutions in several parallel universes, each one with different physical constants, and get the same result in all of them.

While that’s still true, the constants are a lot less divergent these days.  The parallel universes that are web browsers are much closer to unity than once they were.

Remember those days?  When major web sites had a home page with two links: one for Netscape users to enter, the other for IE users?

Madness.

We know better now, of course.  Thanks to early pioneers like the organizers of the Web Standards Project, the path of web development was bent to a much saner course.  We still have little glitches and frustrations, of course, but it could be so unimaginably worse.  We know that it could be, because it was, once.

Along the way, the book cover of my friend and business partner’s book, Designing With Web Standards, gave rise to Blue Beanie Day, the day on which we give visible presence to our solidarity with the idea that web standards make possible the web as we know it.  Pictures go up on Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr with the tag #bbd12, and can be added to the Flickr group if you post there.

In this rapidly unfolding age of multiple device platforms and web access experiences, standards are more important than ever, even as they come under renewed pressure.  There will always be those who proclaim that standards are a failed process, an obstruction, an anachronism.  The desire to go faster and be shinier will always tempt developers to run down proprietary box canyons.

But so too will there always be those of us who remember the madness that lies that way.  Come November 30th, thousands of us will don our blue beanies.  I hope you’ll be among us.

Image © Kevin Cornell.  Used with permission.

Pricing ‘CSS:The Definitive Guide’

When I announced the serial publication of CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, I failed to address the question how pricing will work.  Well, more decided to break it out into its own post, really.  As it turns out, there are two components to the answer.

First component is the pricing of the pre-books.  Roughly speaking, each pre-book will be priced according to its length.  The assumed base for the electronic version is $2.99, and $7.99 for the print version, with significantly longer pre-books (say, one where two chapters are combined) priced somewhat higher.  How much higher depends on the length.  It’s possible that prices will drift a bit over time as production or printing costs change, but there’s no way to guarantee that.  We’re basically pricing them as they come out.

At the end of the process, when all the chapters are written and bundled into an omnibus book edition, there will be discounts tied to the chapters you’ve already purchased.  The more chapters you bought ahead, the deeper the discount.  If you bought the pre-books direct from O’Reilly, then you’ll automatically get a discount code tailored to the number of pre-book you’ve already bought.  If you bought them elsewhere, then O’Reilly’s customer service will work to create a comparable discount, though that will obviously be a slower process.

The second component is: how much will the codes cut the price of the final, complete book?  That I cannot say.  The reason is that I don’t know (nor does anyone) what minimum price O’Reilly will need to charge to cover its costs while taking into account the money already paid.  I’m hopeful that if you bought all of the pre-books, then the electronic version of the final book will be very close to free, but again, we have to see where things stand once we reach that point.  It might be that the production costs of the complete book mean that it’s still a couple of bucks even at the deepest discount, but we’ll see!  One of the exciting things about this experiment is that even my editor and I don’t know exactly how it will all turn out.  We really are forging a new trail here, one that I hope will benefit other authors—and, by direct extension, readers—in the future.

‘CSS: The Definitive Guide’, Fourth Edition

I’m really excited to announce that CSS: The Definitive Guide, Fourth Edition, is being released one piece at a time.

As announced last week on the O’Reilly Tools of Change for Publishing blog, the next edition of CSS:TDG will be released chapter by chapter.  As each one is finished, it will go into production right away instead of waiting for the entire omnibus book to be completed.  You’ll be able to get each standalone as an e-book, a print-on-demand paper copy, or even as both if that’s how you roll.  I’ve taken to calling these “pre-books”, which I hope isn’t too confusing or inaccurate.

There are a lot of advantages to this, which I wrote about in some detail for the TOC post.  Boiled down, they are: accuracy, agility, and à la carte.  If you have the e-book version, then updates can be downloaded for free as errata are corrected or rewrites are triggered by changes to CSS itself.  And, of course, you can only buy the pre-books that interest you, if you don’t feel like you need the whole thing.

I should clarify that not every pre-book is a single chapter; occasionally, more than one chapter of the final product will be bundled together into a single pre-book.  For example, Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade is actually chapters 2 and 3 of the final book combined.  It just made no sense to sell them separately, so we didn’t.  “Values, Units, and Colors”. on the other hand, is Chapter 4 all by itself.  (So if anyone was wondering about the pricing differences between those two pre-books, there’s your explanation.)

If you want to see what the e-book versions are like, CSS and Documents (otherwise known as Chapter 1) has been given the low, low price of $0.00.  Give it a whirl, see if you like the way the pre-books work as bits.

My current plan is to work through the chapters sequentially, but I’m always willing to depart from that plan if it seems like a good idea.  What amuses me about all this is the way the writing of CSS: The Definitive Guide has come to mirror CSS itself—split up into modules that can be tackled independently of the others, and eventually collected into a snapshot tome that reflects a point in time instead of an overarching version number.

Every pre-book is a significantly updated version of their third-edition counterparts, though of course a great deal of material has stayed the same.  In some cases I rewrote or rearranged existing sections for greater clarity, and in all but “CSS and Documents” I’ve added a fair amount of new material.  I think they’re just as useful today as the older editions were in their day, and I hope you’ll agree.

Just to reiterate, these are the three pre-books currently available:

  • CSS and Documents (free) — the basics of CSS and how it’s associated with HTML, covering things like link and style as well as obscure topics like HTTP header linking
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade — including all of the level 3 selectors, examples of use, and how conflicts are resolved
  • Values, Units, and Colors — fairly up to date, including HSL/HSLa/RGBa and the full run of X11-based keywords, and also the newest units except for the very, very latest—and as they firm up and gain support, we’ll add them into an update!

As future pre-books come out, I’ll definitely announce them here and in the usual social spaces.  I really think this is a good move for the book and the topic, and I’m very excited to explore this method of publishing with O’Reilly!

Defining ‘ch’

I’m working my way through a rewrite of Two Salmon (more on that anon), and I just recently came to the ch unit.  Its definition in the latest CSS Values and Units module is as follows:

ch unit

Equal to the advance measure of the “0” (ZERO, U+0030) glyph found in the font used to render it.

…and that’s it.  I had never heard the term “advance measure” before, and a bit of Googling for font "advance measure" only led me to copies of the CSS Values and Units module and some configuration files for the Panda 3D game engine.  So I asked the editor and it turns out that “advance measure” is a CSS-ism that corresponds to the term “advance width”, which I had also never heard before but which yielded way more Google results.  Wikipedia’s entry for “Font” has this definition:

Glyph-level metrics include … the advance width (the proper distance between the glyph’s initial pen position and the next glyph’s initial pen position)…

My question for the font geeks in the room is this:  is that the generally accepted definition for “advance width”?  If not, is there a better definition out there; and if so, where?  I’d like to be able to recommend the best known definition for inclusion in the specification; or, if there’s no agreement as to the best, then at least a good one.  The Wikipedia definition certainly sounds good, assuming it’s accurate.  Is it?

In CSS terms, if I’ve understood things correctly, 1ch is equal to the width of the character box for the glyph for “0”.  In other words, if I were to create a floated element with just a “0” and no whitespace between it and the element’s open and close tags, then the float’s width would be precisely 1ch.  But that’s if I’ve understood things correctly.  If I haven’t, I hope I’ll be corrected soon!

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