An Event Apart Minneapolis: Jeffrey Zeldman, "Web 2.1: The Medium Comes of Age"

Here are some of my notes that I took during Jeffrey Zeldman’s excellent talk at An Event Apart Minneapolis, Web 2.1: The Medium Comes of Age. It is inevitably impossible to capture everything that is excellent in such a talk, and it is always possible that I may get something wrong. Feel free to let me know if that is the case.

Zeldman kicked off his talk by telling us that this is an amazing time to be doing web work. We have a vanguard of mature web designers and web-powered phones that do HTML5/CSS3. By mature, he explained that he meant web designers that understood standards, accessiblity, usability, user experience, etc.

The majority of the rest of the talk focused on a historical overview of the development of communications and knowledge sharing as it relates to the web. If you have ever been to EPCOT at Walt Disney World and gone inside the geodesic dome to ride Spaceship Earth, you experienced a flavor of this, with its tour through different epochs, and their contributions to communications. What Zeldman’s talk lacked in animatronics, however, it made up for in fancy slide transitions. Zeldman explained that while he usually uses Keynote, this time he did his best to make use of every single available transition, several of which he demonstrated several times, just so we could marvel at their beauty.

He began his historical tale with Gutenberg. Before Johann Gutenberg developed the printing press, knowledge belonged to the few who could afford hand-copied volumes. Just as today, journalists and others bemoan the transition to all things digital, it Gutenberg’s day, scribes probably worried about losing jobs after they had perfected the art of hand-copying books. Gutenberg drew upon four inventions from elsewhere: paper, block print, ink and Zeldman’s favorite, the wine press. Somehow, Gutenberg realized wine press could be put to use for squeezing something else.

After Gutenberg, not much else happened for 400 years. The telegraph came along. Some called it the Victorian Internet. After the first attempt at laying Transatlantic cable, the new era in telecommunications lasted for all of three days before it broke. Laying the second cable took eight more years, and the modern age began in 1866.

Soon after, Bell’s telephone allowed people who didn’t know how to operate telegraph, the equivalent of writing HTML code today, to communicate. This opened up the realm of communications to far more people.

FDR surrounded himself with people smarter than him. Zeldman cracked that today we call this a web conference. Anyhow, in 1945, Vannevar proposed a conceptual machine with data connected by user associations, the first attempt at hyperlinks.
ARPAnet was the first development of internet. Also during that era, Zeldman explained how people hid beneath desks to avoid nuclear annihiliation, because clearly when facing imminent nuclear holocaust, the only real protection you need is a desk.
Ted Nelson wrote a paper that conceptualized hypertext with a library of links you could access via micropayments like 99 cents iTunes tracks. This paper described “Nonsequential writing text that branches and allows choice to the reader best read at an interactive screen. Also in 1966, scientists began exchanging documents and emails.
The first Internet demonstration took place. Also, Ziggy Stardust.
Apple brought computers to everyone, including point and click and typography. Apple’s secret sauce is popularizing existing technologies and making them available to the average consumer.
Domain Name Servers (DNS) are a big step as people don’t need to remember IP addresses to access a site, instead people can instead have .com addresses and such.
There are 241 newsgroups. Al Gore promotes the “information superhigway,” high-speed cables that form the backbone of internet.
First T1 Backbone. IRC developed.
First search engine.
Tim Berners-Lee invents web. Also, R. Cailliau helps invent web, but then disappears from the scene. (After the presentation, I heard Jared Spool confirm to Jeffrey that the R stood for Robert, with a French pronunciation, and that Robert now handled the IT for the Large Hadron Super-Collider at CERN. So hopefully R. never gets too cheesed off at never getting enough credit for helping to invent the web, since he could accidentally destroy Earth.)
HTML tags. Tim calls them tags. So there is some slight justification to calling them tags. (But not really.) Also, AOL brings Internet to the masses. And then won’t die, like Voldemort, Zeldman quipped.
Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina invent Mosaic. Simplistic design, but people sensed global possibilities.
KABLOEEY! Andreessen forms Mosaic Communications and starts Netscape. Zeldman’s slide included a funny picture of Netscape dinosaur. Irony. Early sites in 1994 included Hot Wired, Cool Site of the Day, Yahoo!, and Justin’s Links from the Underground. And to round off the year, Tim Berners-Lee founded the W3C.
HTML 2.0 becomes an IETF Standard. There was never a HTML 1.0. Just like IE never had a 1.0. Another delightful development? Tiled backgrounds. An interesting contrast was that David Siegel’s “Web Wonk” taught people how to do design on the web, while Jakob Nielsen began Thus began the supposed battle between design and usability.
Bert & Hakon come up with CSS. Early on, people understood the importance of having a common design layout tool.
IE3 supports some CSS. The support not perfect, but it is on the cutting edge. In a way, this was the initial blow that led to the death of Netscape’s predominance, because Netsacape wasn’t doing CSS. at that point. The exciting thing was that people could see the possibility of doing real layouts, real typography, with CSS. This made everything possible for web design. In theory.
Internet traffic doubles every 100 days. Today, mobile internet is exploding eight times faster than this. If you thought Nineties were crazy, with companies starting and going bankrupt within the span of a month, the mobile landscape today is much more rambunctious than that. This year also saw the beginning of the browser wars. There were four different ways to code for the web, not counting Opera. Balkanization. The Web Standards Project tried to pull back from the craziness and focus on having things work the same across browsers. Surprisingly, this effort worked.
Mozilla throws out its old rendering engine. Netscape 5 never happens. This was promising, just didn’t know it would take four years for Netscape/Mozilla to really move forward. Also, at this time XHTML was developed. It had standard rules that could allow HTML to be considered a serious language. Great teaching tool.
Dot Com Bust. Bad, but good. Failure on one front, but it gave us time to learn. Web standards moved forward with IE5/Mac, Opera 5 and Netscape 6.
IE6 comes out. Next day, first IE6 hack. Still, keep in mind, at the time it was ahead of its day, people were still figuring things out. The problem was not so much IE 6 as the fact that it took so long for new versions of IE to come out. IE6’s box model actually made sense and was easier to use, but it just didn’t fit with how CSS founders envisioned it. This year, a CSS3 roadmap was also developed: The future would be modular.
Zeldman’s Designing with Web Standards was released. (Big influence for a lot of people, including me.)
CSS Zen Garden is released. Demonstrates that CSS can be beautiful.
Progress halts. No new IE versions holding things up. WHAT WG starts. Web Hypertext Application Technology Working Group: Group of browser engineers. IE secretly involved, but didn’t want people to know, as people might assume WHAT WG was a giant Microsoft conspiracy then. Anyhow, WHAT WG broke off from the W3C and put one person in charge of getting the spec in shape: Ian Hickson. This was the beginning of HTML5. While there was stagnation at this time, in many ways, that was good, as it gave time to evangelize benefits to people and spread knowledge.
Tim Berners-Lee admits the XML web isn’t working. The W3C charters an HTML working group. Now there are two groups working on HTML.
Web fonts!
Web fonts become much better! Typekit: Handles all the complications of implementing web fonts. Other web fonts solutions are released as well. On another front, it is announced that XHTML is dead. At least XHTML 2.0 is dead.
  • Web 2.1. HTML5 and CSS3 comes to smart phones. There are now two smart phones for every Desktop PC. The mobile web is improving web usability. Mobile constraints are forcing simpler interactions.
  • Also, IE9 is here, a great effort. Standards-based design no longer fringe.
  • “Beautiful” no longer means Flash-based. At one point, Zeldman felt like an idiot for advocating web standards when seeing Flash sites with perfect typographical control. He felt like friends were watching 3D at Blockbuster, and he was watching a puppet show. Thankfully, web standards support caught up!
  • Today there is a new focus on user experience, content strategy. Typography through Typekit, Google font directory, Google font API and other solutions.
  • CSS3 is modular. Check out, Browser prefixes. Live vector art in the browser. In theory, we can use code rather than graphics to save bandwidth. The CSS3 toolbox you can use today includes border-radius, text-shadow, box-shadow, RGBA, opacity, multiple background images.
  • HTML5 gives us new semantic tools for our markup. In 2012, this will be a candidate recommendation. Canvas, video and audio in Firefox.

So to conclude, we now have Web 2.1 means ubiquitous interaction, a new era in design. And we can use it now.

My feeling was that the overall gist of Zeldman’s talk was that communications have come a long way from when knowledge was in the hands of very few. Today, robust methods of delivering knowledge and interaction are available to everyone in their hands with the mobile web. Web 2.1.