netmagInterview

Bruce Lawson

Opera’s web evangelist Bruce Lawson forsees a future in which much of the world leapfrogs the desktop and jumps straight onto the mobile web, and standards are more important than ever. He tells Oliver Lindberg how we can create one web for all

Not many proponents of web standards can claim to have appeared in a Bollywood film. Or taught the daughter of the crown princess in Thailand. Or worked as a tarot card reader in Istanbul. Or been a volunteer pharmacist in Calcutta. Bruce Lawson seems to have been everywhere and done it all. So, in a way, it makes perfect sense that he’s ended up as a web evangelist for Opera Software.

Bruce first got into web standards when he returned to the UK after eight years of travelling and was looking for work that combined his interest in IT with his English degree. He got a job at (now defunct) computer book publisher Wrox (www.wrox.com), where he was asked to start a new brand for developers, which became Glasshaus. Its first book was about web accessibility and standards and galvanised the audience so much that Bruce was asked to talk at conferences. The rest, as they say, is history.

Developing standards

When .net catches up with Bruce Lawson, he’s just finished a tour of UK universities to promote standards and is about to embark on a similar venture in Indonesia – the second biggest user of Opera Mini. So far the feedback has been very positive. “Five years ago, when I started off in web standards, real computer scientists thought the web was a bit of a toy programming environment that wasn’t as good as C++,” he explains. “I’ve noticed that there’s a difference now. Even hardcore computer scientists are taking the web seriously as a platform and there’s a real interest in standards.”

It just seems to me bizarre that you’d choose to make sites that can only be consumed by certain people in certain areas using certain devices

Bruce Lawson

Together with Patrick Lauke, Bruce co-leads the Accessibility Task Force of the Web Standards Project and has been involved in drafting the first British standard for web accessibility (BS8878, due out early this year – see page 16). His interest in accessibility was heightened when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 10 years ago. “But I was always interested in the communication aspect of computers, the ‘I’ of IT … It just seems to me bizarre that you’d choose to make sites that can only be consumed by certain people in certain areas using certain devices.”

Bruce reckons the browser wars are over once and for all. “There was a browser war, a war to the death,” he says. “And IE very nearly won the web. I think the only people who were injured were the consumers and the developers. Now it’s just a collaborative attempt to determine the rules against which we’ll all healthily compete. There’ll be no more death matches. Everybody tried the proprietary ‘we will win the web’ and it failed so disastrously that working with standards is the only viable way as a business route now.”

Not everybody is going to like Opera, just like people don’t always like coffee or strawberries

Bruce Lawson

Aside from an issue surrounding the Accessible Rich Internet Applications spec (WAI-ARIA), Bruce Lawson thinks Microsoft is now almost following standards. He also welcomes the advent of Google Chrome because, he says, it’s important to have a choice. “Not everybody is going to like Opera, just like people don’t always like coffee or strawberries.”  Some people will use Flock because they’re interested in social networking, he points out, while others prefer Opera’s fraud protection and speed dial feature, which gives you quick access to your favourite websites. Others will choose Chrome because they don’t need many features and like its minimal user interface. “At Opera we’ve always been about browser choice,” he stresses.

People use the web in different ways with different tools, but all over the world they essentially access the same content. Data aggregated by Opera shows that social networking, search, news and information are popular pretty much everywhere. And no matter what they use to browse the web, they still expect the same experience, especially in markets where the mobile web rules. “We’re touring in China at the moment, which has got 73million people connected to the internet without a laptop or desktop. They only use their phone. And people hate it when they get a different experience on a different platform, so they expect the desktop to be the same as the phones they’ve been using. But, since their initial exposure to the web has been with the phone, why would they even want to go and buy a big desktop beast? It’s happened in South East Asia and South Africa – because their economies are developing differently, they’ve bypassed the desktop and the laptop.”

Bruce Lawson

In fact, Africa’s mobile industry is expanding at nearly double the global rate. It’s a vital market for Opera, whose mission it is to provide one web for all. Opera Mini, now also available for the Android platform, boasts 21million users worldwide and has turned into the most popular mobile browser around. In October, page views through Opera Mini skyrocketed to five billion – an increase of more than 450 per cent over the year. And while Opera’s global usage share on desktops is estimated at just 0.75 per cent (behind IE, Firefox and Safari), it’s more like 18-20 per cent in Russia and the Ukraine. Versions of the browser are also available for the Nintendo DS and Wii.

CSS adoption

Opera was one of the first browsers to support CSS. Hkon Wium Lie, who suggested the concept, is chief technology officer at Opera, and many employees are on W3C committees for various interest groups. Recently. Opera’s MAMA search engine, which analyses the structure of web pages to get an idea of what people are up to, found that only 4.13 per cent of more than three million sites pass W3C validation.

Opera has also released a Web Standards Curriculum. “It’s a 50-module course that’s either for self study or for teachers to use,” Bruce explains. “We released it under Creative Commons, so anybody can use and adapt it. It’s written by some big names, including Roger Johansson from 456 Berea Street, and Christian Heilmann and Tom Hughes-Croucher from Yahoo. A lot of these people collaborated because companies told us that they were getting in developers who didn’t know standards, yet the business requires it. We figure that if we’re going to teach people in universities and have this self-study course, ultimately it will shape the future of the web.”

Bruce is confident that history is marching towards standardisation, but the battle hasn’t been won yet. “Many have got the message, but there are a heck of a lot of people that my friend Stuart Langridge calls ‘dark matter developers’. We don’t know how to talk to them. We don’t know where they are. They don’t come to conferences, they don’t read books and they probably don’t read .net. They turn up, test in IE and go home at five. At Opera we’re realising that if you can talk to these people when they’re still learning then they don’t have to unlearn bad habits later on. Also, they’ll evangelise, or at least spread the word when they go into companies and start leading teams.”

But it’s not only developers that need educating. “The British government recently published a consultation paper in which they said government web masters only really needed to test in a couple of browsers and could ignore the smaller market-share ones. This is 2008, not 1998! I protested and was given the task of writing the formal Opera response.” When Bruce blogged about it on the Web Standards Project site, the civil servant responsible for the draft browser guidelines posted a comment saying that around 400 people had already complained.

So Bruce’s crusade is far from over, but he vows not to give up. He simply enjoys evangelising about web standards, introducing the concept to new people. Then there’s the personal interest, of course. “One day, if I find myself unable to see or use my hands, I’ll be coming at those people whose websites I won’t be able to use.”

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