Weblogs: Web Standards

BarCamp London 2006 - Day 1

Saturday, September 02, 2006

I'm at BarCamp London this weekend. I've been in two minds for the last few weeks about whether to go or not. I found the everyone has to present rule a little uncomfortable. I see why its necessary - some of the presentations that perhaps wouldn't have happened otherwise - are far better than the big names. I found myself in an extremely interesting presentation (Imploding companies and disruptive technologies) about using social software in organisations - talking about building on the existing social fabric.

Presenting on Automated Accessibility Testing

In the end, armed with a couple of months of research and investigation, I opted to do a presentation about my current findings about automated web accessibility checkers. Well, one tool in particular - SiteMorse. And, firmly decided to get my presentation done as early as possible. No problems grabbing the first session in a small room. The feedback received has been very encouraging - its confirmed that what I've collated so far is a practically useful basis for further work and investment. If nothing else happens at BarCamp, I can walk away with the knowledge I'm on the right track.

I titled my session "Automated Accessibility Testing" with the reason to pull the right audience - those people looking for a holy grail solution to their accessibility problems, and those web accessibility aware people who would be very critical about Automated testing. The idea was to provide solidly-based information about the pitfalls of automated testing - from that people who are looking for quick solutions can make an informed choice of whether SiteMorse is capable of meeting their needs or not. For the critical people, they walk away with findings that can bolster their arguments - a win-win.

Flash Attention

Earlier I was at an Agile presentation done by Aral Balkan - which I decided to attend based on the conversations I've been part of with him during the course of the day. He's very much an evangelist of usability, agile development and Flash - which does seem to be an odd combination until (at least until we start to realise that Flash developers can code - its not just animation and intros now). As a good Flash resource (particularly as guides of good practice), Aral points out his Open Source Flash community at OS Flash, and ARP which is a MVC framework for building applications.

Flash intermezzo

I've been contemplating about building applications using Flash. I've blogged before about how I see Rich Internet Applications being a two horse platform race between Xul and Flash (hoping desperately that Microsoft's Xaml doesn't feature). I've played with Xul a little, and it feels like a decent platform. Flash, however, has that maturity and widespread installation - and its focus on accessibility is encouraging.

So I'm going to be playing around with Adobe's Flex Builder - an IDE for building Flash applications. I'm not interested in Flash as an animation or intro builder. Its the application potential that is appealing. Kosso wrote a podcasting client last year - that's the first piece of evidence that Flash is a feasible option for Web based applications. I still remain impressed with what Kosso accomplished.

Flash and Accessibility

Niqui Merrit demoed some of the accessibility possibilities with Flash. The sort of demonstrations that trigger off a flurry of firing neurons. The possibilities are very encouraging, from an audio interface and cues (I was blown away by an audio based matching pairs game), to elegant solutions to colour contrast issues. Niqui demoed J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter website - a fascinating demonstration of the accessible capabilities of Flash.

In terms of accessibility Flash can detect the use of a screen reader (well, JAWS and Window Eyes - other platforms and browsers have some work to do to correct their limitations here) - that means accessibility features can be turned on, intrusive barrier-like effects can be minimised. Also, Flash developers, as personified by Niqui and Aral, are working to alleviate barriers that the plain web standards crowd has difficulties - making content accessible to people with severe reading difficulties or low reading skills, and learning difficulties. Flash is inherently a graphic based system, so its better positioned to tackle these issues. The litmus test is if someone like Jonathan Chetwynd can take Flash and build a solution that is functionally equal to the fascinating work he's doing on reading related disabilities.

Raising community awareness

The ensuring conversation was encouraging. JavaScript and ActionScript have a lot in common (Nigel Crawley presented working code demonstrating the similarities and where the differences happen today too). That is a good bridgehead between web standards and accessible Flash development. There's definitely an appreciation that accessible Flash needs to be encouraged and stimulated. There's two problems - the web developers that are stuck in the mindset that Flash is inaccessible - a five year old roadblock. The second is Flash developers who react with "Why would anyone do accessible Flash". There are issues, like the closed nature of the Flash virtual machine / plugin - I don't think this is too much of a problem, but there are concerns that would need to be dealt with.

I think accessible Flash needs some coverage - particularly from the web standards community. It wouldn't hurt for the accessibility kvetchers to take a look at Flash with a fresh eye - its clear the Web Accessibility Initiative have recognised that Flash is here to stay, and is going to be used, and can be accessible. Flash is tarnished by the intro and glitzy effects gang - we need to get past that stereotype and explore the real benefits that Flash can offer.

The talk about a session about Flex is on the cards for tomorrow (11:00), so that's perhaps the pull I need to come back to BarCamp tomorrow.

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