Top 5 current acronyms in web development

There are new acronyms being used every day in web development. Here are some of the new ones that are seeing more and more attention each and every passing day.

RIA (Rich Internet Application)

See: web2.0

This term is being thrown around a lot lately. An RIA (rich internet application) is simply put an application on the internet that is closer than ever before to a desktop application. Yes, I know there’s a lot more to it than that, but really in the end it’s all about user experience. Drag and drop. Sortable columns. Asynchronous operations and postbacks etc. etc. The list goes on. The easiest example is an Adobe Flash program, or a Microsoft Silverlight application.

You can do all kinds of neat things in rich internet applications that you couldn’t do before, at least not on the widespread scale that exists today.

CSS (Cascading Stylesheets)

Definitely not a new term, this is still a current acronym because it’s importance is really being driven home lately. Amateur web developers will avoid CSS at all costs because it’s complicated, confusing, or “unnecessary”. Real web developers understand the importance of CSS.

There are tons of reasons to use CSS and I won’t get into them here. The idea is that you can define styles for elements on a webpage (for example, what font to use in a specific location) in a separate file that can be reused throughout an entire site. Easier for everyone involved.

SEO (search engine optimization)

Another current hot topic, search engine optimization is a major money maker right now. The rules of the search game are constantly changing, and companies are trying their best to swim to the top of search results, constantly fighting the riptide.

Since the concepts that keep a site at the top of the page are changing, consultants can charge a lot of money to give simple tips on how to alter their design and development slightly. I’ve heard of firms charging ridiculous amounts of money for what amounts to slightly reworded title tags for their site.

MS (Microsoft)

This acronym is controversial to many people, and I only included it because Microsoft has been doing some amazing things with the web lately. Silverlight is looking to finally put a stop to the RIA monopoly held by Adobe/Macromedia for so many years.

That’s not all they are up to. Microsoft is also implement new strategies like Unified Communications, and really ramping up the Live effort. As lame as me including MS as an acronym is, Microsoft is a big player in the web and it looks like it’s only getting better.

RSS (Really Simply Syndication)

The above acronym is arguably incorrect but that’s generally the accepted term. RSS is really being embraced right now. In case you aren’t familiar, from a webmaster’s point of view an RSS feed is a way of alerting readers that you have new content available. This is extremely useful for finding and maintaining long-term users and visitors.

To the end users, it’s a great way of keeping up to date on many, many different websites at once. And you can only see new content, or recently added content. You can see what date it was added to the feed, and much more.

If you are using IE7 you can click on the orange RSS button (to the left of the printer icon) if it is available. That icon glows orange if there is an available feed, and is gray if there is not one.

There are many plugins that do the same thing with Firefox, although I think Firefox 2 has that functionality added as well.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or comment below!

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Do image names really matter?

I find people asking me this question all the time lately. Image names, file names, do they really make a difference? Alt tags are important, obviously, but what about filenames?

Luckily, the answer to this question is easy. Yes they matter. That’s it. That’s the answer.

To be a little more precise, image names make a big difference in search engine optimization. If you don’t care about search engines then I guess you can stop reading right here. If you actually care about web traffic, though, search engines should make a huge difference.

One good way of seeing what the content on your page looks like to a web crawler is to use a program like LynxViewer. Lynx is a command-line based browser that is neat to use but not widely popular for many obvious reasons. My apologies if you are reading this on Lynx. Obviously you can’t view images in a command line (ASCII aside) and neither can the search engine crawlers.

They can, however, see image names and alt tags. Alt tags are best considered the same as content on the page. Don’t put anything in an alt tag that you wouldn’t want written as content, because that’s how it’s seen. Image names, though, are completely obscured to the user (unless they really want to find out, but honestly out of the thousands of images you see every day how many do you check?). This makes it awfully tempting to want to name it something useful for the developer. Popular examples are rightMenuAboutPage.gif or headTopWhiteCorner4.gif. Sometimes we use auto-generation programs to get image names and end up with 3459584711938.gif.

These filenames are hurting your optimization efforts. rightmenuaboutpage is not a word, much less a keyword you want to optimize for, but Google and other search engines give weight – arguably more than alt tags – to file names. In essence you are dilutingyour keyword pool with gibberish.

Okay so what do I do about it?

Another tempting methodology is to name your files better, but with underscores. white_elephant_ears.jpg tells me that you have a picture of a set of white elephant ears. It does not tell this to search engines.

I know, I just said that search engines give weight to filenames. That’s still true. The problem with the above elephant example is that it uses underscores. This is interpretted by a search engine as an actual character as opposed to a space. It’s the equivalent of putting ANY character there. You might as well use “t” instead of an underscore because it’s the same thing to a search engine crawler. whitetelephanttears.jpg.

The solution is to use dashes. It has been proven in the past (search around) that dashes do better than underscores when optimizing images for search engines. white-elephant-ears.jpg is the equivalent of telling google “white elephant ears”, which is presumably what you want. This technique will help you increase keyword density, add new relevant keywords, and increase search engine traffic (in theory).

Summary

Really, if you don’t have keywords, or some sort of descriptive word to use as a filename, you should get some. This won’t work as well without useful text in the filename. Still, a slightly irrelevant filename will do better than 458712937.jpg.

Ultimately a combination of useful filenames and descriptive keyword-oriented alt tags will go pretty far in increasing search engine ranks. I read a blog just this morning about a guy who increased his traffic threefold from search engines merely by optimizing his images. Obviously there’s no guarantee that you will see these same kind of results, but it will certainly be a step in the right direction.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or comment below!

Adobe Blog Squad Unmasked

What is the Adobe Blog Squad? What do they do? Who are they?

My first run in with the Adobe Blog Squad was a week or two ago when I wrote an unfavorable article about Adobe Flex. Shortly after, I had received a comment from James Ward.

James Ward is an employee of Adobe. According to his blog, he is a Technical Evangelist. I don’t know if this is an official posting at Adobe, but it almost has to be these days.

Mr. Ward seemed to very nicely critique my article. This is called the Good Cop. He swooped in to graciously and coherently rebut my opinion. Fine, all good so far.

Shortly after, another comment appeared by a man named Mike Potter. A quick background check shows that he is currently involved in marketing at Adobe as well.

So, shortly after posting a negative article, two people from Adobe show up, both involved in marketing or self-proclaimed “evangelism”. Hmm…

Mr. Potter was, on the surface, as amicable as Mr. Ward, and yet here he is posting on my blog like it somehow matters and he needs to quell the uprising before it begins.

It’s pretty obvious what’s going on. Adobe has employees that are scouring Digg and other sites for anything that can be construed as being negative press, and making sure they try to squash it. Whether this behavior is condoned by Adobe or not has yet to be seen.

It would be in the best interest of Adobe to silence these men, in my opinion. Looking at their websites, as well as some of their previous blog comments, you can tell there are some things they are (or were) ignorant of.

One of them is search engine optimization. From a blog posting a few months ago, the author had a few issues with Flex, including the ability to search Google and other search engines for the content inside Flash. This point sailed right over Mr. Potter’s head:

Search engines index .swf content no problem. A Google search for filetype:swf gives 48 million results for me.

Bravo at looking somewhat foolish. Of course it’s not a terrible mistake to make for a nontechnical person, but for a technical person working at such a public technological company, it is a sin.

In fact, it does nothing but showcase the issue that Adobe, and Macromedia before them, had: lack of knowledge about search engines.

Flash sucks for search engine optimization. Exclusive Flash sites are SEO suicide. This is because the content in the Flash is completely invisible to crawlers. Sure, there is a half-assed tool from Adobe, but without jumping through hoops, Flash is a terrible tool to use in large doses. Same goes for Flex, obviously, as it is just a complex Flash compiler.

Adobe, please leave your crack blog marketing squad at home, and instead listen to people’s complaints and issues without an immediate defensive stance. A little listening, and less arguing, would go a long way.

One Laptop Per Child – Buy one!

In case you’ve been living under a rock, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) group has been attempting to make a cheap (read: cost effective) laptop. This laptop, though, is not for consumer benefit, but rather to support education in the third world. Some people have been wrongly criticizing the laptop for it’s poor performance, silly look, and lack of Windows. I am here to tell you why you should buy one!

 OLPC

$100 for $400? Why?! 

The first thing you need to know about this laptop is that they did not reach their goal of making a laptop for $100. That was a lofty goal, and they fell short. Not to say that the result is not still impressive, it is $200. And you can buy one too, but if you want one it will probably cost you $400.

What? A 100% increase for the retail price? Not quite. The $400 will actually get you two laptops. They come in pairs. You only get one of them, however, the other gets donated to a third world country.

And yes, it’s tax deductible.

Features and nice touches

It has a lot of features that many people will be excited about. It is convertible into a tablet PC. Large stylus area. It’s sturdy. It has built in wireless, and a long battery life. There is a built in gamepad, audio, and webcam.

The most exciting features to me, though are completely built on open-source software, and the mesh network.

The entire OS is built from the ground up to be an intuitive GUI for kids. The interface is described like this by the OLPC team:

Beginning with Seymour Papert’s simple observation that children are knowledge workers like any adult, only more so, we decided they needed a user-interface tailored to their specific type of knowledge work: learning. So, working together with teams from Pentagram and Red Hat, we created SUGAR, a “zoom” interface that graphically captures their world of fellow learners and teachers as collaborators, emphasizing the connections within the community, among people, and their activities.

Mesh Network

The mesh network is the real heart and soul of this laptop. The idea is basically peer-to-peer connections between laptops in a sort of local wireless network. You can see nearby laptops, and what they are doing. If one of these laptops on the mesh network has an internet connection, it can share that connection among the others. This feature has the most potential of incredible use than any I have described so far.

One other use of the mesh network is the ability to share custom programs with other users. Each program (most programs anyway) on the OLPC laptop can be altered in true open-source fashion. The source code is visible with the touch of a button, and the kids can alter it all they want. There is also a “restore” option for the laptop that will probably be used many times, to fix any mistakes they make when coding.

Educational use

The mesh network is like a social networking tool. You can see what your friends are up to and share ideas. The educational uses alone are astounding. The teacher will be able to read papers as students write them so he or she can better tailor their class on the fly.

The video camera will also be useful for teachers to send home notes to the parents. Many parents in third world countries may be illiterate, and a video recording would potentially help them get more involved in school.

Conclusion

Overall, it’s easy to see the raw stats:

433 MhZ processor, an ISA port (wow!), 256MB DRAM, a gig of memory total, etc.

It has a very childish look, big bubbly plastic, antenna, and a super simple interface.

This is more than enough to turn most people off. But if you can look below the surface you will find an innovative machine, and a humanitarian one at that.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or leave a comment below!

Microsoft Popfly – exciting new mashup builder

Microsoft Popfly

Okay, I didn’t mean for this blog to seem so Microsoft-centric, but it’s kind of hard not to talk about the exciting things that are coming out of Redmond lately.

Microsoft Popfly is the latest mashup creator from Microsoft. They seem to be directly targeting Yahoo! Pipes with this new too, as well.

Microsoft Popfly feature overview

Microsoft Popfly is an easy new way to create websites, gadgets, and mashups, and best of all it is free!

Currently still in Alpha, this new tool promises to deliver an anyone-can-use type of interface, essentially dragging and dropping tools and sets of information (“flckr photo accounts” etc) to a workarea.

For advanced users, there is always an HTML editing mode so you can have more direct control over the code. Microsoft is also allowing users to share their mashups and alter them.

You can even turn your web gadget into a Widows Sidebar gadget.

Definition of a mashup

For those of you still wondering what a mashup is, a mashup is basically a web application (or with the release of Google Gears and Adobe Air, a desktop application that uses the internet for its data) that draws information from multiple sources.

An example of this, straight from one of the Popfly tutorials, is taking the traffic information from Yahoo! Traffic, and combining that with a map from Virtual Earth to create a nice traffic map.

Social networking

One of the neat things about Popfly is that social networking is built into it. You can “connect with creators” of gadgets and sites you like, keep track of them, etc. Seems to me to be a little like existing social networking concepts but overall I think it’s a plus to have it included.

Now Microsoft just needs to develop a mash network like the one found in the OLPC program! (More on that later)

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or leave a comment!

What .NET going Open Source really means

Microsoft and Open Source are two terms that are almost never seen in the same headline, unless it’s a negative one.

And yet today Scott Gu’s blog announced that .NET 3.5 is going open-source … kind of.

First of all, it won’t be fully open-source. At least, not at first. The move to open up .NET will be gradual, but eventually all class libraries will be open. Eventually.

Second of all, it is released under MS-RL, Microsoft Reference License. This is the most restrictive of all of the Microsoft shared source licenses. Essentially this means you can look, but not touch. The license is for reference only, accordig to Redmond.

This news will be disappointing to the many of Open Source gurus out there hoping Microsoft will jump on the open source bandwagon. It’s not really in the spirit of open source to release something that cannot be changed or touched at all.

So what does this news really mean?

For .NET developers this means that the code they are running their programs on can be debugged. An integrated debugger for .NET built into Visual Studio 2008 will allow devs to step into the .NET code and view the stack calls there.

Useful in some situations. Definitely a good PR move for Microsoft as well. The appearance of embracing open source without actually having to go through with it.

In all seriousness, what harm would it do to allow users to alter and redistribute their own additions to .NET? Microsoft releases the framework for free anyway, it’s not like it is a product in and of itself. You would think that they would appreciate the extra hands that would work on .NET for free.

Ultimately though, another added benefit is that more eyes can now look at the source and identify bugs. Right now it is somewhat difficult to report obscure bugs, as you need to get a tech support agent to reproduce the error. Then you generally get the message that your problem will be relayed to a developer, and that’s the end of it.

Now, with all eyes on Microsoft, hopefully they will see that people appreciate the gesture, but ultimately crave more.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to contact me, James Martin.
Email me, or leave a comment below!

Why Microsoft Silverlight can succeed

Microsoft Silverlight

So by now, many people are familiar with the term Microsoft Silverlight. It is Microsoft’s attempt at a Rich Internet Application platform, similar to Flash. That’s enough for the average nontechnical person to know, really.

Why can Microsoft stand any chance? There are a few reasons.

Market saturation

Flash currently has a large market share. The latest version alone has 93% exposure online. That means 93% of all internet users have Flash 9 capable browsers already.

How can Microsoft possibly penetrate this humongous market?

Easy, if you ask me. Windows Update. With the power of Windows Update, any Windows user can automatically have Silverlight integrated into IE. In theory, this would spread Silverlight – instantly – to a majority of web users. The best (or worst, depending on your stance on Microsoft) part is that most users wouldn’t even know there was a transition, it would just be taken care of for them.

Annoying IE “feature”

Many people might voluntarily choose to develop in Silverlight merely because of the annoying Flash IE “feature”. This feature is that Flash does not embed correctly in IE. In fact, I don’t believe any third-party apps can be embedded in IE without the annoying “Click to use this application” message. You have to click to activate and use any Flash control.

I assume this will not be the case with Silverlight. Sure, there are javascript workarounds for Flash, but there are so many non-standardized methods it’s hard to know where to start (I recommend SWFObject).

Aggressive Marketing

Silverlight is getting aggressively marketed by Microsoft. I have never seen a Flash advertisement (to clarify, I mean an advertisement for Flash. I see Flash ads all the damn time).

While Flash has become “a part” of the internet, I don’t doubt that Microsoft can create the same kind of brand awareness that Flash shares.

Integration into Visual Studio/.NET

With Release 1.1 of Silverlight, it is possible to write application code for Silverlight in C#/VB instead of javascript. This opens up developmet to many more developers, and bridges the gap nicely between the idea of Flash being a designers tool and a developers tool.

With Visual Studio being one of the development platforms, many people will be familiar with the tool already as well. This makes development just that much easier.

Conclusion

Overall, Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight are, on the surface, very similar. In the end, I think it’s the small differences that will really matter.

Questions? Comments? Feel free to email me, James Martin.
Email me, or leave a comment below!