Mad Dog 21/21: Back To School
August 9, 2010 Hesh Wiener
Back to school? Already? Didn’t the kids just get out of school? Yes, yes, yes. But you sure can’t tell by the computer business, which has turned its calendar ahead. Corporate computer suppliers are chasing opportunities that formerly fell to consumers’ favorite vendors. Redefined laptops and desktops are spilling out far beyond the campus market; office computers are getting makeovers, too. Why should a corporate applications specialist care? Because new-fangled computers can louse up Webs, break intranets, confuse applications suites . . . and hide their mischief from developers.
The problems are the byproduct of progress. What’s new and generally unavoidable affects the skins of applications. Things that work on yesterday’s installed computers don’t work quite the same way on tomorrow’s. What works and what doesn’t on today’s computers mainly depends on just what kind of machine and just what software happens to be on a particular desk. But to make things just a little bit nuttier, what the presentation layer of your corporate Web, intranet, or application actually looks like may depend on whether Microsoft‘s too-clever-by-half code thinks you are using a local server or a remote one. Bear with me for a couple minutes and I’ll explain.
Yes, Microsoft looms large in this situation. Its principal culprits are Windows 7, Internet Explorer 8, and Office. Beneath the villainy of the operating system and browser lie good intentions: improvements in central processors, graphics processors, chipsets, storage devices, and display screen. Basically, the economic downturn may have slowed the rate at which customers, particularly business customers, moved to new client computers, but developments within the computer industry didn’t slow down at all.
Here’s the good news that brings out the bad news: Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have chips with more pep, more cores, less real estate, and less heat. Nvidia and AMD’s AMI group have upped the ante in discrete graphics to stay ahead of the more nimble graphics co-processors offered by the CPU makers. Even tiny computers have a couple gigabytes of quick memory, while middle-of-the-road machines may include four times as much or more. Laptop disks are evolving into canned subsystems with spinning storage, solid state cache, and very smart controllers, while the drives on desktop machines keep getting faster (a little) and more capacious (a lot), too. The transition of display screen technology to LED lighting from fluorescent is well underway, and color quality on even the least costly products is excellent. Higher resolutions have opened up presentation possibilities that software vendors simply cannot resist.
Windows and Mac OS graphics capabilities are running neck-and-neck. Linux, not yet a big factor in business client machines (and maybe never, unless IBM gets behind the idea), isn’t trailing by much and, aficionados argue, does just as much but often isn’t exploited as well by applications software.
The upshot is not merely a lot of eye candy like the transparency effects done (and maybe overdone) by the Windows Aero scheme. All the progress in hardware and all the advancements made in client operating systems are coming into play. But what has shown up as part of the Facebook experience so many students love is already making for big changes elsewhere. You can see new look and feel ideas in cloud applications like Webmail, in cloud productivity suites, and in cloud extensions to Office and other client-based packages.
Wait a minute. That cloud stuff is fine for people with little netbooks and for students who have $500 entry-level machines. It’s probably okay for home office folk, and for that layoff set, the reluctant consultants. But as popular as all these new ideas have become, what does it all have to do with companies that have their own applications servers? How does it affect companies that manage their own network and software environments? What does this new stuff have to do with conservative businesses that generally speaking stick with things that work and boast that they don’t fix it if it ain’t broke? A lot.
Mossbacks still running Windows XP (and that’s me, too, some of the time) think they can avoid reworking their Webs and applications, at least until they ditch their equipment and move to Windows 7 (or maybe it will be Windows 8 by that time). Companies that don’t want to part with XP can buy brand new computers from all the serious vendors and have “standard” Windows 7 “downgraded” to Windows XP. It’s a cheap and still abundantly available option. There’s nothing special about it; it’s usually a standard choice on the vendor Web sites aimed at corporate buyers. Unfortunately, the way it works, that XP machine may be hiding Web problems for in-house users, which may be a good thing, and it could also be hiding Web problems from Web maintenance and development people, which is almost certainly not a good thing. That XP box you bought to confine support issues is still likely to be packing a browser that is out to get you.
To understand what’s going on, you only have to visit the Web sites of Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Lenovo, or any other major PC vendor. Make sure you are looking at consumer pages, ones that attempt to address home users or home office users. That’s where you will see entry level computers that are very big on features and, for the most part, surprisingly small on price. It doesn’t matter whether you are looking at laptops or desktops (or even netbooks). You will see wide aspect displays on everything. You will see systems with more horsepower and more storage and than most office users require. And you will see, despite the vendors’ anxiety pressing them to talk about back to school months before classes actually begin, what is a very significant boom in computer upgrades. The Web pages you look at are written to appeal to people who have an outdated computer, because only a minority of computer buyers are people who never owned a computer before. The vendors are making a big effort to persuade prospects that their old computers, machines that may well be running XP and sporting 4:3 displays (like your office computers) are useless crap.
If you take a little time to look at the more popular places on the Web–popular with students for sure and with lots of other people, too, it turns out–you might notice that the presentation style isn’t exactly the same as the one you use on your corporate Web, your intranet, and your in-house applications. Just how dramatic the differences seem to be will depend on what operating system you are running (which is likely to be XP SP 3 but it might be SP2 and possibly Vista or Win 7), Web browser you are used to, and what version of Office you have installed.
Let’s start with fonts. Windows 7, Vista, Office 2007 (and 2010) and older Office software upgraded with what Microsoft calls its compatibility pack have a different set of fonts than prior software, which Microsoft specifies here.
Most Web site and application developers used to build pages with an acknowledgement of a group of typefaces known as Microsoft core fonts. Core fonts were the ones favored by Web browsers when a Web site did not force the specific selection of other fonts. This can be confusing, so here is an example. If a Web site is coded to suggest displaying its text in a serif font, chances are a computer running software that’s a few years old would show the text using a typeface called Times New Roman. That’s not necessarily the case now. For example, one of those new back to school systems you saw on the Web will come with Windows 7, Internet Explorer 8, possibly the student version of Office and an inclination to display text a Web coder describes as serif using a typeface called MS Serif.
That may be logical enough, but it wasn’t how things worked in the past and, chances are, it’s not how things work on your office computers, particularly if you’ve got them running XP plus IE7 or IE6 instead of IE8. New versions of Windows and Office favor a group of Microsoft typefaces with funny names that begin with “C” over older core fonts. (That’s the C joke, if you think it’s funny, which many Web developers do not.)
Now it turns out that lots of Web sites–lots of Web sites run by midsize companies, anyway–don’t have coding that works right when visitors have been back to school, done the upgrade and bought the Windows 7 T-shirt. These Web sites did one of the many things that was considered a good (or at least pretty good) practice on the Web until recently, which is to let a visitor’s computer decide just what typeface to use when a designer coded a page in a way that merely asked for the best serif font available. Best in this context means most likely to be legible based on the software, hardware, display technology and potential need for special adaptations. Special adaptations might include screen magnification for people with vision problems, or the use of a typeface that’s a bit bolder than Times New Roman or some other more-or-less standard serif typeface.
The cure for the “this serif typeface is illegible” problem is to change the Web coding so that visitors’ browsers are told to use Times New Roman, period. (Actually, the way Web pages are coded by nearly all webmonkeys that want specific faces provide a list called a font stack rather than a single font. An example font stack in this case might be ” ‘Times New Roman’,Times,Palatino,’Palatino Linotype’,serif.” That list choice tells the browser that the coder just gave up and he’ll settle for whatever the software feeds the visitor.) But if you think that recoding a Web is easy, you probably don’t understand just what is inside your Web site.
Web sites are a lot like application software, maybe because that is what they are. If a site has recently been written or reviewed or overhauled, it’s probably straightforward if not easy to get all the font stuff rewired to work the way it should. By contrast, if a Web site is loaded with ten-year-old code that worked until now, Houston, you might have a problem. And if a Web site’s typography is created by some obscure Perl or PHP, Java or C, deep inside an application or presentation server, Dude you are going to be getting a brand new Web.
Hey, that’s an easy one. What about the trouble that arises when new computers decide that there are fewer pixels in a point . . . and your presentation coding is in points because that was what better served visually impaired visitors? What can happen is that relatively small type, stuff that is programmed to be only 6 or 7 points high, such as the teeny legal notices that adorn many pages, starts breaking up. The cure is simple enough: make that teeny type larger. Just how to do this depends, like the typeface issue, on just how the presentation layer of your Web site, intranet, or application was put together in the first place.
If you are using a combination of a display and related software that doesn’t rewire points and pixels, fine. But take a look at your stuff on a current wide aspect screen that’s not on the premium price list, one of the budget screens you will get with one of those back-to-school budget systems. Here is what you might discover: Sometimes small fonts work well, sometimes not. The way you see your stuff on the in-house machine with an older 4:3 monitor and older graphics hardware might show all is well, but anyone else looking at the same screen with a brand new computer might find that same page unacceptably hard to read.
Then there is the “Ha Ha, blame W3C” mode in Internet Explorer 8. Here’s how it works, or doesn’t work if that’s the way you feel about it. For years and years it has been possible to specify the colors on a presentation page using any of several means. One way that is pretty human friendly doesn’t involve hexadecimal numbers at all; it uses funny words. For instance, a Web browser will understand you if you tell it a line of type should be displayed in a very nice color called CornflowerBlue instead of calling that hue 1E90FF. Even though there’s code in just about every browser to display stuff in CornflowerBlue the Web standards group W3C has not allowed that name (and a zillion other color names) to be part of its standard, not yet anyway. If you look at a Web page using CornflowerBlue using Internet Explorer 8 something will go wrong unless you tell your browser to run in “compatibility mode,” which means to act more or less as if it’s IE7 rather than IE8. And when you do that, chances are, something else on the page will look funny even if the color comes out right.
It gets sillier. When named colors break IE8 running in strict mode, the color might or might not display correctly, but it’s a safe bet some other coding on the page will be blown apart. In once case I spotted, IE8 got into such a snit it refused to properly render dynamic borders around some text. Dynamic borders are used to highlight material as you mouse over things on a page. Go figure.
But if you think that’s the end of the problem, think again. The Web developer who was trying to figure out what was working and what was not couldn’t reproduce a complaining visitor’s problem. The reason? The developer didn’t look at the Web from afar, but checked it via his local network. In that case, the error did not occur. Here is why: When Internet Explorer 8 is used to view a Web page (or the presentation layer of any application that’s built like a Web page) and the address of the Web page is numeric–192.168.1.200 instead of www.yourwebsite.com–it decides your Web pages are old lousy code and are meant to be viewed in compatibility mode instead of strict mode. So an outsider using IE8 would see the page in strict mode and get smacked around by broken code while an insider, including a developer that needs to spot errors, gets put into IE7 mode and coddled.
It will get even worse when you finally knuckle under and replace your XP boxes with the Windows 7 machines that are so cheap and so pretty in those back-to-school sale pages. In some cases IE8 under Windows 7 treats MS Serif differently than XP and IE8 do. The upshot is similar to the strict/compatibility mode irritation. If you think you fixed all your font stack problem but in fact missed some here and there you won’t go back to coding school until you get a back-to-school system of your very own. And even then you have to be careful if you happen to use XP mode thinking it is a proper way to bounce between XP and Win 7 for presentation layer testing. Usually XP mode is very much like XP. Usually isn’t always.
Now there are a few ways to tell IE8 you want it to run in IE7 mode (or be even more forgiving and run in what is called quirks mode), but it turns out that simple instructions about this can be treacherous. To truly explore this topic you have to enter the limbo known as Stacking Metas, a landscape that changes with every major IE8 bug fix. So not this time. Only when you are truly ready to abandon all hope. Or go back to reform school.