Missing the Boat

May 16 is census day in Canada, so I received paper copies of my census forms in the mail this week. However, earlier this week I heard on CBC Radio news that this year it would be possible to fill out the census form on a secure website. Therefore, given that I’m a certifiable computer geek — don’t I make my living with computers? — I couldn’t imagine NOT filling my form online. Doing otherwise would simply be wrong!

So this morning I go to the appointed Stats Can website with Firefox. All goes well until about two thirds of the way, when my browser shit the bed. So I figured I had to break down and use Internet Explorer instead, just as I must with my daytime job. But when I fired up IE and went back to the Stats Can site, the browser detection script determined that I needed to download Java. And it said that if I didn’t want to do that, then I would have to fill out the questionnaire on paper.

The thing is, I do have Java installed. But since I was trying to gain access to the Stats Can site from the computer I use for my day job, and that I had to tweak it just so (with Java) in order to do my work, I was reticent to muck around with my settings and potentially screw up my access for work, which is a heck of a lot more important to me than the bloody census. So I went to my other computer, which I wouldn’t mind tweaking for this purpose. And indeed, I had to uninstall old versions of Java that had accumulated over time on that computer and install the latest version.

I was annoyed, just as I’m annoyed with my employer’s reliance on IE and Java for its online applications. And yesterday, while talking with a [day job] client, I learned that one of my colleagues has been expressing to clients (in unflattering terms) his profound dislike of Java. However, while he and I feel the same way on that issue, I’m relatively certain we didn’t get there the same way.

When big thinkers dreamed up the World Wide Web in the early ’90s, their chief motivator was to find a way of moving away from platform dependence in order to make the flow of information and data exchange free and unencumbered. But sticking to the ideal didn’t last very long, with the browser war in the late ’90s and some corporations wishing to define standards. One mess of inconsistency has substituted another.

At my day job, the idea is to get clients to use a secure Web interface instead of proprietary local software. But that interface was developed such that the minimal requirements are (a) a specific browser, (b) Java, and (c) the Windows operating system. Officially the interface is touted as allowing users to get things done from anywhere in the world, but said users’ computers have to be adjusted so much that it’s very likely this promise will not be fulfilled. If users refuse to use the only sanctioned browser or to get Java, they’re out of luck: We will not support them.

That approach, of course, is completely opposite to how I developed TextStyleM. I made a point of sticking to lowest common denominators so that the application could indeed be accessible from anywhere, which is in keeping with the spirit that animated those early big thinkers of the WWW. I wasn’t just thinking of the ideal; I realized that, as a small vendor, I couldn’t impose proprietary plug-ins or techniques requiring users to reconfigure their local computers. It wasn’t my place to make such impositions.

That Statistics Canada would deem it appropriate to impose in this manner bugs the bejesus out of me. Getting the right Java from the Sun website is not easy because that site is designed by and for hardcore geeks. (I was able to figure it out quickly today only because I’ve guided so many [day job] clients to that site in recent weeks.) Ordinary Canadians are the target audience for the census website …ordinary Canadians like my mother, who might enjoy the convenience of filling out her census form online, but couldn’t be bothered to tweak her computer JUST to fill out a 10-question survey.

I’m getting mightly sick of Web developers who have completely lost sight of audience. They’ve completely missed the boat and have let themselves be distracted by glittering objects. The trouble is, I can’t imagine this disconnect being resolved anytime soon.

{2} Thoughts on “Missing the Boat

  1. What could a census form require that needs more than a simple web form? Accessability (disability issues) alone suggests a simple, standards-compliant form would be the best option.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more, Kevin. I guess we have to think back to the day when we started scripting and had to ask ourselves what we would use to create dynamic websites: PHP/MySQL, ASP, ColdFusion, etc. Where my daytime employer and obviously federal government agencies like Stats Can have favoured an MS rather than an *nix O/S environment, the first on the list above wasn’t a viable option. Perhaps from a developer’s point of view, given the expected volume of traffic at both sites, there’s an argument to be made that some of the heavy lifting should be done on the client rather than the server side. In both cases, however, it is like if a PHP site required people to download PHP to use the site. Java doesn’t just enhance; it IS the language.

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