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Interview with Bruce Lawson, Open Web Standards Evangelist for Opera

Article by Awwwards in Design & Illustration -

Bruce Lawson is a married, 40-something year old English graduate and web developer. He has lived in Turkey, Thailand, India, Bangladesh and Russia, but now lives in Birmingham, UK. Bruce works for Opera as an evangelist of Open web standards, based on his firm belief that the web is a revolutionary communication mechanism and should be available to all. 

Our collegue Martha took advantage of his attendance at FOWA London 2012 to interview him briefly, to which he gladly agreed.

Question Awwwards Team: How did you get into this industry?

  • Bruce Lawson, Open Web standards evangelist

    I was working overseas in Thailand, as a kindergarten teacher and I got diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. And the only way I could find any English-language information about it was on the web. So when I came back to the UK I got this job with a technical publisher and they asked me to make a new imprint for web developers in 2002, and I developed a book about how to make websites that are available for people with disabilities. The book sold well and people asked me to come and talk about it and that's how I got into the industry.

    Question So you started in a specific area and broadened out?

    Exactly. My degree's English literature and drama. I'm interested in communication and for me the code is only interesting insofar as it facilitates communication.

    Question What's your day-to-day work at Opera?

    It's kind of brand evangelism. When people ask questions like "does Opera support this, does Opera do that" I answer those questions on social networks, e-mails etc., I berate people if their sites don't work in Opera. Well, I don't berate them but when people file bugs and say "site X doesn't work in Opera" I try to contact the owner and suggest a fix. We call that "Open the Web" and we'll also write to people and say "your website doesn't work in Safari" or "your website doesn't work in Firefox", because we believe in all websites working everywhere. I do a lot of this kind of stuff, coming to talk about cool things to cool people. It's a nightmare. I'm off to Cape Town next week.

  • Bruce with our colleague Martha, who interviewed him at FOWA London 2012

    Question I was going to ask if you go far afield?

    Yeah, this year I've been to Holland a couple of times, I've spoken in Toulouse in France, Krakow in Poland, Moscow, I'm off to Cape Town, last year it was Japan, Indonesia, India, Australia. The trouble is I only get to go for 2 weeks, and I'm just constantly knackered, but it's still better than not going at all.

    Question So how many conferences will you have done in total this year?

    I looked on Lanyrd and it told me that I'd done 65 past events in the last couple of years. But I love it, I was down here [London] last week doing Mobile Academy, I did two talks yesterday, a talk today and then Cape Town, I'm going into some companies in Cape Town to talk to them about development teams, then I've got Prague and Germany over Christmas. I live in Birmingham, though Opera is a Norwegian company and they offered me the chance to relocate but I've got a couple of kids in school and also I don't really like snow, and there's lots of that in Norway. I was there in February last year and it was minus 25 at night.

    Question Do you read any blogs regularly?

    I always read A List Apart, Eric Meyer's stuff, I look at Sitepoint...there's loads...I've got an RSS reader I trawl through but like everyone else I tend to read stuff people put on Twitter. If my mates say there's a really good article it's worth checking out. There's a lot of really dodgy bad information out there. There's so much misinformation. It's one of the things I enjoy with my kids, they still believe that if they've found something on the internet it's probably true, so I always make them look at 2 or 3 sites and compare the answers when they're doing their homework. It's an important skill, knowing that not everything's true just because someone wrote it on the internet. Everything's skewed by your own perspective, whether or not you're trying to deceive, I think.

    Question You mentioned A List Apart. Have you read Paul Robert Lloyd's recent article on the Web Aesthetic? Do you think the kind of simplicity we see in apps is going to be a big thing in design more generally?

    Yes. I think simplicity's the point. I often say to people about mobile, the usability gurus always point to mobile as being different because people are time-constrained and task-focused, and therefore you should only give them the information they need to fulfil the task. That's true, but it's also true of everybody all the time. If I go to a train website, I don't really want to see a picture of Richard Branson smiling at me, I don't want to read the Chief Exec's ambitions and life history. All I want to know is what time my train is and how much it is. And I think, yes, mobile stuff needs to be simple, but so does everything else. People have been used to making desktop sites that are full of shite just because they've got space for it, and they need to stop.

  • Question Is that your biggest bugbear?

    I've got many, but it's one of them. The biggest is people who block you if you're not using the right device or the right browser.

    Question I had a question about that. Do you think web-standards based Apps will end up putting an end to native Apps?

    I doubt standards-based Apps will completely kill native Apps. I think native Apps are temporarily very important because the web-standards stuff hasn't yet got the capability of the native stuff, but the gap's closing.

    Question Would you say that's something you're working towards, that you'd like to see?

    Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I do lots of work on specs that try to close that gap. If I spend £400 or £500 on a phone, I think I've got the right to put anything I like on that phone.

    Question You did a talk on what's next in Responsive web design, where you mentioned nested media queries and web on TV. Is that what's next?

    The TV manfacturers really want web on TV to work. I think at the moment the killer app hasn't been invented. Nobody's yet come up with the killer product. TV's great for some things and it's rubbish for other things. Nobody is going to want to put all their social networking stuff up on the telly when your grandma and your kids are in the same room. There's things you don't want in a family space. You're unlikely to want to type an e-mail on the TV because your hunting and pecking with the remote for the letters and it's rubbish. But then TV's great for shared viewing, so I could imagine that a killer TV app would let you look at your Flickr pictures as a slideshow, so instead of the family gathered round a laptop, the family can be gathered round a big screen and it's more sociable. I think that as yet, the technology is there, but we haven't yet worked out how to use it best. Nobody wants to write a Word document on their television, because a) it's rubbish as an experience because you haven't got a keyboard, and b) TV's leisure, and writing a Word document's work. I work from home so I make sure I only work in my office and the only thing I do in my office is work, so I've got differentiation. I think that's increasingly the case, people want to have that separation, otherwise you just work all the time.

    Question So what will work on TV is going to be leisure-focused stuff?

    Yeah, or social stuff. I don't mean social media, I mean things like, "Here's my holiday snaps", and the family can sit back and look at a really nice screen and look at your snaps together. Social as in shared, rather than social as in Facebook. If anybody reading this does make an App and make a million, they could send me 10%.

  • Photo by Patrick H. Lauke

    Bruce Lawson with Remy Sharp, co-authors of Introduction to HTML5

    Question So, today you'll be talking about How to Destroy the Web. Can you sum it up for me?

    It's a slightly gimmicky talk in which I pretend to hate the web and tell you all the worst things you can do. Instead of telling you how to do stuff properly, which is terribly worthy, I tell you how much I dislike the web and how to make it much worse. Things like, make sure 40% of the world in India and China can't access it, by only making it available on expensive devices, for example, that's a great way to destroy the World Wide Web. People have enjoyed it in the past!

    QuestionYou mentioned India and China. How do you think those fast-growing economies might affect the web and mobile industries in the future?

    They will affect it in ways I can't guess at, but the effects they'll have will be profound. China, particularly. Somebody told me that statistically, most politicians in the West are politics and philosophy and economics graduates, and most politicians in China are engineers, and there's a huge focus and a huge respect for engineering out there. You see some phenomenal code and dedication to making great stuff coming out of China, and also India. Places like Bangalore, there's incredible coding in India.

    We're seeing an extraordinary rise in consumption of the web in those places. Not so much producing websites, although Chinese social media has just been credited this week with persuading their government to close down some of the forced labour camps, so we're seeing technology enabling people to have a voice and a say, which warms the cockles of my heart.

    I'm going to tell a story this afternoon about a website called Igniter. It was set up by three Jewish guys in New York and it's a social network, a dating agency, for nice, Jewish kids in New York who for cultural reasons didn't want to go out on dates one-to-one. So they would organise shared trips to the theatre or picnics, so groups would go out and if people hit it off they could subsequently begin dating, but it was culturally a lot less intimidating. It didn't take off, they spent lots of money advertising it but they only got 50,000 users. And then they noticed they were getting loads of hits from India and Pakistan and places like that, where there's not a great Jewish community but that model of shared dating works very well with extended Hindu and Muslim and Sikh families. They realised that they were getting more signups a week from India than they had in their first year in the US, so they just relocated it. Those three guys who had never been out of North America all relocated to Bombay and they re-branded as India's premier dating agency and they're going great guns there, and that's the beauty of the World Wide Web. That's what you lose if you only think about your own local area. You might think your business is only focused on your local area but if you deliberately restrict it you'll never know whether you have a more global business potential.

    Question Have you read anything recently that's particularly made an impact?

    Yes, I read the W3C Pointer Events Specification, which Microsoft wrote, which is making writing websites that work with a pen or touch or a mouse much more sane and easy and I think it's good work by the mighty Microsoft standardising stuff.

    Question When you were involved with the Mobile Web Best Practices working group, how did you work as a team?

    Very much the same as any W3C group, lots of people on e-mails and a small fraction of those people actually dial in every week to the call, and then a tiny fraction of them (not including me) actually did the work and wrote it. The co-chairs were Dan Applequist who spoke here this morning, who at the time was working at Vodafone and a guy called Jo Rabin, who's now chairing the Core Mob group, which is the second largest W3C group after the HTML one, it's the one that Facebook kicked off about getting baseline experience on mobile. So whereas that's nothing to do with me, it's a really interesting group to watch. You should talk to Jo Rabin

    Question I'll make a note of that! As for coming trends in web design, we've talked about TV. What else do you think is going to be big?

    Access to devices capabilities. So, three years ago, if you wanted to access GPS geographical information on your phone, you had to have a native app because you couldn't do that on the web, and now every browser on every device is doing that. And then the ability to upload photographs directly from the web, which we can do now. There's something called getUserMedia, a spec I very much like, and that allows a website (with your permission) to access the video camera, it might be a webcam or the front-facing camera on your phone, and then it can access the video stream and film you and the Javascript on the website accesses the video feed in real time and can identify where your face is and do facial recognition, and when it determines where your mouth is it'll draw a Super Mario Brothers moustache where your mouth is. And this, of course is the zenith of tech. But what this is really for is in-browser video conferencing, so the website can access your microphone and your camera and then connect it up to someone else's website where they can hear your voice. You've effectively got video conferencing with no third-party app.

    I can't promise anything for Opera, and I certainly can't promise anything for anyone else, but I imagine in the next 12 months that'll be available in the newest browsers on devices that have that capability, yeah. That's all part of web RTC [Real Time Communication] at the moment.

    Question What kind of technologies are you looking at learning? Any new stuff you want to get into?

    I'm not a very good Javascripter, so I'm looking to improve that and I'm ultimately interested in just improving my general scripting ability, so I've got a book on Python to read on the train. With a degree in English Lit and drama, I'm not a natural computer person and I'm a bit slower than someone who's done a degree in computer science, but I'm interested in learning that kind of stuff yeah.

    Question So you're in a good position to answer this one...For someone who's starting out, what would you tell them to learn first?

    Well if they want to learn web stuff, to learn HTML5 and CSS and then to learn Javascript. But anyone who tells them to just learn Javascript because HTML and CSS are easy, not to listen to them because it's easy to be rubbish at them and it's hard to be good at them, to write good, structured code. The best way is view source. Find good websites that people recommend, and hit view source, then muck about with it.

    Question Who for you are the "great minds" in design and development at the moment?

    I like reading Alex Russell (he's a Google guy), even though I regularly disagree with him. But he's always got an interesting take on stuff. He always challenges me to think better about my own position. He's an interesting chap. Paul Irish is very good as well, he's a Google guy. I very much admire Jo Rabin, the guy he was talking about, because he has an amazing ability to herd cats. He can take a hugely disparate group of people and gently cajole them into going the same way, which is a great skill in a chairman of a group. Lea Verou. I like Lea very much and she's got lots of opinions and perspectives, again not all of which I agree with. I'm not so solipsistic as to assume that everybody has to agree with me. And there's a cast of thousands. Mike Taylor, Luz Caballero, colleagues of mine at Opera but that's not why I'm citing them. And Rachel Andrew, I very much like Rachel. She's always good for common sense.

  • Out of curiosity ...

    Out of curiosity ...

    Question What sites do you use every day?

    The Guardian and the BBC. I often check out Metafilter, which has been running for ages it's like a community blog. People post links on there and other people comment on them, about anything. That's about it, every day. There's always the W3C site and I'm always checking out specs and stuff, but I don't actually do a lot of leisure internet work anymore because I use the thing all the time. I'm much more likely to be reading a book or listening to music. Otherwise I'll inevitably end up thinking, I'll just check that e-mail. So I just turn off the computer. Because obviously the internet's worldwide, so when we're winding down for the night American colleagues are just waking up, and you go down the rabbit hole. So it's just best to leave the computer. And where I've got a Twitter client on my phone, I deliberately don't hook my phone up to my e-mail precisely so I can't check my e-mail in the middle of whatever I'm watching on TV.

    Question And if it's not too nosey, what Apps have you got on your phone?

    The Android Twitter client... the kids have infected it with Angry Birds and Temple Run. I've got loads of versions of Opera and Firefox and Chrome for Android. And that's it!

    Question Fantastic, thank you very much.

    No worries.