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Message to the messengers - props to the old school

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Author: John Allsopp

History: First published at John's blog, dog or higher, May 2004.

Homage is paid to the people who breathed life into the dream of CSS and nurtured its humble beginnings with their energy, their belief and their design genius.

Of late, with the latest version of Style Master released, bedded down, and well received, I've been a little nostalgic about the old days of CSS. So I thought I might try to ride that wave a little, cast my mind back over my experience of CSS, and talk a little about some people you really should be grateful to if you work with CSS and web standards. Particularly some you might not have heard of.

Sometimes, as I read blog entries, articles and such like on the web, about web design and CSS I am reminded of the wonderful track by Gil Scott Heron "Message To The Messengers", a rap from the old old school to the new school of hip hop, asking that we remember those who went before, and building a bridge from the old to the new.

In the world of CSS and web standards more generally, I remember the early days, and a whole heap of pioneers, many of whom are not the household names that Jeffrey Zeldman and Eric Meyer have become (no disrespect to those guys at all by the way, big up to you both). I can only admit to being something of a bit player compared with Sue Sims (now at Opera) and Jan Roland Eriksson who were the main force behind css.nu, the first (in my memory) really focussed CSS site.

These guys, along with a few others, were also real driving forces in the style sheets newsgroup in the late 90s, when belief in css was, in hindsight and to be honest, probably a little optimistic at best. They and people like Alan J. Flavell, Liam Quinn, Braden N. McDaniel, Todd Fahrner, Daniel Glazman, David Baron posted tirelessly on the newsgroup, started sites like the Web Design Group's CSS reference and css.nu, formed the CSS Samurai at the Web Standards Project and basically created a community that continues to this day.

Some of those names may be familiar, some more than others. Some won't be familiar at all. Some even have CSS techniques named in their honour (possibly a dubious honour I'd suggest, no disrespect to Todd at all.)

Look up some of their names at Google. Daniel Glazman is doing some very cool things with editors at Mozilla, from what I can tell. I feel I should, but I don't, know whether Alan is the Alan J. Flavell, professor of Astrophysics (something I wanted to do as a youngster 'til I realized I just wasn't smart enough). Liam Quinn was a founder of the WDG, and is disturbingly younger than I realized :-)

I don't know whether Todd needs any introduction. You've no doubt heard of the Fahrner Image Replacement technique (FIR), named I believe in his honor by Douglas Bowman, well known for StopDesign, and his Wired redesign a little while back. Not sure what Todd is up to now, but back in the day he was a professional designer at one of the big design firms, while many of us were hobbyists, students, interlopers and so on. I believe he may have worked with David Siegal, famous for foisting table based layouts on us with his "killer web sites" series. But the memory gets foggy after a while.

But the biggest respect has to go to Hakon Lie and Bert Bos, together the developers of CSS. Bert is at the W3C, still nurturing CSS, while Hakon is at Opera. And if you think they are just some bit player with a pretty cool browser, try loading your pages on a Sony/Erikssen mobile phone. It uses a version of Opera and it is a revelation. Do that and you'll understand, if you don't already, that the web is about a lot more than browsers on PCs.

Others came later, and did great, and really important things. A couple of people at Microsoft deserve much praise for going ahead and implementing CSS, Chris Wilson with IE3 for Windows, and Tantek Celik with IE 5 on the Mac, probably the first browser to show the real promise of CSS. Maybe he too should have got the box model wrong though :-)

And I'm sure I have missed many with this very potted and personal recollection.

But all you out there who read, write and care about CSS and web standards, stop for a moment and give some quiet thanks to these people, and all the many midwives who helped bring the possibility of web standards into the world. Sure that's gushing, but you know, CSS is something close to unique. It's a powerful, profoundly valuable addition to something wonderful, the world wide web, and its success, unlike say flash, and many other technologies is not due to a company promoting it, marketing it, making it happen. It's due to a community of like minded people. And these people I've mentioned were among the first.

So I thank you all. You have done something special.

Postscript: Jeffrey and Doug have since written to me pointing out that it was Jeffrey who named the FIR, not in his honour but because Todd actually invented it.

See John's blog, Dog or higher, for comments on this piece.

John Allsopp is a director at westciv and the lead developer of Style Master CSS editor. He writes widely on web standards and software development issues and maintains the blog dog or higher.

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