Universitat Oberta de Catalunya

Chris Mills (english version)

I will always promote open standards over closed, proprietary equivalents.

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Who is Chris Mills? And what is Opera Software?

I am an open standards advocate and editor/writer; I’ve worked for Opera for just under three years at the time of this interview. I spend a lot of my time evangelizing Opera technologies and open standards, online and through talks at conferences and universities. The rest of my time is then spent editing and writing tutorial articles and other copy to promote Opera, and teach designers and developers how to use new Opera/web technologies.

I am also known as Opera’s education guy! I spend a lot of my time talking to universities, trying to convince them to teach best practices in their web-related courses. I also published this “little” thing called the Opera web standards curriculum – www.opera.com/wsc – to provide teachers with everything they could need to teach a course about front-end web. You folks very kindly translated it to Spanish and Catalan, which I am very excited about!

As for Opera, Opera has been creating web browsers since 1994. We are passionately committed to keeping the web open and accessible to all, regardless of their browsing device or personal circumstances. We have a world class desktop browser available for Windows/Mac/Linux (www.opera.com/browser), and are leaders in the mobile space with our Opera Mobile and Mini browsers (http://www.opera.com/mobile/). On top of that we have created browsers for a wide variety of devices, from tablets and TVs to photo frames and even cars!

We are also very committed to innovation, with over 30 full time staff dedicated to working on official standards from bodies such as the W3C, for example HTML5 and CSS3 (we proposed HTML5 <video>). We also invented many of the features that come as standard in browsers these days such as Mouse Gestures and Speed Dial.

Even though Opera has been there since the beginning and your desktop browser is widely considered as a brilliant piece of software, its adoption is still limited and Opera is quite often a second thought for designers and developers. I guess that must be very frustrating…

In some markets this is certainly true, mainly because it often shows usage of outdated practices such as browser sniffing and browser-specific technologies. Opera is very committed to following the W3C standards, so if you make sure to code for web standards and produce valid code, your site should work across our browsers (and other standards-compliant browsers) without problems.

You must also consider that we have a very large market share in some parts of the world, for example Russia, Belarus and Ukraine (over 30%).

I am confident for the future – at many trade shows recently in the UK and US, I have talked to people who are trying Opera because of its speed, stability, availability of developer tools, and cutting-edge standards support. I think it is fair to say that we are getting the word out slowly but surely!

Opera 10.5, by the way, is *very* good. What I find especially amazing is how you have gone from a slow JavaScript engine to one of the fastest (probably *the* fastest) in one very quick iteration. Something that Microsoft hasn’t been able to do with the ‘preview’ for Internet Explorer 9, even if it has so much more ‘muscle’. How did you manage?

What can I say? 😉

We have some incredibly talented developers inside our core rendering engine team – some of the feats they pull off are quite astounding. You can read the story of how Carakan was created and get more details over at our Core Blog (http://my.opera.com/core/blog/2009/02/04/carakan). Historically, speed has always been one of our major concerns – we used to have the fastest JavaScript engine a few years ago, before Apple began the speed race and kickstarted all browsers to speed up a great deal. Portability across different devices was also a great concern of ours — making sure our engine can easily run across different devices. We have done many updates to ensure that this can be maintained alongside the speed increase.

While your desktop software could use more public attention, your mobile offerings are very successful. How do you see the evolution of the mobile internet and, especially, Opera’s place in that evolution?

We play a very important part in this evolution, being the first company to really provide a “real” Internet experience on mobile devices (Opera Mobile came out in about 1998, many years before the iPhone), and a low-footprint browser that will work on low end phones (Opera Mini first came out in 2005). This is very important for developing countries, where iPhones are not commonly affordable, and fully-native browsers won’t work on most of the commonly-used phones, although obviously they are not just for developing countries – I think anyone can reap the benefits, wherever they are.

Opera Mini also compresses downloaded data by up to 90%, saving users a lot of time (and money if they are paying by the kb), and helping operators where their infrastructure falls down (Mini’s compression so great that it is akin to replacing physical phone infrastructure for free).

More competition has come along recently, but we have not been standing still, and our recent mobile offerings stand proud amongst the best.

Opera Mini was also approved for the iPhone app store a number of weeks ago, which is a big deal – it shows that Apple is prepared to have a browser choice on the iPhone platform (the other browsers available for download are really just WebKit skins), perhaps opening up their walled garden just a little bit.

One more on the evolution of the web. It’s almost mandatory that we ask you about the whole Apple vs Adobe debate. Personally, I believe HTML5, Canvas and JavaScript are the way to go, but jumping ship on Flash seems slightly premature to me. What’s your take?

I will always promote open standards over closed, proprietary equivalents, and I am very excited about HTML5 being able to do so many things that were once the domain of Flash. However, I am also a pragmatist – Flash is an often-used technology that does have its strengths. It also has a community of around a million developers and designers, who aren’t just going to go away overnight. Plus until everyone gets around to accepting and adopting the open standards way of doing things, and certain advancements are made (for example an agreement on video codecs, and the availability of a decent toolset), Flash will remain as the common way to do certain things.

Anyway, let’s talk about web standards. Opera has shown a lot of care about them. First of all, what is your motivation?

Having a lot to do with web standards means that we can ensure that developers can easily move apps from platform to platform (which makes the Web itself a more interesting platform), plus it helps make the technology as good as it can get in the long run. We are also motivated by improving the security of the technologies – since they are not controlled by one vendor, and free to use, you don’t have to worry about a single software company going out of business, the software prices increasing greatly. Web standards are also considered very important by our large customers, who care about long-term viability of our products.

Besides the Web Standards Curriculum, what other things are you doing for web standards? And what are your favorite initiatives “around the web”?

I also contributed to WaSP InterACT – interact.webstandards.org – a series of course structures, sample assignments and exam questions, reading lists, assessment criteria/rubrics, and more. This provides a perfect complement to the Opera web standards curriculum.

Then I have also been involved in setting up the W3C open web education alliance – an incubator group tasked with creating a plan for implementing a standard for web standards education that we can then hopefully roll out to educators worldwide. This acts as an umbrella for all the other stuff out there, and it is nice to have the W3C’s official stamp and support for our mission.

I also co-wrote a book called “InterACT with web standards” – interactwithwebstandards.com – along with some of the other WaSP Education task force people – this is designed to be a core text book for beginner’s web design courses, and includes sample exam questions and lots of resources, plus references to the main InterACT site.

Aside from these, there are a lot of other projects going on. I have been particularly impressed with Google’s Code University (http://code.google.com/edu/), which has some fine developer/programmer-oriented material, and Apple’s iTunes U – http://www.apple.com/education/itunes-u/ – for distributing lectures and suchlike. I am also really impressed with John Foliot of Stanford University in the US, who has created tools and educational resources for captioning video — see captioning.stanford.edu.

What has been the welcome to the Curriculum?

Very well – when I first released it, a lot of people in the web community said some very nice things about it (for example Veerle Pieters said it was the one and only place to send clients and other community members whenever they asked her a question!), but it was largely unnoticed by educators, which is fair enough, as largely educators don’t read the same blogs, etc. as web developers.

It took a couple of years to track down a lot of educational contacts, through people in the community, and through approaching universities and schools, but eventually I managed to make some progress, and it started to go around by word of mouth. These days, I am really pleased with its uptake – I very rarely meet an web-related educator who hasn’t heard of it.

And… where do we go from here? Support for web standards is still not as widespread as we would desire. Besides educating designers and developers, how do we go about that?

I am going to continue hitting the problem at the very root, by trying to get young people just starting on the road to learning web development follow best practices and use open standards. As well as universities, I am looking to target schools and colleges, and I have an idea that might help with that. I am going to implement a training pack I am currently calling “one designer, one school”, which will contain the material needed to run 2-4 hours of lectures that will explain the high-level concepts teachers should be teaching. If I could get every designer and developer I know to go and deliver this lecture series to their local school or college, it could potentially be a huge impact.

I have also started going around forging links with companies, be they agencies, design shops or large companies that have their own web department. The aim is to help them with some of their work, teach them about Opera and open standards, and leave a lasting impression that will improve things in the future, both for us and the Web.

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