SXSWi Panel: Drawing Back the Curtains on CSS Implementation

It’s been more than a week since South By Southwest Interactive ended, and now that I’m finally back into a routine, I wanted to share some of the amazing stuff I learned through the conference.  I’ve been posting a new one each day.


Today’s topic: Drawing back the Curtains on CSS Implementation, presented by Molly Holzschlag, from Opera, Elika Etemad (Fantasai) from the W3C working group, Sylvain Galineau, from Microsoft, Tab Atkins, from Google Chrome and David Baron, from Mozilla.

Some of the audio can be heard at the link above.

I’ve been working with CSS for the past 3 years, and I’m kind of a CSS junkie.  I have to admit, I’m slow to learning CSS3, but I have a new book and direction (more on that below).

I’m going to share some of my notes from the talk, and then tell you about the CSS Meetup I went to where I actually had a chance to talk to David Baron, Elika Etemad (Fantasai), and others about CSS.

Question to the Panel:
WC3 — How do you  prioritize?

Right now, they are looking at what the browsers are doing and taking off with that.  But there are challenges for implementation.

  • Tab — First, what would be most interesting and fun.  Also, anything that makes it easier to do layout and design
  • Sylvain — Anything that’s really stable tends to have priority.  Microsoft doesn’t like to prototype in the browser.  But nothing can replace what designers are asking for as a feature.

How does it compare to working group priorities?

  • Fantasai — Is there an editor actively working on the spec?  And is there active feedback?  You need both.  Some specs are moving faster because there’s more interest and feedback.

Do you have feedback?  Make sure the working group knows.  Don’t just write it in your blog and assume the working group will see it.

What are the most damaging mistakes in working group and development of CSS?  Where did we screw up?

  • Fantasai — Current box model
  • Tab — It’s more short-sightedness than a screw up, but floats (a text-feature) because there was nothing there for web developers to work with.  CSS started when web was just beginning, and it wasn’t set up to do that stuff (even before table-based layouts)
  • David Baron — The most damaging mistakes were where the group made things more complicated than they needed to be.  In some cases by hiding something complex — like margin collapsing.  By not defining things precisely, it leads to the spec being misinterpreted.
  • Fantasai — specs are more precise now than in the 90s — and not by example.
  • Tab — It will become less and less of a problem as they go

The specs can lead to problems for ordinary web designers because they ARE so precise.

  • Sylvain — Floats.  Why not position it like anything else?  Seems imbalanced.  Z-index is also weird and complex.  (Sylvain) thinks it’s odd for not having a substitution values.  Reusing elements would be more useful.  More process information.
  • Molly — We think of CSS as the design — presentation.  But set up properly it becomes efficient for processing information.  Part of our challenge is to figure out where it’s going to take us.

How come in 20 years there is not a reasonable way to do layout?

  • Tab — Layout languages really suck.  It’s hard to do it in a way that simple and intuitive.
  • Fantasai — It’s also really hard to implement layout.  It’s also harder to add to incrementally.  Print is using fixed everything — but on the web everything is fluid.  The CSS working group is trying to solve the problem of fluid design layouts so they are fundamentally flexible.

Let’s design a system where it’s less likely to break on another system.

In next few years — all sorts of tools available for print design layout will soon be available for the web.


The next day I went to the CSS Meetup, and David Baron and Elika were there.  There was a big group around them, but after a while I walked up and introduced myself.At my mention of my need to really delve into CSS3 and learn what the browsers have already implemented.

Elika acknowledged that CSS3 is a challenge when the specs haven’t been completed, but she suggested looking through the working group’s snapshots, which have a breakdown of what is already stable, that way I won’t be left behind, but I also won’t be spending a lot of time on stuff that could change in the future.

A quick search of the W3C site found Snapshot 2007 (revised in July 2010) and Snapshot 2010 (revised in December 2010).

I also won a book at the meetup — “CSS3: Visual QuickStart Guide” and the author, Jason Cranford Teague, actually wanted to sign my book (he was there).  So now I’m REALLY ready to delve into CSS3.

Are you?  Have you been using CSS3?  What really excites you about it?

Leave a Reply