Friday, December 28, 2007

To PNG or Not To PNG

I've recently been either blessed or cursed to work on a number of websites that make use of the PNG file format. They're small, they look great, and they support full transparency with variable opacity. Problem is: Not all browsers support them.

For those not familiar with this type of image, The Portable Network Graphic (PNG) image format was developed in the 1990s by the World Wide Web Consortium in response to Unisys's plans to exercise its intellectual-property rights over the GIF format. The intent was to develop a "better GIF than GIF" that would use alpha channels to give designers and developers true transparency – drop shadows on any background, translucent images, and anti-aliased edges.

While Netscape and Mozilla browsers long displayed PNGs in their full glory, the format hasn't been a runaway success in large part because Internet Explorer doesn't always handle PNG graphics correctly. IE support for PNG transparency – perhaps its greatest advantage over GIF – has been very limited, typically rendering the transparent parts opaque. Javascript work-arounds have been available to let designers and developers "hack" IE, but until the 2006 release of IE 7, Microsoft browsers could not be relied upon to accurately display PNG graphics. At that time, nearly 66% of users browsed using IE 6 or IE 5, neither of which correctly displayed PNG images.

But it's now 2008 and IE 7, the last major browser to support PNG graphics, has been on the market for almost two years. Is it safe at last to use PNG images to cast shadows and smooth edges?

The answer is an enthusiastic, "Sorta."

From January 2006 through November 2007, use of IE6 and IE5 fell from 65.8% of the surfing public to 35.2% while PNG-friendly IE7 rose to a 21% saturation. So clearly IE7 has yet to supplant it antiquated predecessors. That would be the end of the story were it not for the parallel rise of Firefox over the same time period from a 25% share to a 36.3% share of the surfing public. Indeed, as of this writing, Firefox is the most popular single browser in use online, beating out IE6 by 2.7%. (source:

The result of all this jockeying of browsers is that, as of November of 2007, PNG-friendly browsers (Firefox, IE7, Mozilla, Safari, and Opera) have collectively supplanted unfriendly browsers (IE6 and IE5) by 57% to 35%.

So much like our previous findings about the trend away fro 800x600 as the default page dimension, we find that a conditional answer must suffice (if not satisfy). The answer depends on the intended audience and the designer's concern for the shrinking population of incompatable users.

For our part, we're embracing the PNG format for some projects and not others. For projects targeting tech-savvy customers – those most likely to either use a Mozilla-based browser or to have upgraded their own work machine to IE7 – we're diving in with PNG and never looking back. For more mass-market projects were either avoiding PNGs or hacking our way around them. Either way, widespread support for the PNG file format is here, it is growing, and it gives designers greater flexibility – all conditions that will no doubt encourage the format's utility online. FB

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Translation, the Google way (La traduction, la manière de Google)

(originally posted on Taking a break from all this baby talk to mention something else that really interests me...

There are a number of great translation websites that can help you speak exotic languages. Perhaps you've used online translators like Babelfish (a fantastic, and functional, homage to Douglas Adams' useful little ear swimmers) or Systranet. Maybe you've even plugged FoxLingo into your browser of choice.

The problem with all of these tools is, of course, that they require you to open up a web browser and, tediously, type in a URL or click on a bookmark. If only, the lazier among us ask, there was a way to translate my clever quips into foreign tongues without even leaving my IM client.


Google has integrated its Google Translate tool into its Google Talk and GChat interfaces through the use of chat bots. Now, if you have a Google Talk account, you can use your IM client (such as iChat, Adium, or Pidgin) as an interpreter in your group chat, or as a pocket translator in your Google Talk client for a BlackBerry.

For example, to have a line translated from English to French, invite into a chat session. Then simply chat the line you want to see translated and the correct translations will come back to you. Comme ça!

For other languages, just chat-up any of the 23 other translation bots. They're named using ISO two-letter language abbreviations. Indeed, one of the strongest points the Google Talk translations offers is its support for non-Latin alphabet languages, such as Arabic or Chinese. Just add as a friend in Google Talk and send it a message to translate from English to Chinese. The bots even translate from several languages into English. For example, to translate from Arabic to English, talk to You can even translate between foreign tongues, such as from French to German, by chatting with

Of course, these are computer translators – no excuse for real human linguists who understand pesky little details like jargon and context. In my experience, computer-aided translation works best if you write your English text in a format resembling the grammar of the target language – taking into account, for instance, Romance languages' reversal of the adjective-noun relationship or Arabic's unique treatment of the definite article and the "to be" verb. And a basic understanding of the foreign language – verb tense in particular – is necessary to troubleshoot the results and polish the foreign text to match your English meaning.

At first, I couldn't believe it worked. But now I'm loving the Google Talk translator. I now have two new "buddies" who speak strange and exotic tongues to me, who never send me an embarrassing chat while a client is standing at my desk, and who always help me sound smart. FB

Thursday, December 20, 2007


It's that time of year again. In addition to the usual litany of New Years retrospectives, Google has released its annual report (of sorts) on the way we search. The 2007 Zeitgeist – a German word they've borrowed to describe "the spirit of time", the general intellectual, moral, and cultural climate of an era. At least that corner of the era we find through Google.

Google measures our search trends on a much more regular basis than once a year. Monthly international Zeitgeists and Google's new Current query reporter seek to capture our collective interests in much more intricate detail. But the annual Zeitgeist does an excellent job of both packaging our searching trends into a easily discernible graphic medium and of reminding us what our fleeting interests were over the last twelve months.

Newsworthy events dominated the trends. The deaths of Anna Nicole Smith and Pavarotti, the Virginia Tech shooting, and the Don Imus affair peak alongside searches for High School Musical 2's Vanessa Hudgens and Radiohead's pay-what-you-want release, In Rainbows. The Zeitgeist also breaks down our search trends by theme, looking at our leading searches alongside newsmakers, showbiz, the "next big thing," and the heavier age-old questions.

As a historian, I am dumbstruck by the cultural historical utility this sort of report provides future researchers. As a professional creative, I am equally struck by the simplicity of the data display (even if I am disappointed by the vagueness of Google's quantifications – Y-coordinate values are absent from the whole Zeitgeist.) I am likewise glad to see the Zeitgeist's graphic and information design advance from its more primitive (but no less informative) beginnings.

According to Google, the annual Zeitgeist is not simply a list of the most frequently-searched terms for the period – terms that don't change much from year to year. Such a list would be dominated by generic searches, such as "ebay", "dictionary", "yellow pages," "games," "maps," and, of course, a number of X-rated keywords. Instead, the Zeitgeist describes searches that were very popular this year but not last year – the explosive queries and topics that everyone obsessed over. Thus, a year's most popular searches are ranked based on how much their popularity increased compared to the year before. Similarly, Google's "what is" and "who is" lists are not necessarily the absolute most frequent searches, but rather those that best represent the passing year.

The result is a fascinating glimpse at what fascinated us in 2007. The archive is worth pouring over as well, whether to view years or months past. Buried throughout are wonderful nuggets of cultural history, such as a Zeitgeist retrospective on September 11, 2001 search trends, and embarrassing realities, such as Britney Spears' and Paris Hilton's dominance of the celebrity search.

Enjoy the look back. FB