Why Hiptops are Harmful to Web Standards

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Posted on: 03 March 2003

"Your site bites!"

Thankfully, this is not something I'm used to hearing; it's usually the opposite, I'm pleased to say. But I can see it coming and all thanks to Hiptops.

Hiptop SidekickIf you are wondering what the heck Hiptops are, you are probably not from the States. Until 1 week ago, I also had not heard of the Hiptop. I found out while dining in Austin, Texas where I was attending South by Southwest Interactive. On the table next to mine another attendee was typing with both thumbs on a handheld device. It looked pretty cool (Having seen one himself for the first time, Cory Doctorow put it like this: "I have a technology boner that could cut glass."). I asked if I could try the device out, find out what this Hiptop thing could do.

Here's what you need to know about this device:

  • It's a joint venture between T-Mobile and Danger Inc
  • Offers always-on connection
  • Can be used for
    • browsing the web
    • sending/receiving e-mail
    • instant messaging
  • Is a Personal Information Manager (PIM)

Here's what I found out at that Austin diner:

  • My standards-compliant site was unreadable

All those good things that the Hiptop offered were dashed in an instant. I had expected some quirks, but overall I was expecting it to be usable, readable and accessible - after all, my site works on Pocket PC and Palm, is XHTML 1.0 compliant and so on.

Hiptop sidekickWhy was this site so poorly rendered on the Hiptop display? From my initial investigations it appears that unlike other handhelds which do not support CSS, this one does - but effectively it ends up trying to render styles you intended for display on PC/Mac/Linux. A recipe for disaster if you use positioning.

Having realised there was a problem, I tried to find an emulator for this device so I could work out how to fix it. No such emulator exists though.

Perhaps there is a way to hide CSS from a Hiptop, I later reasoned? This would be a start. However, I could not find any documentation about how this device works which might have helped me here. It must exist though .. somewhere. I mean, developers build to a specification - release it already, don't keep it as some hidden mystery.

In case you are wondering "What has this got to do with accessibility?". Well, quite a lot. One of the many guidelines for coding a site for maximum is to make your pages device-independent. By coding to agreed standards such as XHTML 1.0 and using style sheets to control the appearance, you should be able to make your web pages device-independent. To explain further, when you link to a style sheet you can specify the media - e.g. Screen (which you would use for normal PC/Macintosh interpretations) or Handheld. Now, the latter looks like the one for this device. However, the Hiptop blunders along into the screen style sheet regardless and tries its best anyway.

So, despite how cool it looks, no matter that it has always-on connectivity, when (and if) these devices come out in the UK, I won't be buying one. Not unless something changes and the device gets a software update that lets it render standards-compliant pages correctly. I am told that Danger are very keen to stamp out any problems and are receptive to feedback - I hope this is true, because right now all I'm thinking is "Nice idea ... but your rendering bites!"

This article was written by Ian Lloyd. Ian works as a senior web designer at Nationwide Building Society where they take the matter of accessibility very seriously. Outside of work, he enjoys a spot of scuba diving and travelling.