Juggling code – the coding zone and burnouts..

Software programming is a very mentally intensive activity. In any non-trivial software system the coder has to juggle a large number of mental models. Like a juggler, a coder,  has to mentally juggle not only the actual code that he/she is writing, but,  details of the code that it is related to, the details of the data being manipulated, the possible errors to be handled, the reliability and performance of the code, it’s security characteristics, the requirement that is being implemented and it’s design and usability, etc (depending on the code there may be more to think of or if you lucky, less :-)). Unlike a juggler who generally juggles things of similar size,  a coder mentally juggles problems whose complexity vary by several orders of magnitude (1 – 109).

Given all this, it takes time for coders to become truly productive when they sit down and start working on something.  Once you get into the what I call the – coding zone , you find the ideas flowing through you seamlessly – coders in the zone lose sense of time and place – the problems and solutions are clear and you find beautiful code coming from your keyboard. Coding when you are in the zone is an immensely satisfying task – it’s like the zone that sportspeople talk about – when they are breaking records, it seems like they are unstoppable and every movement is a beautiful ballet…

This is also why almost all good coders HATE BEING INTERRUPTED !! Whether it is a simple phone call or even a well meaning colleague coming over to tap you on your shoulder and ask a question – the effect is the same as though the coder was invited to a long meeting. It takes time and effort to get back to being productive  after the interruption.

There are several other things that contribute to this problem -

  1. “Open Office” plans where you are compelled to hear your neighbors  conversations.
  2. Having one phone for several people in your area so you cant disconnect it and have to attend it on the off chance it yours.
  3. Conversations over information that can be sent by email or IM or SMS or any of the multitude of asynchronous forms of communication available today.

I have seen several ways to combat this  -

  1. Some people wear head-phones to block the ambient noise and subtly indicate to people they are working on something and interruptions are not encouraged (YMMV – I have seen people ignore the subtle indication and come over anyway).
  2. Some people deal with all their email and IM at scheduled intervals – this way everyone gets their reply and people learn to come with the questions at those times.
  3. If you are lucky enough to have a cabin then disconnecting the phone and leaving a message on the door is often effective.
  4. Some companies even plan their meetings to happen only on certain days so everyday disruption is minimized.
  5. A common inclination is to work at times when no-one else is around to bother you. This is a reason why coders are night owls :-)

Another effect of software programming is burn-out… This is the opposite of being in the coding zone, but it seems to be consequence of being in one…  Like I mentioned in the beginning of this post – software programming is a very mentally intensive activity. Coders have frequently felt mentally burned-out after intensive coding sessions.  This happens more quickly on projects which you don’t find interesting or enjoyable. Sometimes you can continue only for a day, other times it’s a month but invariably – burn-out happens.The key is to recognize it for what it is and deal with it.

Indeed,  when I previously mentioned that coders lose all sense of time when in the zone, I did not mean that they should spend all their time coding.  I am not  applauding coders that brag about sitting for 36 hours at a computer churning out code. Those, that spend 16 hours a day at the terminal and spend their nights dreaming about code are, invariably, the ones whose work the rest of the team has to spend the rest of the month fixing. Like in all things,  there is a balance that needs to be maintained. Spending long amounts of time in intense concentration is tiring, and it is important to give things a rest. It is usually great to take some time off doing something else, like mountain biking, mixed martial arts, flying a plane or playing an instrument (these are pastimes of some of my friends :-)). Some people like physical activity others like mental activities like video games, or chess. The important thing is to have a balance. Sometimes, when you are grappling with a hard problem it is useful to stop thinking about it consciously and let your sub-conscious chew over it.

When you are no longer in the zone and are spinning your wheels, a break is the most productive thing you can do.

The Zen of Programming is being able to get into the zone and more importantly to recognize when you are no longer in it and take that break ! :-)

Update: I came across this article the other day that got me thinking about burn-out.  I mentioned before that burn-out happens more quickly when doing something you don’t find interesting or enjoyable – this advise goes in spades when you are doing something you feel is morally wrong or that goes against your conscience.  Guilt is a catalyst that will accelerate both the speed and the intensity of your burn-out.

IMHO if given a choice it is much more satisfying to do something you believe in at a lower salary than something you don’t at a higher one.

Learning Software Programming Takes Time

This comic created by the Abstruse Goose is one of my all time favorites.

It embodies my frustration at people who think that all  becoming a software programmer involves is learning a little computer syntax , reading a few books and typing out a lot of code.

The books that claim you can “Teach Yourself” X in Y “days/hours” etc are written by charlatans out to make a quick buck (I think sometimes it is the publishers that foist such titles on the authors in the hope to sell a few more copies). All they do is frustrate the people who are genuinely trying to learn software programming and provide PHB types with ammunition – after all if programming can be learned in X time then any schmuck who can read and knows a bit of typing should be able to become a programmer, at least by 2X the time.

Interestingly, no one writes a book on “Teaching Yourself” building a bridge or a skyscraper in X days – after all building construction is a popular metaphor in software engineering. The presence of these books are IMO a symptom of the ignorance that people have about what it takes to write solid software.

As this post points out – it can take up to ten years for an artist, researcher or a sportsman to be considered a master in his or her field. Software programming is no different.

Some great Internet reading

The other day a colleague of mine asked me about finding software books on the Internet – he was talking about some of the books I had listed in my previous post. Now, that post referred mainly to books that are published and distributed on paper as physical books (some of them are available for sale in other formats like PDF, Mobi and Kindle as well).

However, there are a lot of books on the Internet and even more lists of books.  I think we sometimes forget, that, besides being a directory of books, the Internet is itself a huge repository of amazing content. So caught up are we nowadays – in the real-time fire-hose of social networks and status updates – we have started overlooking some of the really good articles out there. So, in the interests of providing everyone (and myself) some links to leverage I thought I’d write a post about some of the great content available out there from the software programming perspective …

The best way to get a good list of books about software is to go where software geeks congregate and search. Almost invariably, someone would have asked or talked about the best software books and sparked off the list mania :-) Go to a few websites like this and look for the names that pop-up again and again. Stack Overflow is a great example of this – it is a forum for software related questions and though, of late, they have started discouraging open-ended and subjective questions, there are some really great list of books out here. A few of my favorite lists are -

Of course, like all on-line lists these are updated from time to time so you need to keep going back from time to time to get the latest lists.

The next place I go to are websites that are book repositories and directories. One of the biggest out there is the Wiki Books project – they have a great listing of open books and an entire section is devoted to Computing . There are other websites that specialize in technical books – a couple I go to are -

Another meta-list I go to is my own :-). I leverage on-line bookmarking (I use Delicious) extensively  – I tag my entries profusely and you can slice and dice my list across quite a few dimensions – feel free to do this and pick your favorite lists :-)

An example of an extremely influential article is, the Agile Manifesto, that provided so much momentum to the agile methodologies and the establishment of agile as an alternate development methodology in use today. One person whose articles have influenced a whole generation is Richard Stallman – his articles are available here. I am also a fan of Eric S Raymond’s writing – keeper of the Jargon file – most of his articles have turned to books -

Along the same lines of ground breaking articles is the 1972 Turing Award Lecture by E. W. Dijkstra one of the true giants in the field of programming. There is a PDF version here.

There are some great on-line tutorials on various topics -

There are a lot more – I haven’t listed then explicitly here so feel free to post comments on what you think I should have added.

Some other influential blogs and articles include -

A couple of the links in the list above are to blogs rather than individual articles – this is because I believe those blogs to have a lot of influential articles :-)

Obviously this is an incomplete list – I have written only of the content that I know of today. I hope to be able to add to it and update it with your help :-)  Please post your suggestions and links to improve it :-)

Update : Via Renju – CLR via C# and Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture

Here is a list by Martin Fowler of books he participated in creating.

I would also like to add my friend Praseed’s posts –  if you are starting out on C/C++ in GNU-Linux these can give you good boost in the right direction :-)

How to write beautiful code

Beautiful code is elegant and simple – it is concise but clear. There is a balance in the code – a rhythm in the definition and structure of conditionals and the loops. The intent of the each function shines through the code – a pattern in the creation and interaction of the classes and methods in classes that combines the code into a coherent and beautiful unit. Beautiful code is concise, there are no wasted variables or endless conditionals – it is a pleasure to read not just because of the ease of reading but from the way in which it communicates the ideas and intent of the
programmer.

Well, now that I have waxed lyrical about what is good code, the next logical step would be to figure out how to write such code. Beautiful code starts with good understanding – in order to write beautiful code the first step is to understand the problem you are trying to solve. The next step is to have a clear idea of the solution and the approach you are going to take. These two things itself are entire subjects in software development – so I shall for the purposes of this post, assume that you have a clear idea of the problem you are solving and the approach you are going to take to solve the problem :-)

Even with these conditions met (understanding the problem and identifying the solution), sitting down in front of a blank page and writing out the excellent bug free code is almost impossible IMHO. The best programs that are out there are the result of an iterative process of coding and re-coding repeatedly – almost obsessively. Writing a program is like building a clay sculpture – you start of with a lump of clay, then you broadly shape it and  then keep removing and adding bits and pieces till you get your sculpture – sometimes you have to remove a big piece and add another instead and sometimes you simply throw everything  away and start over.

Writing beautiful code is hard – a seemingly simple algorithm like the Quick sort is the result of years of effort to come up with a concise and elegant implementation (in fact Quick sort has several implementations).  Even a simple piece of code like the quintessential “Hello World” program can be written in so many ways(in fact it is maintained as a separate GNU project).

So when do you stop iterating ?  There are some factors to consider in making this decision – usually if you are working on commercial software
this decision is not in the developers hands. The almighty deadline determines the ‘done-ness’ of your code – indeed, this seems to be
psychological impetus for a lot us. I have seen a lot of places and projects where people find it hard to work without a deadline looming,
like a Damocles sword, above their heads. Indeed I suspect there is something psychologically appealing to having this decision taken out of
our hands.

Again, for the purposes of this blog post, let us assume you have control over when you decide your code is done and you decide to release it only after you feel it is good enough. The question then becomes how do you know that what you have is beautiful code?

The first requirement of good code is, that it should work. If your code does not solve the problem it was intended to solve – you need to go back to the drawing board my friend – this is a necessary pre-requisite but it is not a sufficient condition for beautiful code.

One way to identify beautiful code is to read about programming – programming  methods, philosophies, etc.  I have book list of good software books to read you can start with (you can look at my post on internet reading for more book lists and articles).   In order to be a good sculptor, you need to know what beautiful sculpture look like – so you look at pictures of great sculptures – in fact this is usually a part of the curriculum for art programs. Similarly, sculptors look at examples of bad sculpture in an effort to recognize what to avoid.  So, in order to identify beautiful code look at examples of beautiful code – code written by great programmers and code written for great projects as well as bad code, ugly code.

Unlike sculpture – where you would have to travel to Italy to get a look at David or The Pieta – you have a lot of good code to read available at your fingertips – just open up the internet and look around :-) There are plenty of open source projects that share their code-base  – start with GNU, Sourceforge, and Google code (check out this post on the worlds oldest software repositories). If that’s not enough take a look at the examples in the ‘Code Complete‘ book (Other books you can look at ‘Beautiful Code‘, ‘Beautiful Data‘, ‘Clean Code‘ and ‘Coders at Work‘). Identify the patterns followed in beautiful code and the patterns you see in ugly code.

Another very important thing to recognize  is when you have stopped coding to a requirement. Good code is spare -it provides a solution to the problem at hand – no more – no less. A sign of good code is when you go through it and feel there is nothing you can remove from it – to paraphrase one of my favorite quotes by  Antoine St Exupery)  – “A programmer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

And finally, the only way to make beautiful code is to write lots of code and publish it. All programs have constraints – some are technical and others logistical and yet others philosophical – good code is a elegant balance between these constraints.

So budding programmer –  Good Luck and Happy Coding !! I leave you with the following philosophy from the Python programing community -

The Zen of Python, by Tim Peters

Beautiful is better than ugly.
Explicit is better than implicit.
Simple is better than complex.
Complex is better than complicated.
Flat is better than nested.
Sparse is better than dense.
Readability counts.
Special cases aren't special enough to break the rules.
Although practicality beats purity.
Errors should never pass silently.
Unless explicitly silenced.
In the face of ambiguity, refuse the temptation to guess.
There should be one-- and preferably only one --obvious way to do it.
Although that way may not be obvious at first unless you're Dutch.
Now is better than never.
Although never is often better than *right* now.
If the implementation is hard to explain, it's a bad idea.
If the implementation is easy to explain, it may be a good idea.
Namespaces are one honking great idea -- let's do more of those!

PS: I refer to coding and programing interchangeably in this post. What I mean by these terms is the act of writing a software program.

PPS: You can get the “Zen of Python” poem by typing “import this” at the interactive python console.

Update 1 : I found this link to a Ruby conference keynote where the speaker talks about beautiful code – Ruby is another language that has writing elegant code as one of it’s goals.

Update 2: Here is a great post on why you should spend the time and effort to write beautiful code :-)

Update 3: Here is a website from John Graham-Cumming where one can submit and read beautiful code.

Update 4: A great article on beautiful code by Brian Kernigham

Commented code is a bad code smell

This is a rant about commented code.

Have you ever seen projects with many thousands of line of code that have a significant portion of the code commented out ? I am not talking about descriptive or explanatory comments about what the code does – I mean where the code block itself is commented …

Leaving the commented code in an application lowers the readability of code in the application. Today, source control systems are ubiquitous in software projects – so why do people still comment code and leave it rather than deleting it completely? It simply serves no purpose other than increasing code bloat.

We all do it of course – usually while debugging or understanding code. To discover if a piece of code is used in the application – it is sometimes easy to simply comment the code and let the compiler tell you where it is called from.

But, once we finish we should ether delete the commented code or un-comment it. Commenting code is, at best, a stop gap measure and IMHO a rank code smell indicating that you should probably create a code branch for your code for your experimentation.

It is quite tedious and frustrating to have to pick out the blocks of actual code from between the often, vast stretches, of commented code. Let us, as professional developers, develop the habit of never leaving any such code cruft in anything that we check in to a project !

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What is TED ?

TED is simply a gathering of the remarkable minds to talk about and listen to ideas that they think are worth spreading.  At a glance these are the facts about this organization -

  1. TED started out in 1984 as conference bringing together people from three worlds : Technology, Entertainment, Design.
  2. It was acquired (in 2001) by a Non Profit – The Sapling Foundation. Under the foundation TED has evolved beyond a conference in Long Beach to a have global presence with conferences in US (TEDConference), Europe (TEDGlobal) and India (TEDIndia). The curator of the foundation (and the conference) is Chris Anderson.
  3. The scope of the conference has also become broader to include subject matter, to cover almost all aspects of science and culture.
  4. The conference is very difficult to attend and is by invitation only – in fact there have been claims that it is elitist and the folks at TED have responded to this claim.

All this is public record – but, IMHO what makes TED different is – the quality of the speeches and that they are publicly available on the internet.

The speakers at TED range from business tycoons like Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Richard Branson to political figures like Bill Clinton, Al Gore and Gordon Brown to artists like Bono , Ze Frank and Frank Gehry (there are a lot more including Stephen Hawking, Jane Goodall, Nandan Nilekani, ….- you get the idea).  What moves them ? What excites them ? What do they feel is going to change the world ? These are the topics that they are invited to speak on for 18 minutes. There is a TED Prize – 3 winners are chosen every year from the conference and they get support from the TED organization for “One wish to change the world”. I guess there is something about the experience that seems to bring out the best from the audience, and the speakers, because the presentations made here are simply awesome !

The other aspect of TED and indeed the one that made me aware of them their potential is their endeavor to record and publish all the speeches on their website. The website was started in 2006 is constantly evolving with the latest social networking (Chris Anderson is on twitter) and awesome high quality video. This was what really made me go – whoa… and grasp the power of the conference. I suspect this is also what brought TED to the mainstream and captured the imagination of people like me, who would never have even heard of such a conference otherwise.

Some videos worth watching are -

  1. Hans Rosling – Best stats you have ever seen
  2. Pranav Mistry – Sixth Sense Technology
  3. Karen Armstrong – Charter for compassion
  4. George Whiteside – Postage Stamp Lab

There is some really inspiring stuff  here – I sincerely recommend that you bookmark this website and add it to your reminder list to visit on a regular basis – get motivated and inspired !!

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Quietube – Readability for videos

I was thinking a few weeks back, while wading though yet another banner ad heavy website to get to a video, about asking the folks behind Readability for something similar for videos. I filed away the thought for later and soon forgot about it (I think this is why I am not a millionaire ;-)).  Anyway, while going through other blog posts on Readability the other day I came across this one from a fellow Readability enthusiast from Brazil – right at the bottom was the link to this gem.  Et´ Voila ! Solution found – this is why I love the internet :-)

Quietube is exactly what I was thinking about – its Readability for internet videos !
Even the installation is similar -

  1. Go to the Quietube installation page.
  2. Drag the bookmarklet on to your bookmarks toolbar or add it to your bookmarks.
  3. When you are in a one of the big internet video websites (YouTube, BBC iPlayer, Viddler, and Vimeo are supported) – click on the bookmarklet and you can see the video without any of the comments and distracting fluff.
  4. A link is also available at the bottom of the page enabling you to send this view of the video to a friend or save it for further viewing.

The tool is built by BookTwo and from the blog post it seems its a side project inspired by Readability. The tool is currently limited, in that it does not detect embedded videos in other websites (and the error message seems a bit cheeky ;-)) but they are working on improving this. Another problem is that there seems to be no mechanism to report issues to the group like Readability. On the whole this seem to be a useful tool for those who want to quietly watch a video without all the bells and whistles :-)

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Readability – Transform the way you read on the web !

I love reading – I read books, articles, magazines, circulars, just about anything I can lay my eyes on… Naturally, I am a voracious reader in the Internet as well – I have subscribed to a huge number of RSS feeds, and  have a constant stream of Twitter tweets on articles to read.

The problem, I face when reading on the internet is, eye fatigue – I have astigmatism and the varying fonts faces, sizes and colors is a strain – even to normal people with perfect sight ! Couple this with the increasing number of advertising on the top and on the side of articles and you have a situation where the actual content is increasingly obscured. Font sizes are getting smaller and smaller and content is getting squeezed more and more by advertising and marketing clutter.

Of late, I have been using a tool that I found on the web (I saw it on Twitter but I have unfortunately been unable to track who sent it to me :-( ) that has literally transformed my reading experience. It was created by a company called Arc90 and is a Bookmarklet which can dragged onto your browser bookmarks. When you click on it – it  reloads the current page loaded in your browser stripped all extraneous fluff.  Simply the content of the page is shown.

As a web-developer and general internet addict ;-), I have seen a lot of tools and gadgets and I like to think I have a good idea of what works – as soon as I saw this tool I knew this would be awesome. The concept is simple, powerful – elegant.  It is one of those things
that seem so obvious  – when you feel that way – you know you are seeing a work of genius.

What you need to do to get this gadget is  -

  1. Go to the Readability installation page
  2. Choose from the simple options given there how you want your content to be displayed – the options are simple and straightforward giving you a choice of reading style, font size and margin width (I chose eBook style, large size and narrow margin). A sample text is shown with the formatting you choose so you can play with the options.
  3. Once you are satisfied, simply drag the big button marked “Readability” onto your bookmark toolbar (or you can right click the link and choose the bookmark option) and your done !
  4. Next time you are on a web-page with a compelling article being obscured by garish ads and decorations, simply click on the Bookmarklet and the page reloads with the content formatted exactly as you want it.

When I first installed it they had fewer options and every once in awhile it would not work – but they have been going from strength to strength with new options and it’s rare to see it not work.

This tool has certainly transformed how I read on the web – I can’t recommend this tool enough!!  So what are you waiting for – go get it !! :-)

PS: It won the NY Times Pogy award for best idea of 2009

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A podcast review – Software Engineering Radio

I am a fan of podcasting.. video blogging and screen casts are fine, but in terms of convenience and bang for the megabyte – nothing beats a podcast :-). I have been listening to podcasts for a few years now. I am usually listening when walking home from work or doing some chores. In fact I wrote an earlier postabout them along with some of my favorites (at the time).Of late I have listened a lot to a podcast called Software Engineering Radio. Actually, I have been listening to this one for a long time now and it has grown from strength to strength. It was started by a German software consultant – Markus Voelter and is based in Europe (the details are here). There is now a team of people both creating episodes as well as supporting the website. A new episode is published every 10 days and the feed for it is available at the website.

The podcast is about the software engineering and is for professional developers (it says so in the title :-)).  IMHO it is the best podcast for professional developers I have come across.  Markus and his team of volunteers do a great job – the interviews are professionally done and the audio quality is great. The post production is also very well done – in fact they have put up videos about their recording and post-production process. All the recording are released as part of Creative Commons 2.5 license and I think the majority of the episodes are gems worth downloading and keeping.

The coolest thing about Software Engineering Radio and what ultimately makes it such a great resource are the subjects and the people they interview.

The subjects are for the most part about software engineering practice – but they are things that are really useful to ones growth as a software professional. Episodes range from discussions about software development methodology to software languages and tools to computer science research.  In fact there was recently a very interesting episode on the – Difference between Software Engineering and Computer Science.

The people interviewed range from professional software developers and consultants to researchers and academics. Some are giants in their field and others I haven’t heard of (admittedly thats a large percentage of them – maybe because I hadn’t heard of their field in the first place ;-)).

Another thing I would like to mention is the format of the episodes. They are interviews and the team at SE Radio
go to great lengths to prepare and ask just the right questions to
illuminate the topic at completely and extract pearls of wisdom from
the people they interview. I think this format is better than a speech or a presentation because of the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewed.

There is sometimes a problem with the English accent – most of the team are from mainland Europe and have European accents, but it is never so bad that one cannot understand what is being said. In fact one of the things I like about the show are the various accents of people from different parts of Europe, UK and America. It makes the show more interesting to me as I try to guess at the nationalities of the interviewer and interviewed from their accents ;-)

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What is Adobe Flash,Flex and AIR?

Ever since the Internet started becoming a platform for business, people have been working on ways to enhance the limitations of HTML.  One way to do this was to get the user to download and install extensions to the basic browser platform that had the capabilities to run the code used to create regular user interfaces. Several companies introduced various different types of extension – some of the notable efforts in this space are Microsoft with ActiveX controls, Sun with Java Applets and Adobe with Flash. In this post I am going to talk a bit about Adobe’s products in this space.

Over the past couple of years Adobe has been on a platform expansion binge and have significantly added to their capabilities as a web development platform alternative to Microsoft’s .NET and Sun’s Java. So lets start at the beginning – first Adobe introduced the Flash player which was essentially an animation and video platform with some development features (Adobe Flash uses a language called Actionscript) .

As the concept of Rich Internet Applications (as these extensions came to be called) started getting more traction and mind share with the advent of AJAX based technologies – Adobe introduced the AIR platform and the Adobe Flex framework.

The AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime) platform is a cross platform runtime on which one can deploy applications built using Adobe Flash, HML, AJAX or Adobe Flex on the desktop. Thus AIR is a means by which the developer of an RIA application can extend their presence on to the computers desktop and become independent of the browser.

The Adobe Flex Framework is a bit like Microsoft XAML or Mozilla XUL in that it is uses an XML based language (called MXML) that you use to describe your user interface. You can use in conjunction Actionscript to create applications Flex is an Adobe framework that leverages the Adobe AIR and Adobe Flash run-times. While the framework itself is open source (it’s not free though), the underlying run-times that it targets are proprietary (though I believe they now support the WebKit HTML engine as well which is an open source run-time). Both AIR and the Flex Framework are freely available, Adobe sells an eclipse based tool called Flex Builder that lets easily build powerful applications using the Flex Framework.

A predecessor to all these frameworks you might want to consider is OpenLaszlo.
It is open source framework I came across a couple of years back that
was already supporting flash and I believe now they support a wide
variety of platforms.

Another interesting open source project in this space is Curl which is an MIT project

The competition have not been standing still, however. Microsoft has unveiled Microsoft Silverlight and it’s open source (Mono) counterpart Moonlight, Mozilla has the Prism project and Sun has JavaFX. I don’t know much about Prism or JavaFX but I haven’ seen much traction around either of them.

Finally the HTML 5 specification got off the ground. It has started addressing some of the fundamental issues with the HTML specification and introduced elements for richer media than text like audio and video (along the same lines as image). The web-browser space has also started embracing the specification working to include support for these elements – AFAIK – Opera, Firefox’s Gecko engine and Google Chrome’s Webkit engine are neck and neck in their effort  to support HTML 5 specification with IE 8 following them.

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