Vector graphics, Retina, and You

It’s Friday 13th. It’s been a long and productive week, I’ll try to keep this light-hearted :)

I’m going to use this post to combine two rants. One on the use of the word “Retina”, another on live conference tweeting. I saw this retweeted the other day:

“I think CSS is our best vector-based drawing tool in the browser today.” @lukew #AEA— Thomas Q. Brady (@thomasqbrady) July 11, 2012

A classic conference soundbite with zero context. On face value it’s ridiculous:

  1. CSS is not a “vector-based drawing tool”.
  2. Making vector illustrations with “pure CSS” is madness for the very reason that;
  3. SVG is the standard for vector-based drawing in the browser today.

But thinking about the quote further, this literal translation (of possibly poor paraphrasing) is not what Luke Wroblewski actually meant. At least I hope not, I wasn’t at the conference. How live tweeters expect anyone to understand a 140 character snippet of a 20–60 minute talk I’ll never know. What I hope Luke was referring to was that the advances in CSS allow us to replicate complex UI designs and other visual elements with CSS alone, where 9-slicing bitmap graphics was once a norm. This is excellent for making resolution independent websites, and it leads me nicely onto my second rant:

Are You Retina-ready?

Am I the only person who takes issue with a brand/trademark being used to describe a generic technical concern? I’m starting to find it nauseating to see “Retina” when the author really means “high pixel density”. Resolution Independence is our goal. “Retina” panders to expensive pop-culture gadgets and loses all context of the rich history software developers have had tackling the subject. While I’ll accept that genericised trademarks inevitably evolve — think Photoshop, Google, Xerox, Hoover, Aspirin — the Retina epidemic is leading to a lack of understanding; a care towards the bigger picture. It breeds an attitude of glorifying Apple and vilifying competitors. It evokes genuine suggestions that we should all buy £2000 laptops — when was the last time you tested an ‘out of date’ CRT monitor? It turns you into a slave of 20th century commercialism and reinforces not only a mono-culture, but the idea — “why can’t we all just play nice and use Webkit browsers?” — that a mono-culture is a good thing.

I know it’s a terminology battle I’ll never win, but if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this article it’s that there is life beyond your own preferences. Understanding and embracing this fact will make you a better website developer.


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