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The Highland Fling 2008

The Highland Fling

Pulled out of the bag at the eleventh hour by the inimitable Alan White, The Highland Fling was a fun, interesting one-day conference about “The Browser and Beyond”.

Three features made the conference work so well: it was small, ensuring a convivial atmosphere; the talks came one after the other, not in parallel, so you didn’t miss anything; and the traditional Q&A was enlivened considerably by Paul Boag’s compèring.

The most intriguing talk for me was Simon Willison’s on Comet, a set of techniques for pushing live updates to web pages. Calling them techniques lends thems an air of respectability but, in reality, these are a shifty bunch of hacks that mislead browsers in various startling ways. Somehow, extraordinarily, this all works reliably, and across platforms too. Even better, the nastiness has been swept under the carpet by the Dojo JavaScript library, which you can drop innocently into your webapp.

Best of all, the Bayeux protocol defines a standard communications protocol between Comet clients and Comet servers. Immediately this separates the difficult, infrastructural parts of Comet from the rest of your application and, in theory, gives you implementation independence.

Simon showed a few examples of Comet in action, including Google’s updating spreadsheets and his own slideshow tool. HTTP’s client-request, server-response rhythm is so foundational that it seemed almost magical watching changes made in one browser show up, without polling, in another.

Of course, the nature of the technology requires many concurrent client-server connections, a profile for which general web servers such as Apache are not designed. This, I think, is my excuse finally to wheel out an Erlang server to see for myself what Comet can do.

It was also good to see the FreeAgent crew out in force, especially as they took me out for dinner afterwards. Thanks!

Andrew Stewart • 7 April 2008 • Conferences
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