Ever since the first Web client was written by Tim Berners-Lee in late 1990 (a browser/editor running under NeXTStep), the growth of HTML has been interesting to follow. The simplicity of HTML has been crucial to the development of the Web - anyone can work with it, edit it, and given one's experience - produce pages containing rich, stylised text, graphics and sound.
So why is it that more people are bringing its existence into question? There is the belief that it's time to move on, create the next markup language and leave HTML to fade away like an elderly member of the House of Lords. Michael Roetto, an American Web designer living in Holland, shares that belief. He posted an email message to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) mailing list and asked whether HTML was relevant anymore. The response was overwhelming and he immediately became a target for abusive email messages. With haste, he reposted a message that contained various clarifying points, including: "What we have now is a hodgepodge." His original proposal can be found at (www.box.nl/~unit/mike/prop.html). So if you're looking to fill your mailbox, this is one sure way to do it. Even if Roetto is right, the chances of a new language replacing HTML in the future are slight. HTML is here to stay.
They may offer extra functionality, but at what cost? Drawing on external plug-ins and such gismos puts more strain on the browser you're using, and with the variety of Web sites, you need 10 to surf normally.
The plug-ins folder for Netscape on my machine has animating, video streaming, sound producing, object spinning and environment exploring widgets, some of which have a nasty effect on the overall speed of my machine, and I only have about 10. But is it worth having to download so many plug-ins?
You've all seen it. You enter the URL, you wait, the page downloads and you're confronted with what looks like a missing piece from a jigsaw. There's nothing more infuriating than loading a page only to find you don't have the plug-in. Plug-ins are a solution, but a solution that requires the user to have a folder full of them. Most people rely on only one or two for browsing.
There are many, like Roetto, who say that HTML is being used beyond its intended use. Designers, myself included, use workarounds and cheats to achieve the look and feel we desire. It's the lack of functionality in HTML that has led designers to seek out these third-party plug-ins and products to actively fill the gaps in the language. People who want to build Web pages have to think about the different technologies available, and given that these technologies change at such a speedy rate, this can be difficult.
How do you want to view it today? Web browsing is no longer a consistent experience - so much of the look and feel is dependent on the end user. You can specify font sizes, font style and spacing only to find that your designs can be ruined by upping the size of a font in Netscape and, particularly, in MSIE. From a designer's point of view, this is a recurring nightmare. The only way to control the typography the user sees, until recently, has been to embed it in an image which stops the user from resizing it or changing the style.
Recent developments, some recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), allow almost complete control of these rogue elements. Cascading style sheets level 1 (CSS1) from Microsoft was recommended in December 96 by the W3C. The stylesheet language offers a powerful and manageable way for authors, designers and typographers to create rich visual effects. You can already find this in use all over the Web.
Netscape has produced layering, a technology which offers the ability to layer blocks of HTML or images over or under each other, and objects can be assigned a path or moved around on the screen. You can rotate them or make them semitransparent. This provides a number of ways to make pages interactive and engaging. It's almost like CD functionality without the CD, just the Internet.
These tools will make a difference in response times and interactivity, although layering is similar to Microsoft's latest offering, Dynamic HTML. But is this enough? People are already building Web sites with one browser in mind. Some sites advertise the fact by placing an animated Netscape or MSIE logo on their home page.
THE WEB DIVIDE
Actively supporting one particular browser is in some respects contributing to a divide in the Web. Taking this to an extreme, the divide could evolve and end in one portion of the Web enjoying Netscape pages and another enjoying Explorer pages. Neither side would be able to enjoy Web pages designed for the opposing browser - too many foreign tags would exist.
The battle between these companies is pushing technology along at a fast rate. If it weren't for this browser-to-browser combat, we'd probably find that standards would develop in a different way, or at a different rate. To the inexperienced HTML coder, page building tools always seem to be the best solution.
With such a wide range of HTML layout tools on the market, it's easy to see why someone would pick a tool that will build pages for them. Professionals tend to shun layout tools, insisting that you learn HTML from scratch, which is a good idea. Coding pages from scratch helps you understand how the language works and how best to use it.
The tool that makes HTML as transparent as the programming code behind a page layout in Quark Xpress will be a killer application. In traditional graphic layout, designers aren't concerned with how the language works, they just want pages to look good.
How many people do you know who can sit down and program postscript? Most designers and coders would feel uneasy about using a layout tool in which they couldn't edit the HTML source. Some printers still use wooden blocks of type to produce pages - and they look just as good as a page laid out in Quark.
One product launched at the Internet World show this year stands out from the crowd. GoLive Cyber-Studio (www.golive.com) is an authoring system for the Mac. It's one of the best I've seen, utilising some of the latest HTML techniques. One thing that does bother me is that it has a plug-ins folder to help preview documents, which takes me back to the plug-in problem.
One of HTML's best features is its apparent scalability, which would account for the improvements in the past 12 months. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait a while for that Quark-style HTML tool.
Both Netscape and Microsoft have been striving to create killer functionality in the form of Dynamic HTML, which is going to drastically change the click and wait model that spans the Web. It enables designers and developers to produce Web pages that come alive, both graphically and typographically. It gives authors and designers the ability to update the contents, structure and visual style of Web-based documents as well as provide accurate control over the appearance, interactivity and multimedia elements.
Images can move position and data can be redisplayed, prompted by a user action like a button click. Information can be stored underneath the visible document until the user requests it. An example of this is at (www.microsoft.com/ gallery/files/html/alienhead.htm), a simple page where the user is allowed to move vegetables on a page within certain boundaries to create a face. As a designer, one look at this gave me sweaty palms as I dreamed of all the interesting applications that could be created with it. This type of functionality was only available before using a Java applet or the Shock-wave plug-in, which required a download or lengthy wait in some cases.
Both Netscape and Microsoft browsers will support dynamic HTML, but in different ways. If you're developing pages for Netscape, you can use the layer tag, whereas Microsoft's version will require layering by way of complex style sheets.
It's reassuring to hear that Netscape is to support style sheets, but Microsoft hasn't committed itself to the layer tag yet. Microsoft appears to have the upper hand here, knowing full well that Dynamic HTML has been W3C recommended and the layer tag rejected, but Netscape is to support whatever the W3C recommends anyway, including style sheets. This squabble has little or no effect on most designers as they just want to use the functionality to build exiting pages.
We won't be able to capitalise on what dynamic HTML has to offer until standards are fully established. Whatever the outcome, there is likely to be some serious functionality that will work in both browsers. Watch this space.
Nick Harrison is a Web designer working for Interactive Investor ([email protected]).
DESIGNING FOR THE WEB
Traditional graphic designers are just beginning to realise the potential of the Web as an interactive design medium and some are begging to make the jump to online design. But there are many inherent problems and constraints with designing for the Web, just as there are for traditional media.
At first glance, the Web appears to be a designer's dream. Visual space, typographic tools and interactivity - much more than just a static piece of paper. But the closer you look, the more complex it becomes. The fact that it's so different from traditional media shouldn't deter a designer from working with it. It offers limitless scope in terms of creativity.
If you're planning to weave your own Web pages, you'll need to understand the technology. For instance, how do URL's work? How do you achieve consistent font styling? What's a cookie? What's a base href? It's worth checking out a few sites from a vast array of design showcases and resource sites aimed at the beginner and professional alike. Some of the more useful ones are:
-Cnet's Site Builder (www.builder.com)
-Web Reference (www.webreference.com)
The browser version, monitor size, resolution, colour depth, connectivity, clock speed and computer model all effect the way users view and experience pages. Unfortunately, Web browsing is no longer a consistent experience and a lot of designers are beginning to aim sites at one browser or another.
If you want to start using the latest Dynamic HTML and layering, you'll have to sit down and learn the hard way. One of the unique features of the Web is the ability to view other people's HTML code. Examining code can help you out in tricky situations. If you can't find a way to achieve what you want, look at a page and learn how others have overcome the same problem, but beware that HTML source often contains a copyright notice.
Some conventional print-based designers will find it difficult to comprehend the complexities and constraints of the Internet and new media in general. But there will be a few who realise the potential of such a medium and will jump for the rails of HMS Internet.
NOW YOU TRY IT ...
The concept of adding layers to Web pages is more than a way to overlap graphics and move images on a page. It may just be the last major feature needed to make Web pages as interactive as desktop software.
There's no easy way to change the appearance of a page once it has been downloaded into the browser, and Dynamic HTML promises to change all that. But whose Dynamic HTML? Both Netscape and Microsoft have introduced competing specifications in the newest versions of their browsers. Each company is convinced its architecture is superior, while claiming the loyalty of an army of Web developers.
With Dynamic HTML, Web page design is less static. This relatively simple extension of traditional HTML will make it possible to create pages with images a user can drag from one spot to another. A Web site could display a floor plan, for instance. Users who want to see if a table fits in a room on the plan can just drag it into place. A Web page can also provide choices so a user can select from a menu and see instant results without having to make additional requests from the Web server.
Web pages will begin to have the same immediate impact that desktop software programs and CD-ROM applications have had for years. In a sense, it's one of the last frontiers for the Internet as it replaces floppy disks and CD-ROMs as the source of software apps.
Unfortunately, Dynamic HTML is facing a familiar battle on the Web: Microsoft and Netscape both hope to gain approval from the W3C, the group that ultimately controls the HTML standards.
Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com/workshop/author/ dhtml/) proposal is a set of three technologies plus some bonus ActiveX controls. Its Dynamic HTML plan offers considerable control over immediate and responsive changes to the content and appearance of a Web page from the client side. The company hopes the combined components of Dynamic HTML will attract Web authors interested in creating full-blown applications rather than static content.
The plan extends the existing tag for cascading stylesheets. Dynamic HTML provides precise x, y and z dimension positioning of any HTML elements on a Web page, which includes new style attributes placed between
tags to create positioned HTML layers. For example:
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