Player power

This might all have been forgivable had Navigator’s HTML extensions provided a rich and stable design platform, but that was far from the case. The control it offered was utterly feeble compared with PostScript, and ended up making the presentation problem worse rather than better. The advent of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and other rivals on multiple platforms, every release supporting new and incompatible features, had designers struggling to make their designs work across the board – the only way was to test a lot, confine layouts to the lowest common denominator and splatter the page with ,

Player power and s. Such total reliance on Andreessen’s extensions was bad enough, but the ubiquity of bitmapped GIFs to present fancy text delivered a slap in the face to Berners-Lee’s vision of a searchable, text-based, live-data web.

CSS to the rescue?

This debacle has taken nearly a decade to unravel, requiring a painful return to basics and Berners-Lee’s first principles, but we’re finally getting there under the auspices of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), founded by Berners-Lee precisely to avoid this sort of mess by keeping HTML and other web standards open and hence encouraging strict adherence. The W3C finally tackled the anarchy of free-for-all extensions in 1997, first with its HTML 3.2 recommendation, which fixed and codified these extensions, then later in the year with HTML 4’s deprecation of all the most undesirable presentational tags. In 2001, XHTML 1.1, a more rigorous XML-based reworking of HTML, made this mandatory – no more tags.

Instead, text presentation is now handled by one of those stylesheets, the proposal of which Andreessen had rejected. The Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) markup language was first proposed in 1994 by another CERN alumnus, Håkon W Lie, and adopted by the W3C to offer “a simple mapping between HTML elements and presentation hints”. CSS offers immense advantages in consistency, efficiency and flexibility of text formatting. Crucially, the 1998 CSS 2 recommendation added control over page layout without resorting to Netscape-only tags or nests of

tags. Both text format and page layout could now be described in a separate but linked CSS file, restoring the fundamental separation between content and presentation.

XHTML and CSS represent a huge leap forward for both individual and data-driven authoring, but they’re by no means the last word on content and presentation handling. XHTML was specifically designed to prune the excesses from HTML 3.2, to get back as close as possible to its original structural core, but universal information handling can’t be limited to a few tags. Again, the W3C was on the case and just over ten years ago it released a first recommendation for XML, eXtensible Markup Language. As its name suggests, a key difference between XML and HTML is eXtensibility, which allows end users to create any tags and elements they want, but equally importantly XML demands that such custom elements be rigorously structured. Extensibility and rigour together give you a general-purpose language for creating other customised markup languages, which offers massive advantages.

First, you can output to XML from any database without losing any information – the XML file is effectively just a web-friendly version of the original data. Second, because the data is fully structured, as Berners-Lee put it in his 1996 roadmap for “The Semantic Web”, XML provides “machine-understandable information” in “a web of data, in some ways like a global database”. Third, because XML is machine readable, it can also be automatically processed, which might involve any number of operations such as pulling out customised data based on a SQL query, combining this with currency data from a different XML source like an RSS feed, programmatically deriving the price data accordingly and finally mapping the result into a new format such as XHTML for presentation.

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