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  • A Troubling Look at Web Standards and Desktop Publishing

    November 28th, 2007

    First-time Web developers are probably surprised to learn all the silliness that you have to endure in order to get anything more more than the simplest site to look good in the various browsers. Sometimes it can become a total nightmare, where one browser makes everything look perfect, while another messes up tables and text and pictures overlap or aren’t even there.

    Worse, fixing one problem, creates yet another in the original browser. It’s a vicious circle, and one that I have confronted often. In fact, when our original Webmaster, Brent Lee, updated all our sites last year, he often had to write separate code strictly to accommodate the eccentricities of Internet Explorer. You see, Microsoft has its own bright ideas on how Web standards ought to be implemented, and they don’t always follow the rest of the industry. In a sense, they want you to accept to their point of view, rather than the other way around.

    Even if you overcome the Internet Explorer equation, it’s a huge juggling match to get everything else to work properly among Firefox (and its derivatives), Opera, Safari and lesser applications. At the end of the day, you have to compromise big-time to get things to look as good as possible, and I have to say I’m not always happy with the end results.

    To make matters all the more confusing, some sites are designed to work strictly in Internet Explorer, because they support some Microsoft-only feature, such as the ever-insecure ActiveX. In one case close to me, a client who worked in the real estate industry was forced to use Windows in order to access a multiple listing site that the firm who employed her subscribed to. Fortunately, that site eventually added support for Opera (but still not the other browsers), and she was able to abandon Windows for good.

    Despite all these headaches, each browser developer touts its fidelity to Web standards and how well it does at various canned performance and rendering tests. Now maybe that’s true, but things don’t always play out that way in the real world. You see, as soon as you add special applications, such as the ever-popular WordPress blogging software and various forum systems, all bets are off. Install a few modifications and special themes, and the situation becomes even more complicated.

    Let’s compare that to the desktop publishing world.

    Back in the 1980s, Adobe introduced the PostScript description language, which basically defined the characteristics of the printed page in mathematical terms. The end result is that, save for an output device’s limitations in terms of print resolution and color quality, documents would almost always reproduce with near-perfect fidelity. Everything was predictable; well, so long as everyone used the same fonts, meaning the same versions from the same vendor.

    The PDF format that also lies at the core of Mac OS X even allows you to embed fonts and illustrations in a document. It’s also an industry standard, so that near-perfect precision can be consistent even across computing platforms.

    Indeed, Apple and Adobe, together, made the desktop publishing revolution possible over two decades ago. While there had to be a few compromises along the way, the day that traditional typographers and graphic artists gave up their old-fashioned tools and bought Macs was the day the publishing world changed for good.

    Contrast that with the Web, where everything is approximate, and absolute precision largely remains an unfulfilled dream. Sometimes I wonder if the various browser developers and Webmasters understand that every user, from a Web-based business to the consumer, suffers big time because of this absolute standards disaster.

    Sure it’s possible to ensure fairly straightforward compatibility if you lower your standards and keep your sites simple, without the flourishes that separate greatness from mediocrity. That, however, would simply reduce your presentation to the lowest common denominator, and not allow you to take advantage of the best so-called “Web 2.0” features that everyone’s touting. If you do choose to embrace them anyway, you work ten times as hard to make everything work together among all the browsers without breaking too many things.

    So is there a real solution to this mess, or just more excuses?

    Personally, I think the Web industry needs to support a true PostScript for the Web. That means a consistent mathematical language that allows sites to render consistently among all browsers and computing platforms that support the standard.

    You wouldn’t even need to master text-based coding anymore to ensure absolute precision, which has to be a relic of the 1970s; just your favorite desktop publishing application. And it would mean that text, graphics, tables, Flash-banners and all the other goodies we put on our sites would always look good and absolutely the same regardless of which browser we prefer.

    Even better, you could use just one document, unaltered, for both online and print content. Instead of having to reinvent the wheel to provide the online analogue of a printed page, you’d prepare your document once and you could deploy it anywhere without the need to make changes, except to, perhaps, insert links and special online banners. Even then, the links could be a native part of the document that would simply not appear in the printed version.

    In fact, you can get a great idea how it works in the online version of a PDF file.

    Do I make myself clear? Or am I whistling in the dark here? Is a variant of PDF the practical solution to total print and Web integration? Or will Microsoft fight Adobe and the rest of the industry tooth and nail if their proprietary standards aren’t adopted? I wonder.



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    33 Responses to “A Troubling Look at Web Standards and Desktop Publishing”

    1. Sam Elowitch says:

      I definitely agree that one of the cardinal rules of the Web ought to remain that there should always be a separation between content (HTML/XHTML), behavior (JavaScrpt/ECMAScript), and presentation (CSS). That way, even folks using Lynx or who have disabled JavaScript or are running Internet Explorer 😉 can still find the material accessible. For now, I think the W3C has got to move forward with CSS version 3 and the browser community has got to follow suit.

      My personal pet peeve is how despite there being plenty of defined Unicode entities for things like fractions (one-third, three-eighths and the like) they still don’t display properly in most browsers. Hence there’s no way to present fractional data in a semantically correct way that will also present properly in the visual sense. That is so maddening!

      In, short I say we stick with HTML/XHTML because of its simplicity and its near-universal acceptance, but really push further development of CSS 3 in a forward direction.

      Thank you, Gene, for raising this issue. You’ve tackled it in a very interesting way. Well done!

    2. Part of the problem is how long these things take effect. Look at the dates at the World Wide Web Consortium http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/current-work#background. It takes half a decade or more for the committee to approve of anything and then we have to give Microsoft another 10 years to partially comply with any of the standards. Internet Explorer is much harder to get things to work with it than any other browser. Internet Explorer 7 finally works with PNGs properly which was approved in 1998 and we are still waiting for SVG support of any kind for Internet Explorer and that standard has been out since 2001 and every other major browser has already implemented it with many fewer resources. It is possible to get perfect pixel layout and still allow people to resize things. People who want no formatting can turn off stylesheets and images, so all they will see is text and that should make them happy while the other 99% of the world is happy with the absolute positioning of CSS. As for people who don’t like PDFs, get the browsers – any of them – to support page breaks in CSS and most of the PDFs will disappear. I like many others prefer PDFs over web pages for more than 2 screenfuls of text as they are much easier to download, browse, and print. And as far as hand coding is concerned, using a good Wysiwyg Editor will result in fewer mistakes in coding rather than the other way around. Remember, there are many more options than Frontpage and vi. As for those who have no better thing to do than to validate HTML, that has nothing to do with whether or not the page displays correctly. And as far as using PHP, not all designers are also programmers. Most programmers web pages as well as their CMSes all are terribly designed, are very hard to use, allow virtually no formatting options and are insecure and difficult to update.

    3. Dana Sutton says:

      Thinking over this thread, it seems to me that we may be talking at cross purposes. Some contributors are primarily concerned about the question of whether html rendering is sufficiently precise and accurate. Others (including Gene in his original article) are really more concerned about the fact that different browsers sometimes display the the same html, CSS and Javascript differently, with the result that a Web designer can have difficulty in predicting how the page he designs will display on different browsers, or getting his page to display equally well on all of them. Is the fault really in the quality of the code designers use, or in the diversity and defects of the various browser engines out there? I think that for the immediate practical purposes of Web designers (and users) the second question is more interesting and worth discussing.

    4. Andy says:

      Surely we already have standards, in HTML, XHTML and CSS? The problem is browser vendors who ignore or don’t implement properly those standards.

    5. gopher says:

      Surely we already have standards, in HTML, XHTML and CSS? The problem is browser vendors who ignore or don’t implement properly those standards.

      Not just that, it is a problem that most users choose not to update their web browsers.

      As I say, I’ve seen people today still use web browsers that are 11 years old. How can you expect to broadcast to users who use old browsers? You have to work with the lowest common denominator, otherwise give them many clock cursors, hour glasses, and spinning beachballs. That’s no way to treat someone you hope to be your customer.

      Keep the high end new content off the main page of a website and direct people who have higher end browsers and connections to one page, or make it possible to use the website with the lowest common denominator. http://www.anybrowser.org/ is a good place to learn what that denominator is. Demand that publishing companies which make website creation programs for the non-HTML literate offer a base HTML that follows those guidelines.

    6. PDF would have probably been the choice in the Web’s early days if there had been more bandwidth.

    7. Sam Elowitch says:

      PDF would have probably been the choice in the Web’s early days if there had been more bandwidth.

      Perhaps. But I see a lot of potential problems with that. Adobe has already shown itself to be willing to use very bloated code for the web, such as that generate by GoLive. They’ve also bought out Macromedia basically in order to kill it; they are hardly advancing that product line at all. Where we would end up going vis-à-vis the behavior layer (JavaScript/ECMAScript or whatever) under that scenario is anybody’s guess.

    8. PXLated says:

      Benjamine wrote…”as far as hand coding is concerned, using a good Wysiwyg Editor will result in fewer mistakes in coding rather than the other way around”… That’s totally dependent on how good the coder is.
      “As for those who have no better thing to do than to validate HTML, that has nothing to do with whether or not the page displays correctly.”…Yes & no but it may in the future and it isn’t just about display. It can result in lighter weight page and if semantically correct, better Google juice. It also speaks to professionalism. If one bills themselves as a web designer/developer shouldn’t they advance their skills and develop to standards? Do you accept a dentist using an old drill and filling technique? A lawyer that doesn’t keep up on the law?

      Donna wrote…”Is the fault really in the quality of the code designers use, or in the diversity and defects of the various browser engines out there?”… It’s both but one can write clean, well formed code that displays cross-browser with no hacks.

      Gopher wrote… “still use web browsers that are 11 years old…That’s no way to treat someone you hope to be your customer”… On the other hand, someone living with that old a technology may not be a potential customer or one worth catering to. One needs to know, or determine, their target market just as Mercedes isn’t targeting people with an 11 year old Chevy.

    9. gopher says:

      Gopher wrote… “still use web browsers that are 11 years old…That’s no way to treat someone you hope to be your customer”… On the other hand, someone living with that old a technology may not be a potential customer or one worth catering to. One needs to know, or determine, their target market just as Mercedes isn’t targeting people with an 11 year old Chevy.

      That is elitist and biased. You have to realize the vast majority of the world does not have the financial resources to buy the most current software and hardware. The people who do are less than 1% of the population. Some people who are computer illiterate have no time to learn a new operating system. I know one person who is a very smart social worker who didn’t even know how to copy/paste, nor how to connect to links provided to them in AOL e-mail and it still isn’t easy for them. What’s more, they are stuck on dialup because that’s all that is available to them on a social worker’s income. Are you going to close off social workers just because you can’t or won’t develop websites that are commonly coded? They shop at JJill and Coldwater Creek. It is time for the web publishing community to recognize there is a common low denominator, sometimes lower than one would desire, but it is there, and it is not going away anytime soon, unless everyone is given free broadband, and a machine simpler than a Mac to use.

      Do all people have the financial resources to buy new software every two years, or new hardware every 5? Not everyone does, nor should we expect them to.

    10. PXLated says:

      Gopher wrote…”That is elitist and biased”… Bullcrap.! I said, you need to know your target audience. If it’s absolutely everyone you are pretty much screwed but I doubt most sites cater to “everyone”. If you’re doing a govt. site maybe.

    11. Sam Elowitch says:

      It seems to me that the best way forward is going to involve empowering the W3C to move forward faster with such technologies as CSS3, MathML, XForms, and the like, and the browser-development community moving strongly to keep up. The trouble is that the makers of the browsers benefit from being different from each other. If they all rendered the same code the same way (as standards-oriented folks sometimes wish, but not always), where would the competitive advantage lie?

      Maybe “one browser to rule them all” (regardless of platform) would not be so bad, because at least we’d all be looking at pretty much the same thing presentation-wise … except that Macs generally display things at 72dpi and Windows does it at 96dpi. Drat. I guess I haven’t solved the problem after all, have I?

      And btw, I’m sorry but WYSIWYG editors mostly stink. They generate code that often doesn’t validate is way more bloated than it needs to be. Handcoding is better in the long run because the developer then takes responsibility for really understanding the specifications and for the effect of every line of code. Ultimately, the more handcoding, the leaner and more standards-compliant the web. That said, however, there are some apps that do I better job than most. If you must use a WYSIWYG tool, or something approaching it, I recommend PageSpinner instead of GoLive, Dreamweaver, or FrontPage (and no, I don’t work for any of these companies).

    12. gopher says:

      Well if you look at Macintouch you see that housing sites are subject to Mac Marginalization, and so are banks. Equal opportunity lender and Fair Housing laws would suggest they are breaking the law by not catering to everyone. I’m sorry but I don’t believe one should limit one’s audience. That’s how to lose a business by not considering all people possible customers. Some only have enough disposable income to buy clothes. Should places like Sears only cater to people who have more money? I don’t think so. I stand my claim it is elitist.

    13. PXLated says:

      Gopher…I’ll give you one thing, you practice what you preach, your site does cater to that 1995/96 browser/crowd. But I do call hogwash that those that don’t are elitist. End of discussion as far as I’m concerned.

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