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A Troubling Look at Web Standards and Desktop Publishing

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.