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Internet Time? Or Foot-dragging?

January 8, 2001

New Year’s columns are such a cliché. You take a look at the state of the industry or society you’re in, analyze some trends and make predictions for the future. Booor-ing. It seems to me that there’s not a lot of point to this exercise in the Web industry. The changes being made are not revolutions, but tinkering at the margin, and most of the time they don’t change the situation for Web developers. Meanwhile, the changes that could make a difference are being ignored by surfers and designers alike.

Take HTML standards compliance. If you surf around with iCab or send a few sites through an HTML validator, you’ll soon find that just about the only sites that use syntactically valid markup are the ones about syntactically valid markup – things like the W3C, Webstandards.org, css.nu or David Baron’s site. Most general-interest sites are big messes that can’t even get their tags to balance. Similarly, almost nobody is using the useful features that HTML 4.0 provides, like CITE instead of I, or ACRONYM; telling users and search engines what the content is, not just how it’s formatted.

In case you’ve never noticed this before, MacEdition does spell out some acronyms in case you’ve forgotten what they mean. If you use iCab, IE 4 or higher or Netscape 6, hover your mouse over an acronym, and you’ll get a tooltip or message in the status bar. We had to use SPAN tags instead of ACRONYM tags because of a stupid bug in Netscape 4.x, but it works. This is one of the things Web production people could do to make things easier for their readers, but too often don’t.

CSS is another core standard that most designers seem to avoid, or use badly. Many designers avoid CSS because they think that this will mean better support for older browsers – never mind that they also tend to be the same folk with 100 dancing JavaScripts that break early browsers. The progress of CSS has been so slow that last November, CNet site Builder.com revamped a 1997 column on the subject and reposted it like it was fresh information.

This is no criticism of CNet, but it’s a sad reflection of the lack of support for a four-year-old standard by designers, browser manufacturers and Web users alike. Sure, IE5 (Mac) and Netscape 6 / Mozilla have excellent CSS support, Opera is coming on and iCab shows promise for its final version. But no designer will make a move while a third of their readers are using Netscape 4 and all its bugs, and Netscape 3 lingers on. For a forward-looking industry, it seems both producers and consumers can be pretty conservative.

Those designers that do use CSS misuse it too often. If I see one more <P class="heading"> instead of <H3>, I think I’ll scream. How are text readers, search engines and those sainted users of older browsers to work out what is going on, if everything is in an undifferentiated paragraph? And no, that’s not me being inconsistent in my view of older browsers. Use CSS to format structural markup, and then all users will have something decent to work with, even if it doesn’t look exactly the same to everyone.

There are plenty of other Web standards that could be used intelligently that I’m not seeing on general-interest Websites, such as HTML entities. Like a lot of Mac-oriented Web people, I come from a print background, and it pains me to return to the Times/Helvetica/straight-quotes world of the Web. I accept that Web designers can’t taken advantage of their mile-long font menus anymore, and that we are pretty much stuck with “Georgia, Times, something like Times”, “Arial, Helvetica or something like it”, Verdana and Trebuchet if you’re adventurous. MacEdition decided to test the boundaries by defaulting to Lucida Sans, which took a lot of tweaking to get all its different names right.

What I don’t accept is that the Web needs to lose the typographical niceties like curly quotes and proper en-dashes. I’ve been around long enough to remember Robin Williams’ book The Mac is not a Typewriter, and I resent that all those lessons keep coming around again. Sure, there are new Web users and designers and not everyone comes from a print typography background. But surely some people have retained some typographic sensibilities? Modern browsers support many codes for special characters and most older browsers support the numerical entity references. So why not use them?

Of course, it’s not only Web designers who could do better on this issue. Dreamweaver 3, at least, only supports the Windows three-digit numerical codes for most entities, not the entity names or the four-digit codes that actually work. Worse still, most Microsoft products just generate Windows-specific characters instead of the HTML entities, which makes them unviewable on other platforms. (HTML Tidy will replace them with the entity references, albeit not the numeric ones that work in more browsers.)

I guess I shouldn’t be too downcast about this. Every so often I get e-mails from readers who have rejigged their sites to be standards compliant and CSS-savvy. My hat’s off to them. They are the only ones showing much sign of progress. So much for evolving on Internet time: it just ain’t happening.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition.

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