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Straining against the harness

May 20, 2002

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While marking up our Editor-in-Chief’s recent reflection on two years of MacEdition, I couldn’t help thinking about how things have changed from my own perspective – how much things have changed and how far we still have to go.

Think back to 2000. The IT industry was still patting itself on the back for dodging the Y2K bullet. There were old browsers that weren’t Y2K compliant, including Netscape versions before 2.02 and Internet Explorer versions older than 3.0. Presumably people stopped using these browsers. Certainly we’ve never seen genuine examples of these in our logs, which makes me wonder what is really behind all the alleged hits from these browsers seen in the usual-suspect stats sites. (My suspicion is that they’re either search engine spiders or other masquerading robots.)

When MacEdition launched, we decided to go with Cascading Style Sheets. This was pretty radical at the time (“Oh no! They’re not using font tags! They haven’t even defined the body color in the HTML!”), but it fit our goals of having a fast-loading, easily tweaked site. MacEdition is about our content, and we don’t want readers to have to download multiple kilobytes of spacer GIFs and complex tables just to read the latest Naked Mole Rat Report or whatever.

Join the Brain Upgrade Initiative

Last column, I jokingly suggested that people should create banners and buttons hyping my “Brain Upgrade Initiative”. Here’s a contribution from Donimo at WebNouveau. Keep them coming!

Upgrade Your Brain!

Now of course, interest in CSS has never been higher. MacEdition’s design looks positively old-fashioned relative to some of the more avant-garde table-free designs we are starting to see around. And while no major commercial site I know of has yet taken the plunge to CSS-style layouts, plenty of sites that aren’t “about” Web standards and Web development now use CSS layouts. That certainly wasn’t the case in 2000.

On the other hand, many problems on 2000 haven’t gone away: the eleven egregious errors and bad HTML practices are just as pertinent now as they were eighteen months ago when I first talked about them. Market forces don’t work that fast (but they will, eventually). We still don’t have adequate support for important Web technologies like PNG, SVG, print stylesheets, DOM scripting and many others. Even the more obscure reaches of CSS2 haven’t been explored by many people yet, unless they feel like putting big disclaimers about their site only looking sensible in Mozilla, or maybe Opera.

Time for buggy browsers to go to sleep

Back in 2000, after going live, we discovered a cracker of a crash bug in Netscape 4.0x. After a lot of research and frustration, I worked out what was causing it. That started our collection of CSS resources, bug lists and support charts that you can’t find anywhere else. The stupid thing about the whole situation was that most of these buggy versions – specifically Netscape Versions 4.0–4.05 – aren’t even Y2K-compliant for secure sites. They have problems with certificates, so users of these browsers have been locked out of many useful parts of the web for more than two years. At the time, we just left off the border style that fired the crash, even though this meant that users of other versions of Netscape 4 got a different look than other CSS-capable browsers. (It was only there to work around a Netscape 4.x bug anyway.) It was better than blocking users of Netscape 4.0x from the site entirely. At the time, that seemed like the right decision, but two years later it’s just a frustration to further site development. Web authors everywhere are straining against constraints like these.

I’m not saying that it’s time for Netscape 4.0x users (much less all Netscape 4.x users) to nick off. That would be against all the accessibility ideals that we’ve tried to fulfill here at MacEdition. What I am willing to say is this: We’ll continue to keep the main parts of the site safe for users of Netscape 4.0x, and we’ll continue to make reasonable efforts to work around the many CSS problems with Netscape 4 more generally. But as we roll out new features, don’t expect them to work in these obsolete browsers with stylesheets turned on. If you use one of these browsers and don’t want to upgrade, or can’t upgrade for some reason, then in some cases you might need to turn off JavaScript (and thus CSS). You’ll still get all the content, just not the formatting.

The same will be true of users of OmniWeb 4.0x when the final version of 4.1 comes out. Quite frankly, the support gaps and flat-out implementation errors in Versions 4.0x and the preview builds before about beta 2 or 3 were so difficult to work around that I have no desire to work around them once 4.1 final comes out. I know that most OmniWeb users are aleady using recent builds, and that 4.05 and 4.06 are just a small fraction of the 8 percent or so share of our traffic that OmniWeb commands. If you really want to use one of these older versions after the 4.1 final is released, I can’t stop you, and you’ll still be able to read all the content. Just don’t come crying to me that it’s green text on a green background or that stuff is overlapping, or that you clicked on a link in the MacEdition Guide to CSS Bugs in IE 5/Mac and nothing happens in OmniWeb. (OmniWeb doesn’t support the use of id attributes as targets for hyperlinks even though this has been part of the HTML spec since 1997. This is not a modern browser!)

Reaching past the barriers

It does feel like we’re on the cusp of some big changes in the ways Web design is done, but for two years now, those changes have been just around the corner, tantalisingly close but always out of reach. Just as we’ve been waiting impatiently for final versions of OmniWeb 4.1 and Mozilla 1.0, in the hope that our audiences will become more able to appreciate things like print stylesheets or genuinely useful DOM scripting. I’m genuinely optimistic that a combination of Mozilla Composer and Dreamweaver MX can provide standards-oriented, graphical Web production tools for Web authors with a range of needs and levels of sophistication. But they’re all still just out of reach.

Mac-oriented sites are particularly badly off in this respect. Netscape 4 usage is higher than on sites with more Windows-using visitors. The two current browsers with problematic standards support – OmniWeb and iCab – are both Mac-only browsers. (Although to be fair, iCab’s DOM and JavaScripting support seems to be in better shape than OmniWeb’s.) And while we’ve noticed an upsurge in Mozilla and Chimera usage by MacEdition readers since the release candidates became available, there are still plenty of pageviews from users of buggy browsers, enough to make time-consuming hacks and workarounds necessary.

I suspect that part of the problem is that, even with a standards-oriented approach – perhaps especially so – browsers are complex applications. Even when developers understand the spec, there are vague points and complexities that are hard to get right. And there is so much crap code out there that browsers have to try to interpret. This makes it hard to build a browser in a short period of time, unless you’re the Chimera team, piggy-backing on the existing Gecko engine. It also makes it hard to build a browser with a small team. And managing a large team is also a problem, slowing down development of browsers even when it is well-resourced.

Still here after all this time

In 2000, I never would have dreamed that I would still be writing this column in 2002. In fact, I have a bunch of column ideas still in preparation, and resources like the Guides to CSS in IE 5/Mac, and OmniWeb and iCab are being updated all the time. (Check back often for the latest updates.)

I’m hoping that in another two years’ time, I’ll have less to complain about. But somehow I think this grumpy cow will still be grumping then, too.

— CodeBitch (codebitch@macedition.com) is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch, or check out my interview over at Lemurzone’s pixelview.

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