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Easy as falling off a blog

November 4, 2002

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It seems that the worst thing you can say about a Web designer is that they’re a FrontPage user. I know – plenty of indignant correspondents accused me of that when I first started writing this column, more than two years ago (it obviously didn’t occur to those correspondents that this is a Mac-oriented site, and that FrontPage for the Mac never really got past version 1). Proprietary muck though it may be, it seems to be improving: according to the W3C itself, FrontPage 2000 actually generates valid markup (Mark Pilgrim wrote an interesting post on the W3C’s guidelines for authoring tools back in April). There are certainly things to be aware of when authoring in FrontPage, but overall, we no longer live in the late-1990s world of clunky WYSINWYG applications generating bloated, proprietary markup.

While the Web Standards Project and their supporters have directed some attention to the likes of FrontPage, their interest is focused more on the professional-level products they are likely to use themselves, like Dreamweaver. This makes sense: it’s professional designers and developers who are most likely to be open to the message, and who have the most reason to devote time to fixing up their own bad practices.

Non-professional Web authors – people who wouldn’t know an HTML DOCTYPE declaration if it fell on their heads – don’t need to be exhorted to do the right thing by Web standards. Non-professionals need tools that get it right without getting in their way, without making them learn all the browser bugs, hacks and workarounds that professional Web designers deal with all the time. Very often, these tools won’t be specialist tools for Web page production. They will be whatever the author has on hand.

Let me give an example. Paul Krugman is a leading academic economist and occasional columnist for the New York Times. Like virtually all other college professors nowadays, he has a Web page. Looking at the source of some of these files shows that he’s using a mix of Word, WordPerfect, and quite possibly Netscape 4 to convert his Bates-Clark-medal- winning thoughts into HTML. These packages don’t produce the best HTML source code – it’s reasonable but not always valid. Professor Krugman or his assistants don’t go into the markup and fix it up by hand. Nor should they have to.

Incidentally, I’m noticing an eclectic mix of blogs adopting designs that leverage some of the fonts that ship with Mac OS X. Instead of boring old Verdana and Georgia, Dan Benjamin’s HiveLogic uses Optima, Jason at NegroPlease has adopted American Typewriter, and Jonathon Delacour is using Lucida Grande and related fonts, a decision we at MacEdition can relate to. Meanwhile James Bachman’s GasGiant has redesigned since I mentioned it in the MacEdition Guide to CSS Bugs in Mac IE, and is using Eurostile for headings, which works quite well with the Verdana body text. There are also a smattering of blogs using Gill Sans, including “The Monkey Puzzle”. If there’s a blog you run or visit using interesting CSS or interesting fonts, feel free to let us know about it in the Feedback Farm below.

There are some other academics in that field who can be bothered getting into the nitty-gritty of Web authoring and attendant technologies, like Berkeley’s Brad De Long. By and large, the world doesn’t need people of the intellectual calibre of Krugman or De Long getting sidetracked by HTML, CSS, browser bugs, DOM, RSS or any of that stuff. If they want to take it up as a hobby, that’s their prerogative (and my excuse!). But the less time they have to devote to making their course notes, CVs and articles display sensibly, the more time they can devote to their actual specialities, and the better off we’ll all be.

If the publishing needs of thousands of academics aren’t reason enough, there’s all those bloggers. Just as the Internet allows hordes of day-traders to mix it up with the big boys and democratize share trading, so too it now allows anyone with a BlogSpot account and too much time on their hands to mix it up with the big kids of punditry. While there are many blogs out there run by Web professionals – currently working or otherwise – there are no doubt thousands more run by people who aren’t interested in the latest stylesheet tweaks or RSS hacks. For every blog that’s a playground and testing arena for the Web designer behind it, there’s hundreds of others who are linking to the latest on CNN, ruminating on their daily experiences, or arguing about the Middle East situation. Why should these latter blogs worry about browser bugs, CSS tweaks – or even structural markup? What these folks need are lots of attractive templates that they can customize easily without breaking those templates’ standards compliance.

I’ve previously suggested that Mozilla might be the basis for the standards-aware Web authoring tool for non-professionals that we are all waiting for. Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but what is clear to me is that one such tool won’t be enough. All blogging tools, all word processors with HTML export functions, every application that purports to offer Web publishing needs to get with the program. That means Microsoft has to get rid of some of the proprietary rubbish generated by FrontPage or Word’s HTML export. Wolfram has to tweak Mathematica’s HTML export function to put the A elements inside the heading elements, not outside. Blogging tools like Blogger, GreyMatter, Radio and MovableType need to generate valid markup and throw up errors if someone tries to feed them templates containing invalid markup. Their default templates also had better be valid, unless they want to look as sloppy as the developers of SlashCode’s templates did.

They need to get with the Web standards program, so their users don’t have to. Web authoring is for everyone. It should be easy – easy as falling off a log. That doesn’t mean everyone must become a standards-aware Web author. It should just happen automatically. Professors Krugman and De Long have better things to do with their time.

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

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