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All hand(held)s on deck

December 2, 2002

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If you are into computers and Web technologies, chances are that you like gadgets in general. Whether it’s PDAs or MP3 players, gadgets appeal to the geek inside many of us. And if you like gadgets, you probably noticed that there’s a new Palm PDA out – the Tungsten T. You can read Matthew Sparby’s first look at this advanced new device, here at MacEdition. Web browsers have existed for Palm devices for some time, but the Tungsten comes with a new offering – Palm Web Pro, which Palm reportedly co-developed with Novarra. This isn’t the browser that was originally expected to be released with Palm OS 5, based on Access System’s NetFront, but like NetFront, it’s reported to support a range of markup languages and other Web standards, including CSS. Here’s how PDA news site InfoSync reported it:

Most surprising, the Tungsten T does not include the NetFront Web browser developed by PalmSource and Access Systems America. Instead, it includes Palm’s own proxy-based browser, Web Pro, developed in partnership with Novarra. Web Pro routes all traffic through a proxy server that Palm maintains free of charge for all users, using the proxy to transform and compress data for better transmission, especially on expensive, metered GPRS or 1xRTT connections. The browser supports most current Web standards, including HTML 4.0, XHTML 1.0 cHTML (iMode), CSS1, Javascript 1.5 and WML 1.2, as well as support for caching, bookmarks and cookies.

But does Web Pro really support all these standards? How could I know without buying one and spending a packet on connect charges to test pages – assuming that the service even works in Australia?

Standards and the single Web developer

This is a common issue for independent designers. It used to be that big design shops could afford extensive testing labs, but so many of the big, flashy firms went bust ages ago. Web development groups inside large organizations in other industries often find it hard to justify budgets for testing machines, even just a single Mac in a Windows shop. Small firms and freelancers are lucky if they have both a Mac and a PC for testing, let alone all the non-standard devices. This is going to become more problematic as non-standard devices become more common.

As a Mac user, I’m also thankful that I can load multiple versions of IE on one machine. Microsoft’s decision to make it impossible to install multiple versions of IE on one Windows install increases costs for independent Web authors. That’s another reason that Web authors need standards – so we don’t need to buy all these other devices just for testing. Web professionals should just be able to author to standards and take it on faith that it will work in any browser that claims to support those standards.

Reality, hard as tungsten

Unfortunately, despite the reports of CSS1 compliance, there seem to be substantial parts of the spec that aren’t supported in Palm Web Pro. Matthew Sparby has provided me with screenshots and feedback for some of my own simple test pages, which has been enough to cover the basics, and to discover that Web Pro has a lot of trouble with even some of these basics. Like early versions of OmniWeb, Web Pro supports text color, but doesn’t support background-color except for table cells. It’s smart enough to turn white text back to black, but if your default color scheme is pale grey or yellow text on a dark, non-table background, you are in trouble. Many other basic CSS1 properties, like borders, padding, text-indent, text-transform and line-height don’t work either.

On the other hand, I wonder how much of the CSS spec is really relevant. Most handheld devices have only a limited range of fonts available – some don’t even seem to have italic. Their screens are smaller, so there’s not much point to many of the positioning properties available in CSS2. Hover pseudoclasses make no sense on a touch screen. You shouldn’t be expecting pixel-perfect reproduction of your gorgeous Web site on an itsy-bitsy grayscale screen. The W3C has thought of this issue, too, and has put together a Mobile Profile for CSS2. It’s not quite a full Recommendation yet; it’s a “Candidate Recommendation”, which basically means that it’s in final call for comments. Many of the harder CSS2 properties, like content, overflow and the positioning properties, have been omitted from the Mobile Profile. Also omitted are some of the fancier font-formatting properties like word-spacing. Still, Web Pro and several other handheld-oriented browsers don’t support key properties that remain in the Mobile Profile, including text-decoration, text-indent, text-align, floats, borders and backgrounds.

I’ve tried to compile what we know so far into a new resource – the MacEdition Guide to CSS2 support in handheld/PDA browsers. At present, it’s still hopelessly incomplete, and I’ve had to rely on the developer’s documentation for NetFront 3.0 (which has excellent documentation) and AvantGo 5.0 instead of making my own assessments. Testing CSS compliance is tricky, even with good test pages at W3C, RichInStyle and the Web sites of David Baron and Ian Hickson. When I was compiling the companion guide to CSS2 support in OmniWeb and iCab, in many cases I had to construct my own test pages to really understand what was going on. It’s even harder to do this testing via a third party – Matthew was very patient and I thank him for that.

Deliver me from handhell

The guide is a start, and it will continue to grow. (Yes! send me screenshots, or better still, report results from well-constructed test pages. Knowing that one blog looks ok but another doesn’t in some unspecified way is no help.) There is much to be done, and this is where the browser developers can help. First off, they need to publish documentation so Web authors can read what works and what doesn’t. NetFront is on the side of the angels here, and AvantGo isn’t far behind, but we still need more information for Palm Web Pro and Danger’s Hiptop. Meanwhile, Danger requires you to give it your name and site address before you download its “Web Site Optimization Guidelines”.

And I shouldn’t have to say that such documentation should be accurate. I don’t want to see claims of compliance with standards when even simple things aren’t supported, or are only supported in extremely limited cases. Secondly, we need firm commitments from these developers that their products will use stylesheets with the “handheld” media attribute if one is present, in preference to one with media="screen”. Currently, Danger’s Hiptop doesn’t do this. Finally, either the browser developers or the PDA manufacturer needs to supply emulators or simulators (like Palm, for example) so Web authors can test their designs without having to buy gadgets they don’t want or need.

— CodeBitch ( is the grumpy cow who does the HTML production for MacEdition. Read other articles by CodeBitch

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