Network: Web design

What's new with HTML 4.0? Well, to be honest, almost nothing. Nothing, that is, that you probably haven't already been using to design Web pages for months or years.

It's no big secret: HTML is not a designer's dream come true, and the latest incarnation, HTML 4.0, doesn't really do much to change this. In fact, in many ways, HTML 4.0 is two steps backwards to take a small step forward for designers.

HTML was originally conceived by scientists to display technical research and papers and share them with other researchers around the world. Kind of a universal word processing document but with little of the control that designers demand.

Gradually, new tags have been added that allow designers more and more control over the appearance of documents - things such as tables, frames, justification controls and JavaScript. But what designers can't do with HTML they have to hack together using graphics. Not a very elegant system.

Part of the problem is that HTML itself is a moving target. There is the "official" HTML as defined by the World Wide Web Consortium (http://www.w3.org), and then there are the Netscape and Microsoft versions, euphemistically referred to as "extensions" to HTML. These extensions, created by the two big browser makers, are what have given HTML its design power in the past. But these different versions are either incompatible or work differently, depending on the browser, the platform, and, apparently, the phase of Mars's largest moon.

This is where HTML 4.0 comes in to the picture. Released a little over a month ago, it sets forth the new official version of HTML. The good news is that both browser manufacturers have agreed, at least in principle, to use this new specification when constructing their next generation (5.0) of browsers.

What's new with HTML 4.0? Well, to be honest, almost nothing. Nothing, that is, that you probably haven't already been using to design Web pages with for months or years. In fact, the only unfamiliar tags you will find are mostly for dealing with grouping different types of data together (form, table, list) and providing disabled and international access to Web content, which is, although important, of arguable use to designers. Oh, and the new designation for hypertext references is URI (Universal Resource Identifier) as opposed to the more specific term URL, which is just for Web addresses.

So why the 4.0 designation? Well, besides the fact that the computer industry just loves new numeric designations, HTML 4.0 finally incorporates and standardises many of those great extensions that we've all been using for years. Things like frames, inline-frames, embedded objects and the tag.

Many of the design-related HTML tags, if not abandoned by the new standard, are slated to be made redundant. But there is a method to this madness. The HTML spec now also includes Cascading Style Sheets, a standard that had previously been separate, for controlling the appearance of the content which is laid out using HTML. If you don't know about Cascading Style Sheets, drop whatever you are doing - after finishing this article - and go to the Web Design Group's CSS reference (http://www.htmlhelp. com/reference/css) to find out what's going on.

The W3's thinking is this: style sheets should be used to "relieve HTML of the responsibilities of presentation". Translation: "Don't bug us with requests for HTML tags to do layout, use style sheets instead."

And that's probably a good idea. It means that anybody can use HTML tags regardless of whether they are Jo Web Designer or not. But Jo can reassign standard HTML tags to do whatever she wants them to do.

So this all means that you can use CSS, frames and embedded objects safe in the knowledge that it's all official now. Right? Well, almost. The problem this time is that the standard has leap-frogged the current browsers, and neither Navigator nor Explorer actually implement HTML code in their browsers exactly as standardised by the W3.

Fortunately for Microsoft, due to lucky timing, Internet Explorer is closest to full HTML 4.0 compatibility. The HTML 4.0 committee was still deciding whether to have cream-filled or jam-filled doughnuts for breakfast when Navigator 4.0 was released early last spring. But the final roughs of the report were released when Explorer 4.0 hit the market last fall. So the minds in Redmond were able to tweak their code to make it fall in line. The thing is that, despite Bill Gates's best efforts, a lot of us still use Navigator. So, if you want to stay cross-browser compatible, you will have to hold your breath a bit longer before embracing HTML 4.0.

The official HTML 4.0 spec can be found at http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40- 971218. Comments, questions, and gripes about this column should be sent to: mshadow@dircon.co.uk

Jason Cranford Teague is the author of `How to Program HTML Frames: Interface Design with JavaScript' (pounds 37.50, Macmillan).

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