Web design: On the Web, yesterday's bleeding-edge technology is today's standard

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The Independent Culture
Let's say you are doing a bit of DIY about the house, building that patio deck you always wanted, and your friend, who has graciously agreed to help you, measures the first board and tells you to cut another one to 350.3 centimetres. You look at your tape measure and realise that it's an old one using inches. What do you do? Easy: convert 350.3cm to inches by dividing it by 2.54. This gives you about 138 inches. Cut the board and you are in business.

What was wrong with good old inches, feet and yards? These units were the standard for centuries. The problem was that the Imperial measurement system had some rather vague and arbitrary conversions between smaller and larger units - I can never remember how many yards in a mile - while the metric system allows you to convert from smaller to larger units quickly and efficiently. But despite the fact that most of Europe - and the world, for that matter - has switched to the new and improved system, there are several hold-outs in the world, most notably the US, who are stuck in a rut using the old standard and refusing to change.

This brings me to my point: standards are great, but if we didn't try to improve our standards we would all still be swinging from tree to tree, trying to figure out which one had the best bananas.

In the world of the Web, yesterday's bleeding-edge technology is today's standard. The stuff you complain about crashing your browser now may well be the accepted norm with the next browser release. That said, these things only become standards if we, the people creating for the Web, actually use them.

Consider frames and columns. Netscape introduced both of these tags a while back, hoping to give designers better control over layout. But while designers have embraced frames - since there was really nothing else that could do what they do - no one has really used the column tag because the table tag did a good enough job and most browsers supported it. Frames are now a part of the official HTML specification, but no one really remembers the column tag.

In last week's column, we looked at several of the current standards on the Web, but what about the future? Right now there are several standards coming out from the World Wide Web Consortium that will change the way you work with the Web. Although many of the abilities of these coming standards are either not yet available on the Web, or only in the 4.0 browsers, they are the ones to watch and be ready to use.

Cascading Style Sheets - Level 2 CSS2 picks up where CSS1 left off, improving on most of its features. Some of the exciting design improvements coming with CSS2 include the ability to set up different layouts for different output media (screen, printer, overhead projector, etc), the ability to control the appearance of the mouse cursor, and the ability easily to add sound to your document.

Cascading Style Sheet - Positioning Netscape's ill-fated layer tag was a great idea, but CSS-Positioning is moving in to fill that gap. CSS-P let's you place text, graphics, tables, or anything else that appears in the screen exactly where you want it, either absolutely or in relation to the other objects on the screen. In addition, you can "layer" objects on top of each other, and, using JavaScript, move them around, hide or show them, or have them change their appearance.

Document Object Model DOM is the road map that allows us to identify the different parts of an HTML document so that they can be accessed using JavaScript. The only problem, right now, is that both Navigator and Internet Explorer use different maps. Help is on the way. The W3 is working on a standard DOM that should be ready by the time we see the 5.0 browsers.

If this brief introduction has left you wanting more, never fear. Over the next few weeks we will be looking at some of the bleeding-edge technologies available on the Web, how to use them and ways to use the new technology without keeping older browsers out in the cold.

Jason Cranford Teague can be contacted at indy_webdesign @mindspring.com

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