Current ALA: 10 Tips on Writing the Living Web
Manage Your Content With PHP
The Velvet Fist
99.9% of Websites are Obsolete (Digital Web)
CA Interactive Winners (Communication Arts)
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6 September 2002
[3 pm | noon | 10 am]
We’re packing for next week’s conference appearance at Builder Las Vegas, where we’ll deliver a keynote address and related lectures. Happy Cog’s News page tells all.
Happy Cog is back on the airwaves. A Covad router blowout took the site down yesterday along with its associated staging servers. The router is still down, but our colleague Dr Frankensite (we love that man!) worked some DNS magic enabling us to temporarily relocate to an alternate host. Internet problems are intermittently afflicting zeldman.com’s hosting and mail. Call it September in New York.
The coming of September has put many Americans in a mournful state of mind that casts shadows over issues unrelated to death, war, and terrorism. G.K. Nelson writes movingly of things lost, but his recollections of private tragedies soon give way to fears about, of all things, the web. In response to “99.9% of Websites are Obsolete,” Nelson frets that non-professional, personal websites could become a casualty of improved browser support for standards.
This fear is often voiced, but it’s groundless. Browsers won’t stop supporting plain old HTML for a long time (if ever). “Quirks” mode in IE, Netscape 6+, and Mozilla assures that sites lacking DOCTYPEs and other hallmarks of the standards-oriented web page will continue to work in compliant browsers as they have in the browsers of the past. When they encounter a simple site whose author is unaware of web standards, these browsers go into backward compatible mode.
“Amateur” sites are not the problem, and indeed for many of us personal sites are the heart of the web. It’s the legions of improperly authored professional sites that are the problem: those with busted scripts, insane clusters of browser-specific style sheets, and fifteen kinds of workaround markup in every paragraph. Those are the sites that don’t always cut it in modern browsers. Those are the sites — often developed at tremendous expense — that are in jeopardy of becoming obsolete.
Closely associated with that fear is the feeling that standards are harder than the “anything goes” HTML most of us were weaned on. DOM programming and CSS2 may exceed the abilities of many non-professionals, but such tools are not needed on their sites. So which “difficult” web standard are we talking about? XHTML?
Learning to close paragraph tags and insert a space and a slash after empty tags like
<img> is not hard. If HTML had been as consistent as XHTML from the get-go, all of us would have learned those simple rules and nobody would think twice about them. For a beginner, XHTML is easier to learn than HTML precisely because its rules are consistent.
Likewise if we’d all been told from the get-go to validate against a DOCTYPE, even your uncle Bob could do it — and FrontPage and its brothers would include DOCTYPEs and validation by default.
Standards are not the problem. Particularly for commercial sites that must work across multiple browsers, platforms, and devices, standards are the solution. The only question is when. And that is a business question, not a religious one.
In yesterday’s Report we discussed Netscape’s new Browser Upgrade campaign. Erwin Wodarczak informs us it’s not limited to 4.0 versions of Netscape’s own browser. Erwin visited Netscape’s home page with Opera 6/Win, and was taken to the same upgrade page Netscape 4 users see.
“99.9%” is still being discussed at whatdoiknow and 37signals and a new discussion has popped up at Metafilter. While the diversity of informed opinion is wonderfully thought provoking, there’s also a fair amount of misinterpretation, as always occurs when the topic of web standards is raised, and especially when it’s raised by us.
Some think standards are anti-democratic (see above). Others proffer the bizarre notion that using web standards means your site won’t work correctly in IE6. Still others think content management systems make front end design irrelevant, which is like saying you don’t need tomatoes when you have cucumbers.
Some comments have more to do with perceptions about WaSP or opinions about your humble narrator than with anything stated in “99.9% of Websites are Obsolete.” Notice the number of people who complain about pure CSS layout, even though the article says nothing on that subject.
When you begin to break through with a message, some people form an opinion and stick to it. It becomes part of them, like a jacket they wore in college that no longer fits. Eventually a new girlfriend persuades them to update their wardrobe.
5 September 2002
[6 pm | 4 pm | 11 am | 9 am]
Communication Arts has posted the winners of its Eighth Annual Interactive Competition along with Quicktime movies of the jurors’s comments, including a snippet of yours truly discussing a “unity of vision” that made some sites stand out above all others. Most of the judges have interesting things to say, and ’most all the winning sites will repay your time.
Topic: “99.9% of websites are obsolete.” Comment and discussion at What Do I Know. Comment and discussion at 37signals’s Signal vs. Noise. Both discussions are worthwhile.
A Browser Upgrade Campaign ... from Netscape! Visit Netscape’s home page using Navigator 4, and you may be advised to download Netscape 7 before proceeding. (You can also return to the homepage if you prefer.) Hat tip: B.K. DeLong. The campaign targets Netscape 4 for Windows users. Mac users are sent elsewhere.
Around 11:00 am EST, a blown port at Covad took out Happy Cog and several other sites on the Eastern Seaboard. Covad is aware of the problem and expects to fix it sometime tonight. As of 6:00 pm, Happy Cog is still offline.
Veer.com has lucious new typefaces, illustrations, and photographs for sale. The royalty-free photos do not look royalty-free. They look good.
4 September 2002
[5 pm | 10 am]
“99.9% of Websites are Obsolete.” That’s what the man says. He says it in a special web standards issue of Digital Web Magazine that also features an interview with Steven Champeon and Shirley Kaiser of The Web Standards Project (WaSP) and cover art by WaSP logo designer Peter Fielding. The feature is excerpted from Forward Compatibility: Designing & Building With Web Standards, penned by yours truly and slated for release by New Riders in 2003. Meryl K. Evans conducted the WaSP interview. The entire issue was conceived by Nick Finck, editor and publisher of Digital Web Magazine. Go have a read.
Hooray! Hurrah! Coudal Partners is back on the airwaves with an updated design and a lovely Quicktime documentary highlighting the personal creative work of Andy Mueller.
Karl Dubost of the W3C’s Conformance and Quality Assurance team has put together a dandy overview of standards-oriented design practices, including things you can say in reply to unenlightened comments from clients and co-workers. The title is a bit odd (“My Site is Standard” does not necessarily sound like a good thing) but the article is extremely useful.
Netscape 7.0 has left the building. Like its predecessor, the updated browser is based on Mozilla’s standards-compliant Gecko rendering engine and offers excellent support for CSS, the DOM, and other web standards.
This month’s Web Page Design for Designers features a typographic approach to CSS layout plus a nifty mini-site called “Fun With Fonts” that’s both charming and instructive.
3 September 2002
[11 am | 9 am]
CSS Layout, Revisited
A List Apart’s CSS layout may now work as well in IE6 as it does in other modern browsers. MSIE6 has trouble calculating the heights of block level elements. Eddie Traversa discovered the browser was caching the values it calculated on one page of ALA and incorrectly applying those values to other pages of the site.
Put simply, if the content area on page A was 200px high, and the same area on page B was 400px high, IE6 might display only the first 200px when it loaded page B. The initial value got stuck in the browser’s cache. This is the reason that manually reloading (for instance, by hitting F11) “fixed” the bug on a page by page basis.
Others who contributed to the American Holiday Weekend IE6 Bug Workaround Fest included Michael, whose proposed revision to ALA’s markup and style sheet also worked around the IE6 bug but would have required slightly reformatting ALA’s existing articles. Michael even came up with an alternate CSS layout that works pretty well in Netscape 4.
Once we’re positive Aaron’s script solves all IE/Win bug-related problems, we’ll post it at A List Apart along with a short writeup for the benefit of all who design with CSS.
ICANN’s preliminary staff report evaluating bidders to assume control of the non-commercial .org registry currently “managed” by Verisign favors the Internet Society (ISOC) over the only non-commercial bid. The Internet Multicasting Service finds ICANN’s process lacking in technical due diligence and favoring existing commercial relationships under a veneer of impartiality. In other news, in an unbiased study, the brother-in-law of the sheriff of Potts County found the sheriff’s nephew and son to be the most qualified candidates for deputy.
Build a complex income tax structure filled with loopholes and you encourage citizens to cheat on their taxes. Swear to boost shareholder profits every quarter no matter what the economy is doing and you foster an environment where needed workers will be “downsized,” Research & Development will be stifled in favor of the short-term sure thing, and corporate heads will lie to protect their swimming pools. But we digress.
30 August 2002
Now hitting news stands and magazine stores, Communication Arts’s Interactive Annual 8 features the winners of CA’s eighth Interactive Design competition — sites like Sleeping Giants, created by Second Story Interactive; Team Rahal by Ten|Resource; and Code by Hello Design. We were honored to serve on CA’s panel of judges.
After reading yesterday’s “Table Layouts, Revisited,” some came away with the mistaken impression that we intend to revert A List Apart to a table-based layout. Not going to happen. When we spoke of reformatting ALA we meant finding a workaround for the “float” bug in IE6. Our point was that bugs in modern browsers can mangle CSS layouts as badly as 4.0 browsers do, harming branding as well as usability. On commercial work, you may need to use tables, and that doesn’t make you a sinner. Web standards are a practical, not a religious matter.
For Mac geeks only: Classic Mac OS gave us pixelicious icons we could swap at will. OS X gives us photorealistic crap that’s a pain to change (and in some cases can’t be changed at all). Now there is a solution: Candy Bar, new from The Iconfactory and Panic, Inc., makers of the Audion MP3 player and Transmit FTP software. Candy Bar lets you easily replace OS X’s Norman Rockwellesque icons with ones you actually like, such as Albie Wong’s lovely Wannabe set or the work of Japanese iconist Mozco. You can even replace icons Apple doesn’t want you to change. Good.
29 August 2002
Table Layouts, Revisited
The framers of CSS reckoned its advantages were so obvious that all browser makers would rush to support it, and table layouts would soon go the way of the leisure suit.
Four years later (in 2000), browser makers finally got around to meaningfully supporting the CSS standard. As we near the tail end of 2002, most web designers are still using tables for layout. There are advantages to doing so.
More and more, we find ourselves creating transitional layouts that incorporate simplified table structures; use sophisticated CSS to add the kind of details that formerly required nested tables, spacer gifs, and other presentational hacks; and serve a basic style sheet to 4.0 browsers that approximates the display in modern ones.
We find that with these techniques we can create attractive sites that conserve bandwidth and look almost as good in Netscape 4.x as they do in modern browsers. We can’t achieve the same results using pure CSS methods.
Table layouts are harder to maintain and somewhat less forward compatible than CSS layouts. But the combination of simple tables, sophisticated CSS for modern browsers, and basic CSS for old ones has enabled us to produce marketable work that validates — work that is accessible in every sense of the word.
We’ll be sharing our techniques at the Builder conference and writing about them in our upcoming book for New Riders.
“To Hell With Old Browsers” made a dandy rallying cry in February 2001. Together with The Web Standards Project’s Browser Upgrade campaign, it prompted many designers to give CSS layout a shot. And that was good. Designers learned new skills. More websites were built with CSS, prompting browser makers to further shore up their support for that web standard.
But many organizations are still saddled with 4.0 browsers, and for them CSS layout remains a problem. In some cases — on a search engine’s results page, for instance — it makes sense to use CSS layout, hide the style sheet from 4.0 browsers, and let folks who use those browsers see a plain but perfectly usable page. But on many sites, the layout is too important to hide, and 4.0 browser users need to see a reasonable facsimile of the “real” layout. A blend of tables and CSS makes that possible.
And it’s not just 4.0 browsers that make pure CSS layout a pain. We get 50 letters a day from IE6 users complaining that they can’t read the full text of A List Apart articles. A bug in IE6 cuts off long text in any floating div. Since “float” is essential to CSS layout, any site that uses it to format long passages of text will be broken in IE6.
The bug affects only some percentage of IE6 users. But that’s like saying it affects some percentage of the population of China.
We reported the bug to Microsoft on 20 April 2001. They haven’t been able to fix it. Until they do, A List Apart and other sites that use “float” to present columnar layouts will frustate some percentage of would-be visitors.
We’re giving serious thought to reformatting ALA as soon as we have time to do it right.
When a popular current browser with otherwise good support for CSS chokes on something as basic as “float,” and when millions still use 4.0 browsers (not always by choice), transitional XHTML layouts that include some table-driven formatting feel more and more like a reasonable choice.