}

For your eyes only?

November 15, 2003 @ 6:49 pm by Samir Bharadwaj  

In the early days of the web, making a website was straightforward. You simply wrote one long HTML page, and if you were a real artist you threw in a few graphics and actually organized your page into relevant sections. No decisions to make. Simple.

That was then, this is now. I now want to make a new website. Simple? Not quite. First I need to decide on which formats and technologies I want to use in the site. What will I use? HTML, DHTML, XHTML, XML, PHP, ASP, CSS, Javascript, PERL, JAVA, VBscript, Flash, Shockwave, PDF, RealMedia, WindowsMedia, Quicktime, DivX, VRML … the list goes on. Plus it’s not even a simple matter of what suits your needs, you also need to keep in mind if the technology you are using will be usable/readable by your audience.

What do I do? Firstly let me just ignore all the multimedia technologies at the moment as they only aim to augment an existing website, and not act as a replacement for a site. So that leaves us with the HTML variants, Flash, and the choice of programming language. The coding languages are also an additional element to the actual site, but VBscript is out because of its Windows-centric nature, JAVA is out because I am not totally convinced of its stability. Besides, many people (myself included) switch off the JAVA setting in their browsers to keep their sanity. Javascript can be used to the minimum since it is now almost standard extension of HTML. However, issues of compatibility and unpredictable results remain. That leaves PERL, which is a great choice for more complex coding solutions. The decision has already been made in its favour because Greymatter, the blogging software currently chugging away in the background is written in PERL. The results, as you can see, are quite satisfactory.

Now we come to that gigantic fork in the road. That never ending battle that is fought with religious fervour, and has seen many a casualty on both sides. What am I talking about?

**Flash or HTML**???

Fortunately (or unfortunately ?) I am religious about this topic as well. If you see my old site, you will notice that it is hand coded in HTML and all the links are text. Do I look like a Flash lover? No, sorry, for me it’s HTML all the way. Let me clarify though, that I do not hate Flash with a vengeance. I do know how to use the software, but I simply do not consider it a means of presenting a web site. I personally skip nearly every Flash intro I come cross, and I avoid complete Flash sites like the plague, unless I simply \\have\\ to see what is on the site. Plus, no matter how many figures Macromedia publishes about the stupendous download figures of its plugin, Flash is still not universal, and everyone out there does not have a trillion megahertz monster to run it on. In addition Flash content disrupts the standard interface of the web browser. Suddenly things don’t work like they are supposed to, the back button, the right-click menu. This is not a good thing.

I do have the Flash plugin on my system, but not Shockwave. Occasionally I come across a site that pops up a prompt in my browser to download the Shockwave plugin. While I am aware it is quick and painless, I have yet to come across any content which has convinced me to press the OK button. If it is any consolation, I do think Flash is an excellent technology for animation. That is what it started out as, but with all the hype surrounding its position as harbinger of the multimedia superhighway, its true importance as an efficient means of animation dispersal has been sidelined. Now there is a move to make SVG the new format of vector animation and interactive content. The one advantage it has is that it is an open standard, but its actual performance in the wild remains to be seen.

So, ultimately we come back to HTML. It has changed a lot over the years, for the better. The on-going effort to standardize it and to separate the function of content presentation from it has lead to the timely eminence of CSS. Cascading Style Sheets are simple text files that tell the browser how the content in the XHTML(the cleaner, leaner standards compliant HTML) should be displayed. Also, CSS has features that the old HTML couldn’t dream off: complex control of column layouts, transparencies, layers, and a built in ability to create roll-over effects with out the complex Javascript code it called for in the past. To top it off the ability to apply master style sheets to multiple XHTML pages breaks new ground in the malleability and maintainability of your site. Simply change the CSS and you have what looks like a brand new site. This feature is best demonstrated by the CSS Zen Garden.

XHTML with CSS it is then! As in many aspects of the design of my new site, this blog is also acting as my experiment in CSS. I am still not as familiar with CSS as I am with basic HTML, but the latest version of Greymatter which I am running does use CSS for layout. Through tweaking the default templates I am starting to get a feeling of the sheer sense of freedom and power CSS can give the designer of web content. I am enjoying every moment of it and will continue to see what it can be pushed to do. I am also looking into what software can help with CSS coding an design, but my report on that is for an other time.


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