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The Dollars and Sense of Building to Standards : Comments

By Alan K'necht

February 9, 2005

Comments

Martin Espericueta

February 9, 2005 10:32 PM

I totally agree with this article!
Accessible designs are definately a great benefit for clients! Old world style designs are the real cost for clients. Tag-soup markup, and by that I mean using nested table after nested table, browser-proprietary tags, etc., has driven the cost associated with web design too high.

Leaner/meaner coding practices are the cost-effective future to web design.

patagonia

February 10, 2005 1:13 AM

Very good article.
Now the implementation of standards is in our hands, as webdesigner.
The client can understand or not.

Rimantas

February 10, 2005 2:54 AM

I wonder, what switching from HTML4.01 to XHTML has to do with IE4 and Netscape 4.7.
Does author think that IE5+ supports XHTML? It does not (or does as good as IE4 in case of
text/html) if you call that “to support”.
If this has to do with semantic markup and content/presentation separation and CSS styling, then it has nothing to do with XHTML, you can do the same with HTML.
If you do not use MathML or XML processing, there are NO benefits of XHTML over HTML4.01. And in case you server your XHTML pages with application/xhtml+xml which triggers mozilla to use xml parser you loose benefit of incremental rendering.
While I welcome the intent of the article, the artcile itself is quite poor.

Joshua Porter

February 10, 2005 6:31 AM

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to talk with Eric Meyer and Molly Holzschlag on this very topic. They had similar, but slightly different takes on this issue.

BattleStations!

February 10, 2005 7:02 AM

I am a web designer at a largish retail web site (500+ employees). I have been educating my bosses and co-workers about web standards and trying to sell the benefits of making the switch (so much so that I fear I have become a broken record, only to be met with rolling eyes). We have so much legacy code, with table cells opening on one page in an include, and closing in another included page etc, we would really have to rewrite every line of code our site uses. It’s a db driven site with tons of ASP logic woven into the presentational code — we serve up certain colors and images for specific parts of the site, etc. So, as far as I can tell, making the switch to standards would require our IT department to completely change their way of thinking and maybe even learn CSS. In my case, it’s not just a matter of the web designers getting on board, everyone needs to update their skills that are still lingering in 1997. One web designer convincing multiple departments, or an entire company, to make this move I don’t see this happening any time soon unfortunately, especially since the site isn’t technically “broken” in the eyes of the people who really call the shots (although it’s pretty heinous for me to have to code around). Any advice?

Mr. Green

February 10, 2005 8:12 AM

I appreciate the article and think that we should definately move to standard compliant code and CSS.

I don’t understand what the benefits are of xhtml over html. Every time you said (basically) “xhtml will save you money”, you went on to talk about standards compliance and css. html 4.01 has no definciencies in these areas as far as I know. I’m just interested in knowing how xhtml is better.

Thanks!

Mr. Green

February 10, 2005 8:28 AM

Here is a good article on why xhtml over html to answer my own question.

Alan K'necht

February 10, 2005 8:37 AM

Thanks for all the positive feedback and for the comments. Several of you mentioned why I keep mentioning XHTML and equating it to standards.

I push XHTML because HTML 4.01 is dead and some time in the future, browser manufactures may drop support for it (one can only assume) and many of the benefits of CSS are limited in HTML 4.01.

In my article I said “If you

Dougal Campbell

February 10, 2005 10:43 AM

One advantage of XHTML over HTML is that it’s XML. It doesn’t matter if the browser does anything differently, or if you’re still serving it up with the “text/html” content type. Having your content in an XML format and using consistent semantics is a win in many situations.

Why? Because there are a zillion toolsets in just about every programming language available that can manipulate XML documents. CSS is a great boon for separation of style from content. But sometimes redesigning a site requires altering the content structure itself. In that case, being able to process everything as XML opens up the possibility of programatically modifying your site structure. This is true even for many instances where your main content is contained in a database and you use a template engine. If you can make your templates valid XML, you can automagically restructure your templates.

Jonathan Snook

February 10, 2005 10:49 AM

Alan, in what way are you limited in formatting a header tag in HTML? I wasn’t aware of any restrictions.

I would anticipate at least 10 years before HTML4 support got dropped from browsers. Mostly because there is no reason to drop it. There is a great deal of content that exists on the web today that just will not be moved to a newer HTML standard — especially research documents.

To address Mr.Green’s linked advantages of Extensibility and Portability, I would disagree. Extensibility only makes sense if user agents understand what the extensions mean. Adding a new <imoncrack> element will mean nothing to the user agent. On portability, the argument is that portable devices will not be able to handle invalid HTML. Firstly, have you used a portable device these days? They’re almost as fast as my desktop. I’m sure they can handle tag-soup just fine. Secondly, if the argument is that an ill-formed HTML document could not be handled then the argument applies also to XHTML. I have no issues with the restriction of developing an HTML page that meets standards.

To touch further on the point of extensibility, we run the risk of splintering the market with various extensions to meet the needs of various applications. A great example of this is RSS/RDF/Atom. This complicates and splinters the market with people either taking sides or creating a greater workload on developers to have to support all standards.

All that being said, I do actually feel that there is a small advantage to using XHTML. It’s an advantage that doesn’t apply to everybody, though. Being XML, there is a greater ability to manipulate that content using XML-based tools (think CMS’s or XSLT). There’s not the same selection when it comes to plain HTML (none come to mind).

(I’m glad I hit preview, it seems Dougal explained my last point. :) )

Alan K'necht

February 10, 2005 11:13 AM

I agree that support for HTML 4.01 should be around for prhaps 10 years. At some point it will be dropped just because of software bloat (how big does the program have to get to).

So my point is why code to old standards now that the majority of browsers in use support XHTML. Check your access logs, this may not be right for everyone today.

I would ask everyone out there how many of your are still coding to HTML 2 or even HTML 3? I suspect non.

The CSS limitation of H1 tags etc. comes to spacing. And is more a limitation as to the version then CSS then page code. If however, your coding as HTML to support Netscape 4.7, then Netscape can’t support the advanced CSS features.

Daniel Wellesley

February 10, 2005 7:31 PM

Aside from the markup argument, does anyone have any real-world examples of high volume public sites that have chosen to freeze out older browsers in favour of fully css compliant pages? And if so, what are they presenting to legacy users in the way of advice that they need to upgrade – eg the old “this page may not render correctly in some older browsers”? I am coming up to a web site build and I am asking myself the same question… Can we reasonably expect mom and pop users to do something about their browsers? Or do we need to bite the bullet and hack our markup to fit older ones?

mattur

February 11, 2005 3:15 AM

xhtml1.x has no SEO benefits over html4.01. If code to content ratio is that critical, using html4.01 will give a marginal advantage over xhtml, as a page using exactly the same structure requires slightly less markup code in html4.01 than xhtml 1.x.

AFAIK there are no extra CSS-formatting abilities that are only available in xhtml.

Given that there are billions of web pages that are not xhtml, and MS appear to have decided to ignore xhtml (IE7 won’t support it, allegedly), it is highly unlikely that a browser-maker would even consider dropping support for HTML. It’s pure FUD to suggest otherwise. Which browser would you choose: one that can only display 99% ?

For any website that stores content in a database, there is no point whatsoever in using xhtml. Maybe a future article could look at why a minority of webmasters have wasted (and continue to waste) so much time and effort converting sites to xhtml for no apparent reason. Lack of technical knowledge? Faith in the w3c? “Coolness”?

Janet Nabring-Stager

February 11, 2005 7:22 AM

Just a note in case you ever reuse this article – I think you have a misspelling in your first sentence. “manufactures” should be “manufacturers”

Hugo Tremblay

February 11, 2005 7:30 AM

Altough I code new projects in XHTML —because it makes sense to use the current W3C recommendation—, I wouldn

Gabe

February 11, 2005 8:11 AM

As much as I agree with the sentiment of this article, I’m not seeing anything new here. This article has been written thousands of times over the past 5 years in webzines and blogs. If you want to impress me get this published in Information Week, that would be a start at getting the message out to the right people. In the meantime let’s get a bit more rigorous with our facts.

Where does the number 5-10% savings from not copying the brochure come from? Any web designer worth his/her salt will be able to give a website a certain look and feel using standard methods. The issue of wasted time emulating print features has less to do with standards then it does with usability and business goals. Does the brochure paradigm make sense for the purpose of the website? I would say in 99% of cases it doesn’t, but in those 1% of cases you better remember that the purpose of a website is not to scratch your pedantic itch, it’s to disseminate information, sell a product, or whatever the client damn well pleases.

Also I take issue with the obsession over XHTML. Sure, I use XHTML because I personally like it, but there’s nothing about it that is intrinsically cheaper than HTML 4. If you want to do some XMLish processing with your pages then you have a reason. If you’re building from scratch I say XHTML is great, because it is more flexible. However if you’ve been coding to HTML 4, do yourself a favor and find a real reason to switch.

I guess that’s what it comes down to for me: reasoning. Ask yourself, “Does this decision make business sense, or am I just jumping on the bandwagon?” We’re all guilty of being a bit self-indulgent at times, but the last four years of web standards scene have just gotten ridiculous.

James Shewmaker

February 11, 2005 8:27 AM

On Feb. 10, 2005 at 0837, Alan k’necht wrote:

XHTML is a transitional mark-up language until we’re all ready to move to pure XML.

That sentence shows a misunderstanding of XML. XML is to XHTML as Animal is to Giraffe. While I agree that current XHTML standards reflects a transitional stage in the transfer from a non-XML based markup language to a markup language which is a subset of XML, the idea that web browsers will be serving code that is “pure” XML any time in the near future is a misunderstanding of what XML is. For example: RSS is not “pure” XML, it is a subset format of XML. For another example, the fact that XSLT is a part of XML development demonstrates that “pure” XML must be “transformed” to the specific data usage of the moment. Sure, there may come a day in which a program is developed that can handle all forms of XML and present the data in multiple formats as the user needs, just as there may come a day when rocketships will fly to other stellar systems, but don’t hold your breath.

Alan K'necht

February 11, 2005 9:28 AM

Many great points from many people. One of the themes that runs through the article is ROI. I agree, that on a older site, it may not be worth anyones effort to convert it to XHMTL.

When starting from strach there are numerous benefits. Most people I’ve run across over the past few years who don’t do their mark-up in XHTML either haven’t heard of it or simply can’t waste there time.

I can’t tell you how many client show me their web sie asking for quotes for a redesign or SEO help and the old site is a mess of HTML 4.01. Yes the site works, it might even validate, but what are all the those font tags doing in the middle of the mark-up?

When using valid XHTML all type definitions are moved to a style sheet. XHTML does work with all browsers. Your site will display to the level of support that browser support. Well coded and marked-up XHTML will have the content organized in a priority structure and use CSS to position content and to define how that content should appear. It’s not rocket science, just good practice.

Yes I would love to have an article appear in Newsweek or Times etc. to help business understand why they need to look to the future and not back. When they talk to the IT departments they don’t expect a programmer to still be using basic or Fortan to program their financial systems. So why when it comes to their web site do they insist on old techniques. They don’t it’s the people who maintain the site that do that, but holding back and not wanting to rock the boat either out of lack of knowledge or fear of something they’ve never done.

I’m going to go through my notes for some sites, but I know several newspaper sites over the past year have done the switch to XHTML. Direct Energy (www.directenergy.com), recently did the switch. While their CSS isn’t valid the mark-up is.

Rememver, XHTML is one type of mark-up HTML is another. My article focused on the benefits of standards, that includes using CSS. Benefits come from knowing what you’re doing works across browsrs, all coders doing their mark-up to the same standards, making the mark-up easier to understand to people who take over management of it, future modifications of the site etc.

If you want a debate of XHTML vs. HTML I’m sure an appropriate article can be written for a direct comparison and why one is or may be better then the other.

Hugo Tremblay

February 11, 2005 10:04 AM

James: You’re perfectly right to point out that moving to “pure XML” makes no sense. I would add that one of the reasons HTML 4 will still be around for some time is that it’s as good as XHTML at describing not only a document’s structure, but also the interface —something XML is not intended to do on its own.

Alan :

Vinnie Garcia

February 11, 2005 12:52 PM

“Aside from the markup argument, does anyone have any real-world examples of high volume public sites that have chosen to freeze out older browsers in favour of fully css compliant pages?”

Cingular, Sprint PCS, ESPN, the PGA tour, and even AOL and MSN do CSS layouts.

Dino

February 11, 2005 3:57 PM

wired.com is an xhtml transitional site. When you get a chance, view the code. You

Richard

February 13, 2005 10:29 AM

Technology will always evolve. Unfortunately, opinions don’t always seem to keep pace. I honestly cannot see the reason for staying with a system of formatting such as HTML 4.01 when there is a cleaner system that separates content from formatting and also allows for quick and easy changes to the look of websites.

Converting older sites will not be a priority for any business so long as those sites still work. With the way most businesses work, especially the larger ones, the amount of site creep that goes on makes the decision to switch to XHTML even more unlikely due to storing data in databases and use of server-side programming languages such as php and asp.

However, using XHTML allows the website to become more than just one method of disseminating information, including marketing material. Why should a person have to personally email a PDF of a brochure when one could be generated by a website to include individual selections made by a user? Their choices are then put together and sent them as a PDF for future reference. This can be done using XSLT and essentially makes the website a virtual press and marketing office as well as a store front and reference library.

While I appreciate the comments made about the continued use of HTML as it still works, I feel that a longer-term view needs to be taken that recognises the ever tighter margins of businesses and the greater need to use its workforce in the most efficient manner.

A business won’t have it as a priority to change their method of coding but will one day have to face this problem head on. With the rate at which information is produced and more dependence being placed on e-commerce doing something now may be half the cost of doing something in 5 or 10 years’ time.

robert

February 13, 2005 3:11 PM

Good work

Mindaugas

February 15, 2005 6:02 AM

Just a thought: can it be that google gives a better rank to a page only because it is coded in xhtml?

mattur

February 15, 2005 7:53 AM

Richard: xhtml does not allow any more separation of content from formatting than html. xhtml1.x is html4.01 reformulated as xml. So anything you can do in xhtml you can do in html.

You rightly point out that large sites use a database to store content, so gain no advantage whatsoever from using xhtml. It’s easier and quicker to do transforms on data from a database than to parse a bunch a text files sprayed across a file system that may or may not be well-formed and consistently marked-up.

Mindaugas: no.

Marcus Tucker

February 15, 2005 8:59 AM

An excellent article, marred only by your use of user-agent statistics from www.w3schools.com, which are surely rather unlikely to be representative of the real market shares (the site attracts a very specific technology-savvy audience, with corresponding trends towards certain browser manufacturers and versions).

Having said that, I don’t know of a more authoritative source of web-wide stats… I don’t trust www.thecounter.com either, for example. Because of this, I recently emailed Google to request that they publish their user-agent statistics, but am yet to receive a reply. Any suggestions in the meantime? Does one of eBay, Amazon, or Yahoo! publish their access statistics?

Alan K'necht

February 16, 2005 6:18 AM

Mindaugas

No just using XHTML doesn’t ensure better ranking in any seach engine. Just a week or so a go Yahoo came out and offically said their Search Engine doesn’t care about valid mark-up in its ranking. Even with that being said, from my personal observations, I can tell you it does. It may not be the code, but by moving as much presentation to the CSS, you structured your content in a way that is very friendly to search engine bots. The content to code ratio is one factor and I also feel by using valid code, all content is visibile to the bots. In a poorly marked-up site, some content be hidden from the bots (poor table structure, not properly closed tags etc.).

Marcus Tucker
I agree with your assessemtn of the statistics from www.w3schools.com, it is just one source and I used it as they do publish their numbers. What is important is the trend in browsers. While I would love Googles numbers broken down by regions, I don’t think they’ll be forth coming to soon. Even with that knowledge, what is important are your own web site stats. I manage sites for several companies and in some cases virtually all traffic (98%)IS IE 5.5 or IE 6, in another case All IE combined is only around 90%. My company site which is partially targeted at techies has all IE at around 88% for the past 30 days.

So use 3rd party stats only for the trend. Also yesterday, Microsoft announced that this summer the beta of IE 7 will be coming out. And if you haven’t heard Netscape is about to launch Netscape 8.

Tony

April 5, 2005 4:54 PM

Daniel: Vinnie and Dino pointed out the sites I was going to mention, but I’ll add the DNC (http://www.democrats.org/). But, your question asked what “high volume public sites that have chosen to freeze out older browsers”, which is incorrect.

All of the high traffic sites mentioned (personally, I visit Wired and ESPN a lot) have made the switch to XHTML/CSS standards based design. However, NONE of them “freeze out older browsers.” In fact, that’s the nice thing about standards: the older browsers don’t “see” the advanced CSS they don’t understand, so they get well structured unstyled content.

As an added benefit, those sites work very well in less capable user agents such as cell phones and PDA’s. Bloated, table-based, font-ridden outdated sites will quite often not display at all in cell phones/PDA’s, or at best will display but be unusable.

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