My Life As A Web Designer, Part 3: Rise of the Standards
Standards, Can’t Live With ‘Em, Can’t Even Figure Out What They Are or When They’ll Be Published
Web standards have technically been around for a long time (in Internet time), it’s just that for much of their life the browser makers ignored them. Or to be more precise, followed the parts they liked, ignored what they didn’t, and invented shiny things for themselves.
There were two main reasons for this in the late 1990s: the web was developing quickly and browser makers (Netscape & Microsoft, essentially) were desperate to keep up; and the standards body, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) can move very slowly. So while HTML 3.2, the first version released under the auspices of W3C, was released (or recommended, in W3C jargon) in September 1996, and 4.0 in December 1997, the initial working draft of HTML 5.0 didn’t come until January 2008 and the final recommendations until 2011.
Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) faired little better. CSS was and is an effort to separate the design of a website (the style) from the content (the markup, or HTML). It’s a fairly wonderful thing, when it works and is supported by all browsers equally, but that’s been a long time coming. The first CSS recommendation, CSS 1, was completed in 1996 and was very basic. CSS 2.0 was recommended in 1998 but saw limited support and 2.1, designed to catch CSS up to what browsers were already doing, went back and forth between being a candidate for recommendation and not from 2004 until 2011. However, 2.1 was the first version to allow a designer to truly develop the design & content separately and began to be adopted before it was even an official recommendation. CSS 3, now closely connected to HTML 5, began to be worked on as early as 1999, and is now divided into separate modules, the first official recommendations of which were published in 2011.
Oddly enough, the world wide web and browser makers who allowed you to use it weren’t standing still while the W3C went back and forth deciding what should and shouldn’t be a standard. As mentioned in previous posts, both Netscape & Microsoft, but especially Microsoft, went out of their way to implement non-standard features and not support parts of the official recommendations. Needless to say, this made the life of a web designer a touch difficult as we barreled headlong into the new millennium.
What’s A Standards-Based Guy (or Gal) To Do?
As Microsoft used its illegal monopoly power to force Internet Explorer on the world (they’ve lost repeated court cases on this, so I’m not being hyperbolic here), the web split into two, and so did the web design world. There was a time, not too long ago, when Internet Explorer, including the worst of all, IE6, held well over 50% of the browser market. Web designers were faced with a choice: develop modern websites using current (at the time) standards and then have to implement a variety of hacks to make it work in Internet Explorer; or develop specifically for Internet Explorer and not worry that your site looked horrible in other browsers and advanced features might not work. Many of the second kind of developer used the devil’s tool, Microsoft Front Page, to make their sites, which made matters much, much worse by implementing even more nifty but non-standard features that again, wouldn’t work in any browser but IE. As you might deduce from the tone of this paragraph, I was the first kind.
So What’s It To Me?
For awhile, during some of the most violent battles of the browser wars, not much, at least from a web designer perspective. During these early battles most of the sites I worked on were fairly simple and keeping things compatible was relatively easy. And then, as things began to heat up with CSS 2.1 in the early/mid-aughts, I had a change of location and job and was no longer in a position to be making web pages.
While I still spent a little time teaching my prospective teachers the basics of HTML, from 2002 – 2005 I was out of the website business in any significant way. And then we moved again, to a much better place, and one where I didn’t have a job. So I immediately became a technology consultant and suddenly I was back in the web design business. And boy had things changed.
Oh Brave New World Wide Web
When I left I was still using Claris Home Page; when I came back, one of my first purchases was Adobe Creative Suite 3 (CS3, not to be confused with CSS3), especially for Dreamweaver and, gasp, Flash. You see, as discussed in an earlier post, with the extreme incompatibilities between browsers, Flash was one of the few ways to create complex layouts and websites and be assured they would look and work pretty much the same across platforms. As long as everyone had a compatible plugin, which they generally didn’t. But still, it was better than FrontPage.
But I quickly realized that I had come back to a different world. Even though IE still dominated, Apple’s introduction of Safari and the rise of Firefox (remember when Firefox was rising?) began to move the needle a bit. As I eased my way back in, actually getting paying jobs, I learned about CSS and how it worked with HTML to allow you to have flexibility in design and an easy way to alter aspects of your site without having to manually change every page. It was a glorious thing, and clearly the way to author websites.
Except for that Internet Explorer thing.
There is no web designer worth his or her salt from the early decades of the second millennium who won’t go to their grave cursing IE6 for the demon spawn that it was. This post is particularly appropriate today as it is the day IE^ officially dies, along with Windows XP (perversely one of the better OS’s they produced, which is why so many still use it). There was nothing good about IE6 from a web designer’s perspective. All your beautiful code that worked perfectly on every other browser fell to pieces on IE6 and it remained for you to figure out which hack or hacks you would need to make it at least not fall apart. Making it look good was no longer a concern, just make it work.
But better times were ahead, and again as with Safari, and actually intimately connected to Safari, Apple would help lead the way out of the wilderness into the beautifully standards compliant world we have today. Even IE 10+ obey standards pretty much as well as other browsers. And all is well with the world.
Except that the path out of the wilderness led to YET ANOTHER new way to design web pages that my aging brain would have to learn.
Next Up: What the Heck is An RWD and Where Can I Buy One?
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