Quarter Life Crisis

The world according to Sven-S. Porst

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HTML History

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Uh-oh, I've been playing around a bit more with HTML and CSS recently. I'm pondering a new design for my home page. Take a peek and give some feedback. While playing around, I have come to loathe certain aspects of HTML and CSS, and I thought about my history with those toys.

Those were the early days of the web. I was lucky enough to work for an internship at the university in Bremen then, and people showed me Mosaic and later on a – very hot – version of Netscape. Using 128Kbit/s for the whole university made everything really slow and images very painful. Everything was nice and grey. I tried HTML and found it to be easy. Ever since I claim that HTML is trivial – once you're good at TeX.
I made my own Bolo page. It uses a blink tag, which I found very exciting back then. I also used background pictures, GIF transparency and tables with thick borders to make things stand out on the page. Sadly, there wasn't enough AppleScript around back then to generate the whole mess automatically.
I took on a simple 'design' policy with clear navigation and simple backgrounds that year. The blink tags went away but the thickly bordered tables remained. I also discovered frames. The biggest trouble was to make them small enough to be non-obtrusive yet large enough to fit all the text in on different computers. I already disliked them back then – for the wrong reasons – and thus used them because they were 'cool'. I still think the site of our school newspaper wasn't too bad. It's quite clean at least. The same year also saw us make a web site on the Bremer Haus for a little competition. My first bi-lingual web site. Netscape 2 was the browser du jour and I had to split up our main photo page (about 30 smallish photos taken with a QuickTake 100) into little bits, so that people who couldn't allocate a whopping 5,5MB of RAM to their browser could still see it.
After a short while I re-designed my home page that year. Using plain white backgrounds, simple graphics and and all the table-based layout ASCII could buy. No spacer GIFs, though. I gave up frames then. The only remaining page of that age seems to be this. It looks OK when displayed in Netscape or Cyberdog.
around 2000
I made websites for both earthlingsoft (design has been changed since) and myself. As I dislike wide columns of text for their bad readability, I thought I'd simply use the width of the page to display both the English and German versions on the same page. This also saved me from the pain of having to maintain different files and links for both languages. The layout is table-based. And I yet have to see a way to get the same rigidity in layout in a reasonably table-free way.
Soon after the initial design, this was made to be CSS based. Probably around the time I started using Internet Explorer 5 – the best Mac browser back then. While I painstakingly made sure everything displays fine in Netscape 4 as well, I loved IE 5. I make up some CSS and IE 5 renders it just in the way I thought it should. My CSS use is mainly limited to styling text, and shaping my tables though. The site also became validated – mostly HTML 4 strict except for one page with a deliberate mistake for Netscape's sake. Later I made it XHTML 1 strict. Probably quite pointlessly.
Starting off as a little experiment, I made the site for my blog, starting from a clean browser window with only CSS in mind. After a little learning curve, I got the hang of doing the multi-column magic in that setup. I also played with goodies like pseudo-classes and, later on, automatically generated content (for language and file type indication as well als quoting). Most of the page also became independent of font size, only specifying relative sizes – even for most non-text elements of the page. [In the non HTML realm, the page looks prettier on a Mac, thanks to Zapfino; and I also use a little PHP here and there].
Once you get the hang of HTML, you easily generate pages for your workgroup and for photo pages. The latter was particularly easy – but has been said to possibly cause problems in Netscape 4, a browser I haven't touched in ages. Safari's capabilities are warmly welcomed, including its ability to do text shading – although (a) I try not to rely on it and (b) it only looks good on large type sizes anyway.
In playful mode, I tried a new design, that's supposed simple yet colourful and of course make good use of all the CSS goodness. In doing so, I sometimes found CSS a bit frustrating. The way lengths, particulary percentages, are handled can be confusing as it sometimes refers to the window's width, even for vertical measures. Also, having the ability to add lengths à la 50%+1em would be very helpful. And the results of changing between position:absolute and position:relative may start to be predictable but aren't considered desirable by me. In addition, HTML with its rules which elements may or may not be nested in which way can be limiting – mostly resulting in the need for many extra tags.
other pages I made

I suppose I have come a long way in HTML. If there's an atrocity to be committed in HTML, it's likely I've been there. We have also come a long way in HTML. Only a few years ago Netscape 4 was the gold standard. Then came IE 5, which was brilliant in comparison. And now, only little time later, we have both Gecko and WebKit at our disposal which are miles ahead of IE 5. In fact, the first revision of my new design doesn't display anything but the background and the title in IE 5.

Perhaps I should keep the tried and tested old design rather than worrying about all those compatibility issues.

February 20, 2004, 0:53

Tagged as css, html, web design, zapfino.

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