Webmaster by Chuck Musciano

A peek into the old crystal ball

What's going to happen with key Web technologies in 1998?

January  1998
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Will XML replace HTML? Will style sheets catch on? What about authoring tools? This month, we peek into our crystal ball and predict what will happen with these key technologies in 1998. (1,800 words)

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It's a new year, prompting a bit of reflection, analysis, and looking ahead. As this column enters its third year, I am amazed to see how much has changed since it began. You'd think by now the rate of change on the Web would be a constant and familiar thing, but it is still astounding to see how far we've come in two short years.

Consider: In January of 1996, Netscape owned 90 percent of the browser market share, and half of that was attributable to version 1.0, with the rest owned by beta versions of Netscape 2.0. Internet Explorer was still in its first release, and Windows 95 was just four months old. HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) 2.0 was not a formal standard, and version 3.0 was beginning to emerge as the next big thing. We fretted about tables and frames, and spent a lot of time arguing about the <blink> tag. Many still ran the CERN server, and the NCSA was easily the most popular server around. Most importantly, most people still did not know what a URL was.

In two short years, we've seen Netscape and Internet Explorer mature to version 4.0. Tables and frames are hardly worth discussing, and style sheets and XML now command our full attention. HTML abandoned version 3.0, reverted to a smaller version dubbed 3.2, and is now working its way to 4.0. Apache has matured into the server of choice around the world. Spectacular page layouts are common, and many Web sites now provide more information than conventional broadcast and print media. Best of all, everyone knows what the Web is, and every company worth doing business with has a Web site of some sort.

With such rapid and unpredictable change, making predictions is a foolish occupation. Still, I'm feeling lucky (and I have plenty of experience with being foolish), so I'll offer a few predictions for 1998. We'll revisit them this time next year to see how well I did.


XML: Too much, too soon
In 1997, there has been much talk about XML being the next big thing on the Web. HTML, it seems, is just too restrictive, and page designers need a richer way to describe content for the Web. Some hope that XML, the Extensible Markup Language, will fix everything that is wrong with HTML. A few have already announced the impending demise of HTML, and predict a mass conversion to XML in 1998.

I don't want to alarm anyone, but it isn't going to happen. XML and HTML are not interchangeable. XML is at a different level than HTML, making it far more complex and difficult to use.

XML is actually a simplified variant of SGML, the Standardized General Markup Language. SGML is used to create specific markup languages that are then used to mark up and present information. HTML, for example, can be defined using SGML, as can hundreds of other markup languages.

SGML is horribly complicated and is certainly not intended for use by mere mortals. Recognizing that some parts of SGML are more complicated than they are useful, XML prunes out the more difficult stuff while retaining everything you need to create markup languages. You can define HTML with XML, and you can create lots of other HTML-like markup languages that are more specific to your needs. Unlike HTML, you do not create documents with XML; you create a markup language that you use to create documents, and that's the problem.

Markup languages are dependent on browsers, which translate and display their elements. HTML works because all browsers know how to display a <p> tag or an <i> tag. But how will browsers handle XML, where each and every user has the option to define and use new tags? Not only will users need to define their tags, they will have to provide applets or plug-ins to display them.

The majority of us will find that creating new markup languages using XML is simply beyond our skills, desires, and available time. What will most likely happen is that a few well-defined markup languages, offering features not found in HTML, will arise. Browser extensions to support these languages will be widely distributed and people with very specific needs will use them. This will be a good thing for those who truly need it, but it will still take a long time to get XML-compliant browsers in place, the XML standard formalized, the new markup languages defined, the support code distributed, and a significant number of Web pages written in new markup languages.

Here's my prediction: XML will be no more standard to the Web in January 1999 than it is right now. That's not to say that XML is a bad thing; it's just a big thing, much bigger than most of us will ever need.

HTML 4.0: Finally converging
The HTML standards process is perhaps the most visible casualty of the Internet. The rapid growth of the Web has completely outstripped any organization's ability to define and standardize it, leaving the ever-changing HTML standard to serve the role of Web archive, documenting aspects of HTML that have long fallen into disuse by the time each new version of the standard is approved. Still, the HTML standard serves a useful purpose, especially as the scope and features of HTML begin to settle.

Netscape is the de facto HTML subset in use on the Web. As such, it drives the true HTML standard. The rate of change in HTML, as supported by Netscape, has almost slowed to a halt, and HTML 4.0 is finally catching up, defining and formalizing all those nonstandard tags that many of us have been using for years.

HTML 4.0 should be released as a formal standard in 1998. This will define the version of HTML that all browsers will support, making it easier for authors to know what to use in their documents. 4.0 adds some useful table extensions that make page breaks and printing somewhat easier to manage. It also formalizes frames, which were sorely missed in HTML 3.2.

HTML 4.0 also makes life much easier for Microsoft. As you can imagine, it is much easier to brand Internet Explorer as "HTML 4.0 compliant" than "supports all those great Netscape extensions."

My prediction: HTML 4.0 will be accepted as a standard in 1998, and will be the last HTML standard for at least two years. Begin creating Web pages with HTML 4.0 as your standard now, and you'll be guaranteed compliance with browsers for the foreseeable future.

Authoring tools: Coming of age
Web authors are constantly asking me about authoring tools: Which do I use, they want to know, and what should they use? My answer is always the same: I don't use any, and I don't recommend any either. My rationale has been that these tools never include the latest HTML tags, so sooner or later you'll be forced to modify the HTML they generate. HTML is a simple language to begin with, so I recommend that authors learn and use HTML as their principle means of creating Web pages.

1998 may be the year I stop making that recommendation. The HTML authoring tool market is maturing, and authoring tools are finally offering sufficient features to alleviate the need to dip into underlying HTML code. Even better, some tools are beginning to take a more global view of Web pages, providing ways to manage an entire site as a collection of related documents.

One tool that really turned my head is NetObjects Fusion, a complete page and site design tool. Fusion successfully imported my hand-coded site, established document hierarchies, and did a good job of letting me manage my site. I liked Fusion so much, I'll be looking at it in more detail in a future column.

My prediction: As more tools of this caliber emerge, HTML authoring will become much easier. By this time next year, even I may be changing my tune.

Style sheets: Slowly but surely
The style sheet standard debuted in 1997, with strong support from both Netscape and Internet Explorer. Still, pages using styles are rare on the Web, and the general interest in styles has been low.

This may finally change in 1998. As the latest versions of Netscape's and Microsoft's browsers push out older, styles-incompatible versions, more people will be able to use styles-based pages. It's likely that more authors will become styles-literate, and the number of styles-based pages will increase.

The biggest impediment to the style sheet standard, ironically, is one of its best features: graceful degradation. Styles are intentionally designed to degrade gracefully on styles-incompatible browsers. This way, stylish pages present well, though they may be missing much of their intended pizzazz, with or without compatibility. Contrast this with tables and frames, where pages using either feature were useless on browsers lacking appropriate support.

When you visited a table or frame site and were left staring at a hodgepodge of text, you felt compelled to get a compliant browser to keep up with the rest of the world. Not so with styles. Since things look pretty good with or without compatibility, you have no idea what you're missing. As a result, styles compatibility will penetrate the user community much more slowly, as people upgrade their browsers for other reasons.

Styles are not hard to use, and they really do make some things, including certain page layouts and almost all font handling, much easier. I think they will catch on slowly in 1998, so that by this time next year, we'll be seeing a good number of pages using styles in some way.

My prediction: As 1998 progresses, styles will grow in popularity and usage among both authors and users.

Out on a limb
Well, that's about as far as I'll extend myself, at least for this year. I promise a self assessment next January. If my track record is good, I'll go for another year. In the interim, don't hesitate to share your predictions for 1998. And even if all my other predictions turn out wrong, here's one I know will come true: I'll be back next month.


About the author
Chuck Musciano has been running various Web sites, including the HTML Guru Home Page, since early 1994, serving up HTML tips and tricks to hundreds of thousands of visitors each month. He's been a beta tester and contributor to the NCSA httpd project and speaks regularly on the Internet, World Wide Web, and related topics. Reach Chuck at chuck.musciano@sunworld.com.

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