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Wednesday 21 February 2001

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Now That's Style

Web-designers will already know this and non-web-designers won't understand it, but it's worth celebrating: Jeffrey Zeldman has taken the plunge and converted A List Apart to fully-compliant HTML 4.01 and CSS1, with previous kludges for backwards-compatibility removed. Major changes require torch-bearers, and JZ is one of web design's brightest lights. That makes this an important step on the road to a more-accessible, more easily built and maintained web.

Predictably, this and the WaSP's accompanying browser upgrade campaign have drawn catcalls from certain quarters, with some people missing the point entirely. None of these critics has coherently explained how coding a page such that a right-hand nav-bar appears below the body text instead of on the right-hand side 'excludes' people who use 3.x or 4.x browsers. Older-browser users can still read the text. They can still click on the links. They're no more excluded than those who owned black and white TVs in the early days of colour. They just don't see the same effect as 5/6 browser users. And unlike colour TVs, the major new browsers are free.

Personally, the first time I had to do a redesign on a site of hundreds of pages which involved changing the body text font styles I became an instant CSS convert. That was two years ago, and I've hardly used a font tag since. I figured I could either spend all day grappling with grep and churning through a folder full of files with BBEdit, or change one line in one stylesheet and get on with the fun stuff.

True, this has been on educational and personal sites where forcing older-browser users to read text in their default fonts wouldn't scare away valuable customers, as opposed to all those immensely profitable e-business sites whose gigantic share prices are wholly dependent on whether their spiel is set in 11 point Verdana instead of 12 point Times. (Er, hang on... it's 2001, not 1999. Okay, scratch that last bit.)

True, too, there are major CSS problems with Netscape Navigator 4.x. But the more one gets used to what works and what doesn't, the less it seems to matter. Who cares whether NS 4.x displays a background colour behind your links when they hover the mouse over them? Isn't it getting a tad obsessive to get hung up about making every detail look exactly the same on every browser (impossible in any case)? Read and absorb A Dao of Web Design in the ALA archives and you'll find a lot of those petty web-design worries just melt away.

And true, some of us are yet to take the final plunge into using the CSS box-model to completely replace tables for layout, as the source of this page will confirm. So there's still work to be done. (But I switched to XHTML a year ago, officer.)

I test my pages in IE 5.x, NS 6 and 4.x, and iCab. NS 4.x is always a little disappointing, without the extra grace notes that more-CSS-compliant browsers allow, but the pages are at least readable. iCab shows me what the pages look like without CSS and JavaScript: plain, but readable. Just like the Web used to be before CSS and JavaScript. So who exactly is excluded from reading them? People with a Times-phobia?

For me, there's really no contest: 4.x and older browsers are sooner or later destined to go the way of 4.x and older word processors, so it makes sense to build forward-looking pages now. So more power to Jeffrey and the WaSP. Like many others, I'll be putting up my explanatory pages forthwith.

[22 February 2001: And here they are. Surf around this site with NS 4.x to see them.]

[3 November 2003: I retired the concept earlier this year, and have now taken the upgrade banners off all these archived pages too.]

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