EARLIER THIS MONTH, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) released a working draft of the HTML 4.0 standard. The current standard, HTML 3.2, was a codification of many of the HTML inventions of Netscape and Microsoft. HTML 4.0 also moves in the direction of including de facto standards, while trying to develop a stable base. HTML 4.0 provides specifications for tables, frames, scripts, style sheets, wide accessibility, and internationalization.
But what does all this mean? There is a general air of cynicism extruding from the web. The posters in comp.infosystems.www.authoring.html all seem to expect that what has happened in the past will happen in the future. Netscape and Microsoft, by far the biggest players in the browser market, will support those features they choose to support, declare themselves to the HTML 4.0 compliant, and the W3C will follow them by creating HTML 4.2, which will codify what the big names want.
This does seem to be a dour view, especially since Microsoft and Netscape were among the contributors to the draft standard. But in this world, the coolest web pages win, even if it means we can only surf at work where our T1 connection is fast enough to keep up. So the browser that's able to do the most stupid tricks will be the browser of choice, although this leads to diversification of implementation -- precisely the thing the W3C is fighting to avoid.
In the meantime, the direction in which HTML 4.0 is heading gives much food for thought. One major implementation is the move towards style sheets. Style sheets will allow the HTML writer to create pages with absolute positioning. For any of us who have spent hours creating a fabulous page, using tables within tables within tables, only to discover it all looks horrible on a smaller monitor, this could be great news. From looking at available information on style sheets, it does seem to be a move towards making HTML more difficult. Basic HTML design will remain the same, with some popular tags deprecated (i.e., <CENTER>). Creating style sheets, however, will require a new level of knowledge. Considering the number of HTML atrocities afflicted upon us now, the prospect of unleashing style sheets upon the unsuspecting public is almost terrifying.
Still, the move towards style sheets answers many of the frustrations of the web designer. How many of us have spent hours fiddling with our HTML to create a look that would take minutes on QuarkXPress. Not to mention the nasty wingle-pixel graphic trick!
HTML 4.0 continues the growth of the hypertext markup language from simple text display to a robust online publishing language. Yes, its likely that the features released by Netscape and Microsoft will become the de facto standard, and yes, those features are more likely to be razzle-dazzle than elegant. In the end, however, HTML will become more powerful, and the web, we can hope, will be a better place for it.