Standards compliant web development

The very foundation of the Internet is the various standards and protocols that allows it to function. There are various standards that are critical to the function of the Internet as a network of computers (the famous of these standards/protocols being the TCP/IP suite of protocols). Over the years, as the internet has become more than a network of computer and is increasingly integrated with the average person’s daily activity be it at the office or even at home.

I have been interacting with various web technologies for the better part of the past five years. During this period, I have interacted with various databases, web development platforms and indeed the browser. And it is the presentation of a great web application that ultimately determines its usefulness to its target audience. The history of browsers reads that there once was a browser war that pitted Microsoft Internet Explorer (IE) against Netscape (with a similar named browser). That battle was fought over dominance and market share and the overwhelming victor is IE but there has been a revival of the browser wars according to some web citizens. This new war is between IE on the one hand and Firefox (and its associated derivatives) on the other side. But the more interesting aspect of this war is that it mainly centers on security but standards compliance has also become a central theme of each camp’s endeavors.

From the outset, the Firefox camp strived to be standards compliant while allaying web surfers concerns about security. IMHO, Firefox has done a good job in coping with a web that has become used to IE and defaults to IE defined “standards”. On the other hand Microsoft has let its browser stagnate without significant improvements, much of which didn’t address web developers’ concerns about standards compliance (at least those web developers/designers who are concerned about the matter).

I started tinkering with Cascading Style Sheets a while back but have never followed up the subject enough to invest time to correct my errant ways of using tables for page layout. Gradually, through practical experience I have come to realize the power of CSS. These days, when I start a new web development/design project I usually start off by defining a CSS file which controls various aspects of the presentation of the web application. This all came about as part of an effort to have a design to produce a highly maintainable web application though it might have something to do with expecting a change at a later stage of the project. Clients will request various changes during the development of a web site and hence it is upon the developer to make allowance for such requests. When used properly, CSS can be effective in centralizing aspects of presentation such as background images, fonts, sizes and indeed positioning.

For web designers who have relied on tables for layout, CSS layout is  an uphill battle of epic proportions. It is not so much the perils of changing a habit as much as the dread over compatibility between browsers. Various browsers implement the CSS standards differently and as such not all CSS look the same across the board. Of course this cuts into development schedule as a single change in a CSS need to be test across the board to ensure the presentation is still acceptable. To make matters worse, older browsers need to be taken into account and these are browsers whose implementation of CSS can be considered virtually none existent. I feel the need to emphasize that backward compatibility in browsers seem to concern Microsoft’s IE as this is a browser that has been integrated with Windows and as such developers need to take into account the possibility that someone may still be running Windows 98 or worse still Windows NT 4.0. It goes without saying that in a corporate setting, there is a higher likelihood of uniformity as far as the OS is concerned. However, when a developer is producing a web site whose audience is the general public then the possibilities and hence the effort to account for them rivals the efforts to quantify infinity.

It is not all a gloomy picture though. Anybody who is still running Windows 98 for any reason at all is in a rapidly reducing minority. The majority of business and home users are running Windows XP or at the very least Windows 2000. These versions of Windows feature improved versions of Internet Explorer and of course relatively new browsers like Firefox have come along and grabbed a noticeable market share which is believed to be one of the main reason for renewed interest in Internet Explorer from within Microsoft. Additionally, Microsoft faces competition from Internet based companies such as Google and since Microsoft is driven by competition, they have responded by way of the Windows Live services. These are services that are internet based and hence there will be a self-serving interest from Microsoft to keep up with browser innovation as well as pour some of its immense resources towards innovation around Internet Explorer.

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