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Letters to Myself
Wednesday, 18 May 2005
Web design
Topic: Computing
In my usual mindless meandering fashion, I accidently got infatuated with the process of designing web pages a few weeks ago. So I cranked out a dozen different versions of homepages for our family webs at cobabe.org and my other personal stuff at tripod. I haven't updated my pages for nearly five years. By comparison with current stuff on the web, they were looking pretty lame.

I was surprised -- and a little set back -- to find that web programming has actually become a subject with quite a substantial depth. Though thankfully, not quite as expansive as astronomy. :-)

Originally the committee that developed the HTML standard envisioned rather simple requirements. The web quickly outgrew all of those foundational ideas.

Web browsers and "standards" have evolved in a rough-and-tumble fashion. It has been sadly depressing to watch Microsoft establish such a dominating presence, with IE eventually brow-beating most others into oblivion, much to the detriment of the internet browsing public. Early on, Microsoft apparently decided to cater to commercial internet interests. Their browser product is packed to the gills with every concession to commercial interests. Most who use IE don't realize how they put themselves at the mercy of commercial exploitation.

After trying every alternative along the way, now I'm using Firefox. It seems to be becoming very popular. I'm hoping more people will discover how nice it is to NOT use IE, to not be subject to every marketing splash that wants to smear advertising all over the screen. I use the Firefox AdBlock extension and am very seldom bothered by pop-ups or animated blinking or screaming or obnoxious music or even unwanted marginalia. I'm in control of the material displaying on my screen, and have the final veto over everything that comes across.

Anyway, I digress. Though the HTML idea was a marvelous one at inception, it fell far short of the current requirements. The HTML presentation approach is basically to assume that data should simply flow across virtual pages, without imposing much in the way of external structure. This works fine for naked unadorned text, but is not satisfying when adding the elaborate graphics and controls we use so much now. Without careful structuring the page elements fall into an unintelligble jumble.

Because of the very stubborn underlying browser bias, I have experienced a lot of frustration just trying to get web page elements to display as I want. Now I have resorted to CSS2 methods to order my web elements. This after I discovered that many commercial sites on the web use this approach.

In fact it appears that I am somewhat of an anachronism with my preferred hands-on approach to web programming. I like to write the code myself, instead of letting a web page generator tell me what to do. I use a text editor.

I'd probably still be coding in x86 assembler if it was still practical. Most of my page output is now coming from server-side CGI scripts. Pretty cool stuff, dynamically generated HTML, all appropriate for new-age high-tech web surfing. Actually it's all still pretty cranky, but I'm getting the hang of it. Now that I actually know what I want to do, I need to go back and start all over again to get it done right. Isn't it always like that? :-)

One other frustration I have encountered is getting things to curve gracefully. Computer displays just don't do that very well, at least not yet. Just looking at the curves and graduated color columns on the Smartgroups page gives a good example. Everything with a curve radius or color gradient is a fixed graphical element, presented from a boilerplate GIF file. Some artist painstakingly rendered these shapes using an art program. Browsers are too dumb to know how to draw anything but straight lines. I'm using GIMP to fix up my graphics. It is a very capable graphics editor, but doesn't have all the fancy builtin features you'd get with a fancy HTML generator.

Anyway, I'm way too cheap to buy Dreamweaver.

Posted by jcobabe at 7:32 PM MDT
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