Upgrade to XHTML Strict

[Sep 25, 2006] Returning visitors may notice some recent changes in the ArtSites.com website. Most noticeable might be the look of the site, but the new graphic design is a tiny part of what's new. The biggest upgrade, by far, is that the entire site has been rewritten in XHTML (Strict).

XHTML promises several advantages over HTML. XHTML is a highly expandable language, not just mark-up coding like HTML. It provides standards for sharing information with other compliant websites (as for news feeds), and it helps accommodate the rapidly rising number of ways that people use for accessing the Internet. The Strict flavor of XHTML is also fully compliant with XML standards. The most immediate reason why ArtSites has adopted XHTML, however, is that it simply seemed like the right thing to do at this time in light of the fact that our business is developing websites.

For the benefit of established ArtSites clients who click on the XHTML validation link that now resides at the bottom of each page--and then decide to see how well their own sites validate--don't be alarmed by what you find! If your site doesn't validate, that puts you in the company of such players as Google.com, Microsoft.com, CNN.com...and most other websites. The organization that has set the specified standards and runs the validation service, the World Wide Web Consortium (WWWC), a.k.a. W3.org, has no governing authority over how anyone wishes to do anything on the Web. They only recommend standards that could make life much easier for everyone if only everyone would follow them. Whether or not a site validates according to WWWC's recommendations is not so much an issue of right or wrong. Rather, it's a measure of how well a Web page conforms to the standards that WWWC would like to see broadly established and embraced on the World Wide Web.

WWWC's efforts toward standardization are laudable, but it has often been an uphill battle. For example, when the Web was new, the Netscape browser left the others in the dust by adding a rich set of proprietary attributes to flavor the HTML that it could render. The power of HTML quickly grew because of the stuff that Netscape added to it, and that lead Web designers who wished to take advantage of those more powerful Netscape attributes to include them in their own coding.

The little baby on the scene at the time, Internet Explorer (IE), fought back by adding a plethora of its own proprietary attributes--and on and on it went. HTML became less and less standardized each day instead of more standardized. In some cases a dozen different browsers could have as many different ways to do the same thing as there were browser versions. Web designers were then left to try and reconcile all of those overlapping and sometimes conflicting proprietary attributes in order to create Web pages that would render well on all of those browsers.

The problem wasn't that the developers of each of those early browsers didn't like standards. The problem appears to have been that each of them hoped to set the standards in order to corner the browser market. Most of them failed to even make much of a mark, but much to the despair of conscientious Web designers, they all had to be considered.

Over the years there haven't been many major players in the browser wars, but those that have managed to fight their way to the top have also created a great deal of disparity. In the beginning, 1993, the now nearly forgotten Mosaic browser dominated the market at nearly 100%. In only two years, however, Netscape Navigator rose to the top and virtually displaced Mosaic, peaking with a claim of 90% of the market share by early 1996. Back then, a latecomer to the realm, Internet Explorer (IE), was still all but unknown. Through its own devices, however--both the advantages of packaging IE with other Microsoft products and Microsoft's efforts to standardize its own version of HTML--IE rose to claim over 96% of the market by mid 2002.

Since then, however, IE has slowly but consistently lost market share. It's now down to about 83% and continues to fall. IE has most largely been diminished by Firefox, which is currently at about 13%. Third place is Safari at 2%--mostly because it comes packaged with Apple's OSX operating system. Fourth place is Opera at about 1%.

A large part of Firefox's rise in popularity (aside from the fact that it's free and it's performance is superior to IE) is due to enthusiastic promotion by Web developers because Firefox seeks to be WWWC compliant.

At 1% of the market share, Opera may seem like a small player, but I expect (or at least hope) that will change. In my opinion, Opera provides a Web surfing experience that is far beyond any of the other browsers. It's been around for several years, and the main reason I would guess that it hasn't claimed a larger market share than it has so far is that it wasn't free; its cost was $30. But now it is FREE! This was a very pleasant surprise for me when I recently went to download the new Opera 9 release, fully prepared to pay $30 or $50, and discovered that it's now completely free! I strongly encourage you to check it out. I'm not doing this little selling job on Opera because I get any commissions for linking to it or anything. It's simply that I think it's the best browser out there, and if cost was ever an excuse for not getting it and using it in the past, it no longer is.

My main point, however, is that the way browsers have evolved over the past ten years has made it difficult and sometimes even impossible to write WWWC compliant code that would also display as desired by all browsers. Through IE's efforts to dominate the market, it has surely been the greatest offender in all of this. When you try to validate the very brief IE home page, for example, not surprisingly the WWWC validator shows 55 errors even for the very forgiving HTML 4.01 Transitional standard. This isn't because anyone is trying to pick on IE, by the way. It's only because IE has tried to use its position of dominance in the market to flaunt its dismissal of other standards while trying to establish its own set of proprietary standards--many of which have little to commend them when compared to WWWC equivalents. Because IE still is the most popular browser, however, we Web developers must necessarily do what we can in order to make the websites we build so they will render well in IE--no matter how low a regard some of us may have for it.

Safari's home page fairs better with the WWWC validator than does IE's, but it still doesn't validate for even HTML 4.01 Transitional. Firefox's home page, however, validates for HTML 4.01 Strict--and Opera's home page validates for XHTML 1.0 Strict!

"Wow!" I said to myself. That any browser developers care enough about WWWC recommendations enough to make the effort and to take the care to make their own websites compliant was very gratifying. And if they are willing and able to do it, ArtSites sure is, too.

All future websites that ArtSites contracts to develop will also validate for at least HTML 4.01 Transitional and higher standards, depending on the clients' requirements. When we have some open slots of time, we'll also go back through websites that we have designed in the past and update their code. And, yes, the rewritten sites will display just fine in IE.

In the meantime, clients whose sites don't currently validate should not be concerned. We were well aware of the validation "errors" at the time the sites were originally designed, and the choice had been between making websites that complied with what seemed to be WWWC's ivory tower standards or making websites that displayed as desired on the range of real-life browsers in use at the time.

We have long looked forward to a future day when there would be no significant conflicts between the two. And that future is finally here!


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