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XHTML

Why Web Builders Must Move to XHTML
Interview by Tim Haight

Posted July 24, 2002

The World Wide Web Consortium has issued a series of standards for XHTML, a new version of HTML as a version of XML. Does this mean every Web designer and developer must learn XHTML? What are the benefits? What happens if you don't? To get answers to these questions, FTPOnline Editor-in-Chief Tim Haight spoke with Molly Holzschlag, a Web designer, educator, writer, consultant, and member of the steering committee of The Web Standards Project (see Resources).

Holzschlag has written more than 20 Web development books, been named one of the 25 Most Influential Women on the Web, and written for diverse publications such as Macworld, PC Magazine, IBM developerWorks, WebReview.com, and Builder.com. She is presenting a day-long workshop at the upcoming Web Builder 2002 in Las Vegas, entitled "From HTML to XHTML and Beyond."

FTPOnline: Why should Web designers make the transition from HTML to XHTML?

Holzschlag: Everybody has to make the transition if they expect to continue in the field and increase their opportunities from a career perspective—designer, developer, or any profession that requires document management. Not just Web designers and developers, but people who work in law, medicine, and even car manufacturing—anybody who's given the responsibility to update an intranet or the Internet. Skills are for the long term. In order to best facilitate their own best practices and a happy future for their careers, people need to make the transition.

FTPOnline: What's so good about XHTML that makes using it such a step forward?

Holzschlag: It harkens back to what Tim Berners-Lee said about the structure of the Web, and how each layer has to be built cleanly for the next block on top, so the whole structure maintains integrity. It's a good metaphor. We're looking for that clean next level, so we can build on the past infrastructure but move forward with a clean one. This means the addition of other agents to receive information—the PDA, pager, set-top box, devices in the car. All will be affected by markup. If clean markup can write a document one time and make it available to all these types of technologies, that's really what it's about.

FTPOnline: How is XHTML different from HTML?

Holzschlag: XHTML is an app, a reformulation of HTML as an application of XML. More simply, HTML never meant to be a language of design and interactivity. It was designed to create an opportunity for documents to be marked up properly and managed. But then for browsers to grow, we took that simplistic language and made it do backbends to accommodate presentational concerns. We ended up with complicated markups to produce visual results on a specific user agent known as a browser.

If you have one of today's browsers, it can read and interpret most of that HTML without a problem. But other types of agents have difficulty interpreting it. There's also the issue of accessability: the problems for folks with disabilities because of the overbearing use of nonstandard markup. The first goal is to separate the document structure from its presentation. In (XHTML) 1.1, the strict form does not allow for any kind of presentational markup such as borders, cell padding, colors, or fonts. Everything has to go in a stylesheet, with presentation separated from structure through stylesheets or multiple stylesheets. That way, you can get the same content to a Web browser, a screen reader, or a printer. Going back to no presentation in a markup document opens up possibilities.

FTPOnline: What will have to be done to the installed base of HTML-based pages as we move to XHTML?

Holzschlag: What happens to the installed base can't be answered globally. It has to be in terms of a specific organization's needs. A company might have lots of information online, most of it using nonstandard HTML—lots of presentation stuff, tables, font tags, and so on. But the company might also have a concern to move forward, to work on getting the accessibility in there and getting the benefits of separation of presentation and structure. Don't spend the money on changing the legacy—it will all be readable by a browser. Begin with the new information, or begin with a site redesign. Doing a site redesign or starting a site from scratch is a perfect opportunity to look at XHTML and CSS.

It depends on unique circumstances. Certain things might keep you from pure XHTML. You might have to use a transitional type definition, with tables and font tags, and you might still have a valid document. You need to understand the languages and apps, and then pick the right approach.

FTPOnline: What are people using XHTML for today?

Holzschlag: Most XHTML in use today serves to replace HTML, to properly structure documents for the Web for browsers and related devices. [It's being integrated into] software development tools. Dreamweaver MX has lots of XHTML support. So does [the latest version of] HomeSite. Dreamweaver is the most impressive in that regard, followed by smaller products such as shareware. A lot of them have fewer fiscal issues to deal with, so they can turn around quickly and provide terrific support for XHTML and XML. They will make transition easier.

FTPOnline: When will most developers and designers move to XHTML? There's some inertia to overcome in moving to a new way of doing things.

Holzschlag: What will make people change? A powerful force will be the accessibility rules and laws around the rules; we have Section 508 in the United States. Any agency receiving federal money must make sites accessible. If you're getting a federal penny anywhere, you have an obligation to follow the law. When money is tighter, [the government] might be a little more aggressive, especially for big organizations. It's a motivational issue.

But it's also beneficial to learn this critical lesson of separating presentation from structure. If you look at the use of XHTML and CSS vs. traditional markup relying on workarounds, you find a tremendous reduction in overhead: from 150k to 25k [per page], for example. It's also a huge difference in terms of managing graphics and table layouts. You simplify that, and it speaks to time, money, and how many people to hire. That will be persuasive as well.

So it's between law and economics, and for many people, it's a matter of doing the job well. Most people do not like change, and the learning curve is steep. But if you don't like change, you shouldn't be in this industry, because things are going to move rapidly for at least the next 15 years. Also, a trend is starting: It's hip to follow the standards. People doing it are considered cool. That's the motivation for a lot of people.

FTPOnline: Why is XHTML so important to accessibility?

Holzschlag: There are many reasons, but here's one prime example: Tables in presentation create a problem for people with disabilities, especially the blind. Many screen readers can't read columns. Visual people know how to read three columns: The first column is read, then the second, then the third. Tables were never meant to lay things out; they create a grid. You can create accessible means in HTML 4, but without those things you create three columns across a Web page, and a screen reader might read the first line of first column, followed by the first line of the second column and the first line of the third, making the page completely unintelligible to the user. But when it's in a CSS layout, the content is separated into divisions. You can get those three columns, but in a specific order so the screen reader reads them without the barriers that table cells create. To get barriers to accessibility to go away, the predominant thing is to separate the document's structure and presentation.

Early on, before there was a graphical Web interface, the online environment was text-based. This opened up opportunities to disabled people—telnet, FTP, Gopher, and all those things were completely accessible. Doors had opened to a whole population, and then they just shut as Web browsers became graphical. In many ways, we're simply returning to interoperability, platform independence, and accessibility for all people [with XHTML].

FTPOnline: How will XHTML affect internationalization?

Holzschlag: I want to go on record. Internationalization is the sleeper issue that technology must address in next couple years. We can do it, but it's difficult to do well and easily. We see a huge amount of issues: multilingual, global markup, delivery, font use, display—not to mention issues with globalization and localization, terminology, and color perception. We have barely skimmed the surface. Internationalization will become more and more important as people come on line and begin using the Web as in depth as people in English-speaking countries. There's a huge interest in opening up to Chinese visitors. There's tremendous growth in this area. It's a huge population.

So it's a definite shift. The World Wide Web is worldwide. We have a tendency in the United States to be ethnocentric. We have to start thinking globally to facilitate those things, to take advantage of what we can do with the Web. Whatever we have to sell, the world wants, but how do we get out there? The solutions are not complete. XHTML does address this in some ways, but it's limited.

XHTML raises the awareness of standards in general, and internationalization is a part of HTML and XHTML, so those issues are being highlighted.

So there are three main issues: separation of presentation from structure, accessibility, and making international documents. I'll address them more in the future.

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