How Web Pages Work

There no question that the web is changing. Simple HTML based web pages are no longer acceptable when it comes to establishing a presence on the internet. Launched in 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the driving force behind the web page revolution. Its goal, as stated on its homepage (www.w3.org) is “[to] develop interoperable technologies… to lead the Web to its full potential.” What does this mean? Well, let’s take a look.

How the Web Works

If you really want to see a raw webpage, head up to the view menu in your browser and select “Source” in Internet Explorer or “Page Source” in Firefox. What you will likely find is a garble of meaningless code, unless of course you have some knowledge of web programming. How is this code translated into the beautiful (or, in some instances, ugly) arrangement of text and graphics that appear on your screen when you surf the web? This is where the web browser comes in – to interpret the code into something more useful.

The Problem
The main problem with data clarity on the web lies in the different ways in which browsers interpret the code. Alas, it is true that not all browsers are created equally. While most differences are not drastic, there are subtle, yet important differences in the way in which browsers handle basic code. For example, certain code is successfully interpreted by Firefox, but simply ignored by Internet Explorer, specifically some cascading style sheet properties used to format web pages. The lack of a “web standard” for developers means that so called “hacks” must be written, sometimes browser by browser, in order to ensure that web pages will appear properly. This problem multiplies the amount of code developers must write as well as the number of hours they must spend testing their pages on a variety of platforms.

The Solution
The W3C hopes to minimize these underlining problems through the formation of “web standards”, essentially universal coding syntaxes and languages. Two examples of such standards endorsed by the W3C are XHTML, a stricter version of HTML, and cascading style sheets (CSS), used for document presentation (layout and formatting). Not only are these languages supported by most browsers (and should increasingly become more so), but they are also elegant tools. Attaching a style sheet to a web site, for example, allows the design and layout to be changed in just one location and then reflected dynamically across the site. The power of CSS can be seen at css Zen Garden (www.csszengarden.com), which features one content page in various mutations that differ merely by a different style sheet, thus creating hundreds of different looks.

The Future
With the advancement of software technologies, the possibilities of the content that will be delivered via the web seems limitless. Besides music and video, the move has begun to deliver entire applications to the end user from within the web browser. ThinkFree Corp., for example, has launched a Word, Excel, and PowerPoint compatible online application (http://www.thinkfree.com/). Powered by Java, the company hopes to provide cross-platform compatibility coupled with the convenience of immediate online access to files. A collection of technologies known as Ajax (Asynchronous JavaScript + XML) empowers the online software development movement allowing customizable web pages with drag and drop elements much like Windows Explorer.

Not only is the type of content to be delivered poised to change, but where it will be delivered is already shifting. No longer is the desktop or laptop computer the sole means with which to view the web. Many PDAs and smartphones now have the ability to view webpages, and the internet has even spread to everyday appliances such as the refrigerator (LG has an internet capable refridgerator!). Thus, with the internet in so many locations comes the need for standards so that it can be viewed in the same permutation in all places.

Next time you look at a web page, wherever it may be, take just a few moments to think about the underlying technology. The process is amazing, yet problems will increase if developers cannot agree upon a common ground upon which to work. As content grows in complexity, the chance to error is magnified. And now, a plea from a web designer: get yourself a (free!) copy of Mozilla Firefox (www.getfirefox.com). Internet Explorer has a long way to come in conforming to the W3C standards. The developers of Firefox, on the other hand, have worked hard to support W3C standards so that users can see the beauty that web developers work so hard to achieve.

One caveat: keep Internet Explorer around for access to some sites written with proprietory technology (like Windows Update, for example) that only work in IE.

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