Originally published in the September 1, 1995 issue of Web Week

For the past few months, controversy has been brewing in the Web community over what is the best way to code HTML: sticking to the proposed (but far from standardized) specifications, or adopting the nonstandard tags designed by Netscape for greater design flexibility. The issue can essentially be divided into two camps: the graphic designers who crave greater desktop publishing functionality, and the scientists who believe in adhering to standards.

“When you use nonstandard tags, you encourage readers to buy the browser that the tags are specific to,” said Paul Prescott, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo (Canada) who does HTML consulting on the side. But David Cole of Uber magazine counters that “Netscape – for folks who want good design options and capabilities that reach a great number of people – is the most powerful, flexible tool available.”

The main point of contention seems to center around how quickly companies and standards committees can bring innovation to the marketplace. “It’s a shame the HTML powers-that-be are not as fast to react to designers’ needs as Netscape has been,” said Cole. “Netscape, and HTML in general, have a long way to go still, but the idea of splitting the Web into graphic browser users and info browser users will only serve to limit the options of both types of user.”

“Standards boards and IETFs are not always the best way to go. De facto standards have always played a role in the Net,” added Brian Bicowicz, who established Xylogic’s Web presence. “I believe other browsers will add Netscape support.”

Pushing the envelope

Also at issue is what kind of control each of the HTML sets gives to designers. “Netscape allows for the greatest page control by the programmer/designer,” said David Heller, president of Indigo Internet Communications. “If Netscape hadn’t pushed the envelope, then I’m sure we’d still be sitting here wishing for those features.”

“Netscape gave us the features that we publishers have been wanting,” added Glenn Davis, who designs pages for Knight-Ridder’s subsidiary Infi.Net and maintains the popular Cool Site of the Day page.

Another issue HTML authors take into consideration is how to weigh optimizing site design for the majority of users against creating a universally accessible Web site. “I’d rather have 60 to 80 percent, whatever Netscape share is these days, of Webheads come to my site again and again rather than 100 percent of them coming once to a blah site and never coming back,” Cole said.

“Right now, it makes no sense to code in true HTML 3.0, but it does make sense to use Netscape code, as the majority of people browsing the Web are doing so with the Netscape browser,” Davis added.

“My advice [to clients] usually is to use Netscape extensions, because they make for great sites that people will want to see,” Heller said.

But not everyone believes Netscape tags are the best thing since sliced bread. “I believe the author must be very cautious when using HTML beyond the 2.0 standard. I have made use of the 'borde clauses in the 'img' tag and little else of Netscape’s extensions,” said Dave Elliott, director of the Web Academy, an HTML teaching group.

“Some of the Netscape specialty tags are clumsy – CENTER as opposed to P align=CENTER, and a properly implemented FIG,’ said Brandi Weed, international product integrator for Knowledge Adventure, a games design firm. “The Netscape tags are nothing really special or just plain stupid, like BLINK.”

Maintaining a balance between incorporating impressive design features and ensuring accessibility for a broad audience is a narrow tightrope that many Web designers have resigned themselves to walking.

“Writing for Netscape locks you up in a browser-oriented situation,” said Jane Eniae, who maintains an internal Web site for IBM. “The goal of HTML is to be cross-platform, and unless you are dealing with standard HTML codes, one can easily get caught into a browser-specific mode, which is inherently a bad thing.”

Will the standard devolve?

“When you write a document that uses tags that are not standardized, you are implicitly encouraging the browser writers to keep or add those tags,” said Paul Prescod of the University of Waterloo, Canada. “This weakens the HTML standardization process and moves control of the standard from the HTML working group in the IETF to the browser writers. If this continues to happen, HTML will devolve into many different, sometimes-compatible formats.”