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Bold and italic tags

<EM> and <STRONG> are standard HTML tags intended to mark out text for emphasis. Most browsers render them as italic and bold respectively. <B> and <I> can be used to request bold and italic explicitly.

The existence and widespread support of both sets of tags makes for religious wars between the "I want my webpages to look pretty on other people's screens and therefore need to be able to describe it in terms of how I want things to look, not necessarily what things are" and the "HTML is a language for describing content so it can be adequately displayed on any device, not a language for graphic design" camps.

What some people fail to realise is that both are needed: sometimes you want to emphasise something and don't care how it comes out, sometimes (for example, when citing the title of a book or play) emphasis has nothing to do with it, but typographical convention dictates that the text is italic.

And <cite> is obviously there for no reason at all.  --Vitenka
Okay, then, on a page describing fonts for download, explaining what the words bold and italic mean...
That's more reasonable, but still somewhat misses the point.  You can't know how the browser is going to display it.  They could be using an audio browser, which emphasises through tone.  Graphics are definitely the way to go there (and to show different fonts too)  Heck - some browser renders <I>text</I> as bork-text-bork.  (Ok, yes, only to be silly - but it does.)  --Vitenka

How about scientific usage? Genus (and other) names, such as Drosophila, and even the names of genes (pannier, achaete, iroquois) should be in italics, not whatever the browser thinks is an emphasis. - SunKitten, being awkward

Is the summary above fair? Edit if not :) - MoonShadow

Resizable Pages

Further along the content-v-presentation debate, we come across the issue of resizing pages. Originally, it was understood that HTML was a markup language, which the browser would render in whatever format it thought best.
Then WYSIWYG editors came along... and suddenly, lots of people got confused between their HTML editor and their desktop publishing package.
Result: Lots of web pages that only work if you have a screen set to 1024x768 and have your browser maximised.

I contribute not infrequently to an online HTML FAQ board (well, that's what it is effectively).  The number of times I've seen people ask "My webpage looks really bad on my laptop, but fine on my PC screen - what's wrong?" or even things like "How do I set the user's browser to be maximised so that my web page looks nice?"...

AC finds it really irritating when people assume their webpage has lots of screenspace.  I do normally use a desktop resolution of 1600x1200, but I prefer browser windows to only take up a maximum of a quarter of that! :)
what is even *more* annoying is when people have a left hand border that's on a *tile* because I have my screen set with as high a resolution as possible, I often see site where the left hand border repeats itsself over to the right... obscuring the text (which of course automatically goes all the way accross the screen).  It is *really* annoying.
This is a problem, because AFAIK there's no way to tell the browser 'tile this vertically but not horizontally' - so either you waste bandwidth and have a tall image and hope it's tall neough, or you make it 2048 wide and hope that it's going to be wide enough...  --Vitenka
...or you separate the image into repeating and non-repeating sections and the page that contains it in into stretchy and non-stretchy parts (using a table; see [Phoenix Feathers] for an example). Which is also evil and breaks in a different set of ways again across browsers. - MoonShadow
Can't you use the STYLE command "repeat-y" to repeat vertically, "repeat-x" to repeat horizontally and repeat-xy to tile? Like this: STYLE="background-image:url(borderl1.jpg); background-repeat: repeat-y"? Admittedly this (as suggested above) is associated with a TD element but hey... nothing's perfect.  Also, I have managed to code pages using this that work perfectly in IE, NN6 (hence Mozilla), Opera and Konqueror, which covers a fair chunk of the total browser market.  Handily, if the browser doesn't support that STYLE command, it doesn't do anything and the border doesn't display.  There are a few problems with image caching in opera but they're survivable. --Jumlian
I didn't think STYLE applied to background images.  If you do it by tables, then you've got a problem with having an image that can be partially overlapped.  Anyhow, I'll admit to having no clue how stylesheets work, nor any reason to learn until more browsers manage to not cock up when presented with them.  --Vitenka
It's not a style sheet - it's a style tag, and therefore part of the HTML definition after one of the revisions to mesh the CSS2 and the HTML definitions.  The style tag defines the background image, and can cause problems in that background images are not part of the explicit images array in certain browsers (Opera) - this caused problems with the "Frome" (the RPG campaign, not the place near Cornwall) website you may remember from a way back, and screws up caching and rollovers, unless you explicitly define the cache array to account for this.  I do not see the problem with using tables as you explain it.  If the image is overlapped generally that is sloppy placement or page definition.  Frequently, out there in the wilds of webspace that's due to someone (ab)using dweaver (or other, similarly evil software that has no concept of placement, how to achieve it, and cross-platform display stability) and not being bothered to test the site with different browsers.  Notepad (or similar) is the way forward.  --Jumlian
You misunderstand what I mean by overlap.  Often you want a page to have a background image which repeats vertically but fades off to a constant colour horizontally - but you don't want to have the text (and other page elements) constrained to only the single colour bit, you want it to overlap the background image.  I'll not carp on about the evils of rollovers and javascript and caching arrays here.  Suffice to say, I find them evil.  --Vitenka
Fair point.  The STYLE attribute above (sorry - it's an attribute not a tag) can be specified as an attribute of the BODY as well, meaning that text can roam freely over the background image without any problems (scribbles quick example, fires off into the ether) if you see what I mean... --Jumlian

What is needed is some way to replace HTML with something like PDF: a proper graphic-design language in which people can set out how their pages will display, manipulated by tools just like standard desktop publishing ones. That removes at a stroke all the problems associated with resizable pages, graphics in the wrong place, etc etc: if the window you look at it in is too small you can only see a portion of the page, render the page to a proportion of its size, etc, just like a PDF viewer.

It also gives the designer total control over all aspects of page design.

Static Flash may be the way to go here, if the files are small enough to keep download times reasonable and support could be more widespread. The main problem with PDF is also the file sizes, and the lack of totally integrated browser support allowing hyperlinks etc in PDF files which allow them to mesh seamlessly with the HTML web.

(PeterTaylor) Static flash? You evil, evil person. BTW PDF does support hyperlinks, and I believe the plugin for IE integrates them seamlessly.

Ummm... no.  --Vitenka

Ok, ok.  Elaboration.

No.  Really.

Heh.  ;)

As a standard, html has the advantages of being global and well understood.  XML and XLST comes closest to what you are asking for whilst satisfying me - generic markup with all of the flexibility that implies, combined with a 'display it this way'.  The problem I see is one of orientation.  You want "I made it - show it like this", whereas I want it "I want all of my information displayed in the following form".  Having both is ideal, but does not yet work, is not well understood and is certainly not globally installed.

You also miss out on one major advantage of html over pdf (and partially over flash) - progressive rendering.  Html pages can display as they go (with the partial exception of tables, though most browsers cope with that too now) and certainly displays even if you only get half the file.  Pdf and flash do not reliably do that - though they can be made to do so with specially designed pages.

Not to mention the problems automated tools have with non-html pages.  Search engines are just now starting to index flash - but they can't cope with hyperlinks buried within it properly yet.  (It would help if flash were a proper standard and anyone could write tools for it of course)

Data and presentation should be kept separate.  That's just good sense for future expansion.  Though currently the presentation layer is not as flexible as people would like, and this leads to them doing nasty hacky things that they really shouldn't do.

OTOP - I doubt I'll be happy with any presentation short of TrueAI? looking at the tags and saying 'humm, that probably means...'

Or, going back to being monosyllabilic for a moment:
PDF is bad, flash is worse, I browse text only, no graphics, no scripts, no sounds, small screen, no css - and I simply avoid sites that won't work that way.

You have good points on the technical problems, but I don't think they're inherent: I didn't say I wanted PDF, but something PDF-like, and adopting things like progressive rendering would be a good idea.
That's fair enough.  Evolving html is a good idea - but to be realistic, you're not going to get the kind of mass adoption that came about round about netscape 2 time ever again.  And without that, you're probably not going to be able to count on any feature you introduce being anything more than 'it might work'.  --Vitenka

But to challenge you on one point:

PDF is bad, flash is worse, I browse text only, no graphics, no scripts, no sounds, small screen, no css - and I simply avoid sites that won't work that way.

Well, fine. But why should those who make web-pages restrict themselves to the lowest common denominator to cater to you? I write a page that looks nice; you don't visit it; your loss. Neither am I talking, of course, about using the highest-possible specification, and cutting out the people whose connections/computers can't cope (that's why I was talking about file sizes above). There's a medium where most people, who are neither minimalist text-only fanatic or animation-junkies, are happy.

(PeterTaylor) You might not be talking about using the highest-possible specification, but the vast majority of sites which use Flash won't render for me, simply because I can't be bothered to upgrade from Flash 5 to Flash 6. This strikes me as silly - what does Flash 6 provide which Flash 5 doesn't that most people have to use?

Why should I as a web designer care about people who 'can't be bothered' to upgrade, if most people can and do? I don't actually know if people can and do; I myself don't have Flash installed at home at all. So I just don't look at any Flash websites. But neither do I complain: if they want to use Flash, that's their business, not mine.

That is a straw man, AIUI; the argument isn't "we should cater for the lowest common denominator", but "we should describe content in a way that allows it to be rendered appropriately on as wide a range of stuff as possible, and this is best done by describing what the content is, as a priority over describing how we want it to look." - MoonShadow

If that's the argument, it shouldn't be couched in terms of ' I browse [...] and I simply avoid [...]'. That -- the idea that for some reason web designers should care about one person who chooses to cripple his web-browsing experience -- is all I was challenging. There is indeed a wider point but as Vitenka ignored it in the paragraph I quoted, so I ignored it in my response.

You willfully ignore the partially sighted.  Those who control their browsers solely using the keyboard, or even anyone who wants to browse on their mobile phone?  The number of people using non-standard browsers is growing, not shrinking.  Whilst it is true that there is a median of functionality - why can't all sites be made to support all functionality?  It's not HARD to degrade to text only, site designers have to wilfully do bad things in order to stop it.  And many of them DO.  It's largely the fault of the tool makers, of course.  If a website is thrown up using FrontPage? and looks fine to them, they move on to the next site, whether or not it breaks on other people's machines.  Improve the tools, improve the sites.  --Vitenka (404 - no_flash.htm not found)

The partially sighted of course deserve consideration: but do all publishers who don't issue braille editions of all their works similarly 'wilfully ignore' them? Should we force Braille versions of all books published?

And they are a different group to those who deliberately cripple themselves by demanding text-only browsing.

And, again, why should all sites support all functionality? If I write a website, isn't it my business whether I care about it being viewable on a mobile 'phone at twelve paces? If I care, I can make it so; if I don't, why should I?

Just to add; I personally thoroughly approve of every-pixel-has-its-place thoroughly-designed sites that also happen to be usable in the less capable browsers I sometimes use; typically, however, this means some pain and/or duplication of effort for whoever did the graphic design, and I certainly *don't* enjoy sites that break in various horrible irreparable unworkaroundable ways if I don't have the latest Flash/Java? plugins (on some systems I use, I don't have a choice in the matter - the site designer's laziness means that however much I may want to see their site, I can't! The Argos site, for instance, autodetects Mozilla and deliberately refuses to work with it. This seems idiotic for  an online store) - MoonShadow

It does seem bizarre for an online store. But shops aren't forced to cater for all customers (except, I think, with regards to disability legislation). If they don't want it to work with one particular browser that's their business surely? After all, it's them who lose the business, and their profits that are that much smaller (perhaps they decided that the extra profits they'd get from making it work would be outweighed by the costs to do so?).

Why do you think you have some kind of right to see every site in the format you want?

(Sorry, Vitenka, but I wanted to reply to this..) I don't have such a *right*, no. OTOH, I am operating under the assumption that, in general, those who put up websites do so because they want people to visit them, and the more people the better. Therefore it makes sense to recommend practices that maximise the potential audience, and deride practices that exclude portions of the population needlessly. If someone deliberately doesn't want a certain group of people to visit their site, that is their choice; however, I make the wide sweeping assertion that the vast majority of broken sites out there are due to some combination of poor knowledge of standards, badly designed tools, laziness and ignorance, rather than a deliberate choice to exclude people. - MoonShadow

Yes; they want an audience, and as wide an audience as possible. But there's a trade-off here. If you dumb-down your side, you can get maybe a few hundred more visitors, but at the cost of making it look half as good when it does work. Where to go on that trade-off is up to the site designer.

Likewise, for commerical sites, making it work in all browsers on all platforms is hard: it requires time and testing. Trust me, I know whereof I speak. That's expensive.

There is a difference between "make a site that looks exactly like this on this browser, but is usable on any browser" and "make it look exactly like this on all browsers that it can, and screw the rest". Maximising the number of browsers on which it looks exactly the same is hard, and is what you get paid for. Maximising the number of browsers on which it doesn't become completely unusable is not, and is an *independent* operation from the former. Unfortunately, web designers and/or marketing people tend to see some sort of conflict here, resulting in pointless exclusion. - MoonShadow

So there's a trade-off between cost and number of visitors. Again, how far to go is the choise of the organisation.

'Broken' design is beside the point: I'm talking about deliberate decisions as to what to prioritise.

'Broken' design is precisely the point. The Argos site, for instance, at its heart contains a listing of goods and prices. Everything else is just fluff and marketing. Their "decision to prioritise" is broken - there's no conflict between providing what they currently do as well as a text-only dump of their raw data (in their case, it would just mean retaining an old revision of their site!), and just providing what they currently do. In most such cases, the tradeoff you describe is an illusion, the way it is in the Argos example. There's no reason not to make the intermediate steps taken between "raw data" and "singing dancing site" visible so visitors can downgrade gracefully. It can even be more work to hide them than not. - MoonShadow

I'm afraid that if you think that 'fluff and marketing' is not a priority you don't understand retail at all. The marketing and branding is probably the most important bit of the site. Lists of prices and goods can be got anywhere; that's not what a shop sells, what differentiates it from other shops. A shop like Argos sells, fundamentally, itself as an idea. That's how they get people to come to them rather than to any of the other shops that sell the same stuff.

A simple text-listing of goods and prices would not create the impression of themselves that they want to: it would be like walking into John Lewis and finding it looking like Asda. They may well have decided that it's better for people not to be able to see their site at all if it can't display in the best way possible than to give them a bad impression of it.

In that case, I am forced to admit that I don't understand retail at all. When coming to an online store, I typically already know exactly what I want, and want to compare prices with other online stores. The store's website presentation is pretty much irrelevant. Most people I've witnessed shopping online are similar - there's no "browsing the store" stage; that takes place earlier on (if at all), with the aid of a search engine, and is not limited to any one store (or, for that matter, to online store sites, or even the web; usenet posts can be helpful). Perhaps I am part of a minority, though...  - MoonShadow

It's not just a matter of browsing. It's a matter of how their shop presents itself to you. Think of the branding like, say, a frameset that, instead of providing information like how to navigate the site is designed to create in you a certain impression of their shop. This is especially important for Argos, which is trying to change its image from 'cheap and cheerful' to 'cheap and quite swanky really' (cf the Richard E. Grant ads). Now, they don't want you to be able to see their site without the 'frameset', because they want to make sure that every time you buy stuff from them the image that they are trying to present is reinforced, and that you don't every get any conflicting imges -- especially those which might remind you of their previous Asda-esque 'pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap' image, which a bare-bones site probably would. They want to project opulence, not bare functionality.

Perhaps I am part of a minority, though... Votes, people? - how do you shop on line? - MoonShadow

Like you do - I know what I want (and waiting for the pretty pictures and stuff to load is really maddening - and that's on ADSL! How do people cope with a slow modem, downloading that kind of page?) and I go straight to buy it. However, I don't think my reply can be totally independent of yours.. - SunKitten
(PeterTaylor) I don't. I do occasionally use the web to check prices before going to the "high street".
Sometimes, navigating round CafePress pages or similar, I will actually be browsing, and wanting images.  More normally I know what I want and get irritated by not being able to get there quickly.  (Amazon's indexing of ISBNs is very refreshing and nice compared to most online shops' indexes.)  But I'm definitely a CompSci and most likely in whatever minority MoonShadow's in.  --AlexChurchill

Very rarely, and usually via a direct link.  I'll find a piece of shareware, and buy it from the makers sometimes.  The one time I bought computer hardware I simply used the only website that worked for me and that I hadn't heard terrible things about.  The one truly awful experience I have had was with Amazon - I had a gift token to spend, and no idea what to spend it on.  Browsing books online is nigh on impossible.  Then again, I also believe that branding is evil and that advertising should be universally considered immoral, so I'm probably not typical.  --Vitenka (But I have a low attention span and a back button - and cash.  Go on, cater to me.  You know you want to.)

I know what I'm after, usually something I can only get in one place (like cafe press) or something which I want cheap (like books).  Generally if I do any shopping arround at all what I want is the pricing and the option to see a picture of the product.  I like the site to be clearly laid out, but other than that I don't care much for web design.  (Why is it so hard to write HTML that says 'If you can show this picture/animation/other random crap then do so, if you can't then don't?)
Annoyingly, it's not hard.  In fact, it is significantly harder to make pages that don't work unless you support a feature, than it is to make ones which degrade.  HTML explicitly states that browsers should just ignore any tags that they don't understand.  It might have been nice if they had added 'but you should honour the WIDTH and HEIGHT attributes of such tags' as well.  Ah well.  As time passes, more people will be using search engines and price comparison engines anyway - sites will have to register with them or get ignored - and we'll be able to bypass the ugliness.  --Vitenka (optimist?  me?  Wow...)
(PeterTaylor) It's not at all hard to make pages which use images for their links and don't provide alt text, so I'm not quite sure what you mean.

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