Saturday, September 20, 2008

The abysmal state of web layout technology - or not?

This post is about CSS and HTML.

Coming from a desktop application programming background, the web platform is actually pretty flexible and concise. Customized layouts can be done with remarkably simple markup and a bit of separate style information.

The big problem with the web is that HTML and CSS is designed for pages with a single stream of information, like a manual or a scientific article about an experiment in physics. Or a Wikipedia article. To layout another stream of information, like say something as exotic as a navigation bar, you basically have to use a hack which requires you to understand some pretty complicated concepts about HTML box layout or turn the markup into an unmanageable table hell.

I've been integrating a design for an internal web application for a customer the last couple of days. The thing about CSS is that apart from the problem with multiple streams of information, it's usually quite straightforward to work with. As long as you stick to the HTML mindset of how the world looks like.

The basic building block in this design is boxes (fine, HTML layout is about boxes) with shadows (urgh, no support for that) and rounded edges (double urgh, no support for that either) and shiny buttons (no built-in support for shininess). Clean markup out of the window, table soup and images to the rescue. Matters is made worse by unstable rendering by a certain browser which is a disaster for a box where the visual effect depends of getting the edges exactly right.

The most annoying thing about this is perhaps that if just someone had put multiple background image support into CSS, then I could have my clean markup back and get over this in no time. I was thinking about this earlier today, and even got so far as to have a simple draft proposal for fixing this case. I was determined to submit it to whoever is in charge of CSS and push for its inclusion.

But upon investigation, it turns out that a solution has already been proposed and written into the CSS draft specification years ago as border-image. There's a nice overview on

Apparently, the situation with respect to adoption has been dead-locked for a long time. The spec can't be made final until at least two different renderings engines have implemented it. And the rendering engines can't implement them for real before the spec is final. So it's going to take some determination to get going with proprietary attributes to begin with. Luckily it appears that 2008 is the year that the push is finally happening.

So there you are. It will change someday. I think this is typical of the web. There's some really good stuff in it, and a whole slew of annoyances. But they're going away, slowly.

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