The now-infamous list of books on authoring for the Web has topped 130 titles. That's about $4500 worth of books. There are several interesting trends I've observed while collecting these titles. First, I'm seeing more and more titles being published simultaneously in both Macintosh and Windows editions. Second, there is an increasing number of books about designing Web pages/sites rather than the mechanics of writing HTML code. This is a good trend because you've probably seen your share of poorly designed sites. However, I predict a new wave of HTML programming books when Netscape 2.0 becomes the browser of choice, because of all its new HTML extensions. As expected, there is a crack in the dam holding back the inevitable flood of books on VRML and Java. Only two books have trickled through so far (one of each) but the dam is sure to burst soon, with about 20 titles announced.
This month's authoring discussion deals with the newest browser from Microsoft and another look at Jill Swift's Ant Template for Microsoft Word. I was hoping to have something say about Netscape's newest release, Navigator 2.0 Beta, but I fear it's not ready for prime time. It was so bad and bug-ridden that I removed it from my system and restored my old, untrustworthy version 1.22. Oh, true to form, Netscape's uninstall program didn't work, so I had to do all this manually. Finally, we'll have our regular Tip of the Month and Bookshelf sections.
Microsoft Internet Explorer
Just when I was getting fed up with Netscape 1.2 (Beta and Final), Microsoft released its Internet Explorer 2.0 Beta. I had liked the first version except for the fact that it didn't do tables. Well, the new version does tables and lots more. In fact, if Netscape hadn't just announced its Navigator 2.0 Beta I'd have said that Microsoft out-Netscaped Netscape. But Netscape continues to play leapfrog and probably will not let anyone stay ahead of them for very long. It's interesting that both of these big players have released beta versions of their software. Tell me, would you consider buying Excel 95 Beta? Of course not. Then why should you use Explorer or Navigator 2.0 Beta? Obviously because it's free. But what price will you really pay in your time and mental health for a product that someone is afraid to package and charge money for? This remains to be seen.
Microsoft has added a number of new features and HTML extensions which make this a very attractive browser. It has full support for tables (following the HTML 3.0 specifications) and some very functional HTML markup tags. My favorites are the ability to float tables with ALIGN="left" or "right" modifiers and the ability to assign each individual table cell its own background color. Internet Explorer also allows you to imbed video clips in HTML pages. This is done with a dynamic source attribute in the IMG tag which specifies an AVI file to play. There is also a standard SRC attribute to specify a still image for less enlightened browsers. The programmer can control when the video starts and how many loops it makes before stopping. There is also support for inline background sound in a variety of formats (WAV, AU, and MIDI), also with control over looping.
Move over <BLINK>, here comes <MARQUEE>. This is probably one of those features that will eventually come to be hated...if it ever becomes popular first. Basically, it allows text to scroll across the screen in a variety of ways such as regular scrolling left or right, sliding in and stopping, and bouncing back and forth across the screen. There are enough controls here to make this really obnoxious and it leaves a lot of room for visual abuse. On the other hand...
Internet Explorer also supports extensions to the <FONT> tag which allows changes to the type face and color anywhere on the page, even within a paragraph. For example:
This text is black and with serif.
This text is red and sans serif.
This text is also black and with serif.
Looks like this:
This text is black and with serif. This text is red and sans serif. This text is also black and with serif.
I've used some of the Internet Explorer HTML extensions on my Book List. I think the table background color is very effective as it distinguishes the table from the wallpaper and makes it easier to read as well. But I doubt that many people have seen it. It looks like a regular page when viewed with Netscape. (Note: Netscape 2.0 supports font color, but not face. Nor does it permit background color for table cells.) Internet Explorer is also "VRML Ready," whatever that means. Supposedly Microsoft has a VRML browser in the works for later this year.
Another interesting thing about Internet Explorer is the way it allows you to view local directories. You may recall that in WWWiz Issue #1 I was impressed by the fact that Netscape can display local directories in a Gopher-style screen. Internet Explorer can also display local directories, but it shows them in a Windows 95 "My Computer" type of window. This is convenient because it allows you to view and sort the directory in various ways—sorting is particularly nice. These windows provide full file management control, including drag and drop, file deletion, and so on. The same concept carries over to the history list, cache, and favorites list (bookmarks) as well. My only complaint here is that new windows are opened as you move to different directories and your screen can get crowded in a hurry.
Internet Explorer also provides a convenient way to edit local HTML files. When you choose to View Source it brings up the file in the Notepad program wherein it can be edited and saved. Beware, however, that the file loaded into the editor is from the Internet Explorer, not the file you loaded in the browser. So before you start the development cycle of Save File and Reload browser you must first do a Save As... over the original file.
Microsoft has done a fine job with the Internet Explorer 2.0 Beta. I have found this beta release to be very stable and I use it almost exclusively when I need to print Web pages because Netscape 1.22 has been so unreliable. (I regret to say that my initial experience with Navigator 2.0 Beta has been much the same.) I'd say it's worth your while to download it from Microsoft's Web site and check it out.
Two months ago I reviewed three authoring tools for Microsoft Word in WWWiz Issue #2 that are basically templates for converting Word documents to HTML text files. Of the three products reviewed I unabashedly liked Ant "...because of its adept use of hidden text for markup tags that can be modified on the fly." Now, in a new release, author Jill Swift has added so many new features that I felt it was worth a second look. At WWWiz most of our articles are submitted in Microsoft Word format and Ant is the main tool I've been using to convert these to HTML for the online edition. I just finished converting last month's articles (some 16 in all) and it went very smoothly using the new Ant. I was able to put some of the new features to good use right away.
All the new features are available through a second Ant toolbar. The new features include expanded HTML commands plus added support for tables and other tools. One of the things I always liked about Ant is the use of physical styles for character formatting. There are two methods of character formatting in HTML: logical and physical. Logical styles indicate how the text is to be used; physical styles indicate how the text is to be displayed. The distinction is a minor one because most browsers don't distinguish between the two styles. But for me it's a question of aesthetics. The physical style tags are much cleaner. For example, compare <B> and <I> with their clunky logical style counterparts <STRONG> and <EM>, respectively. Ant now has buttons for applying physical style bold and italic as an option to the standard Word tools. There is also a new button for centering text.
Let's take a look at some of the more interesting new tools. These are available as dialog boxes accessible from the button bar. The Background tool allows you to specify a background graphic (wallpaper) file plus background color and text color for plain text, links, and visited links. For some reason, the active link color option wasn't included. Also, you don't have to know the hexadecimal code for the color; you can choose from a list of 100 colors (I counted them), or optionally specify the color number.
A Fancy Horizontal Rule tool brings up a dialog box with options for size (1-6), width, alignment, and shading. The Font tool allows you to increment/decrement the font size. Both of these began as Netscape HTML extensions but are currently supported by more browsers.
An Auto Start tool is a real boon for beginners. This presents a series of dialog boxes that walk you through creation of a basic HTML document. Basically, it sets up the requisite starting and ending tags for a document with an optional "return to top" link and invites you to type or insert an existing Word document for the document "body." This only works for new documents, however, because these tags cannot be placed around highlighted text.
It's not over yet. I've saved the best for last. The Create Ant tool allows you to create up to 14 custom HTML tags (both the beginning tag and cancel tag). These can then be applied from a third toolbar which has 14 buttons, appropriately labeled 1 through 14. (These button faces can be changed but the choices are limited to Microsoft's custom button selection.) This allows you to store commonly used tags, or combinations of tags, for ready access. I put this to good use to install the start and end boilerplate in the HTML documents. For example, the beginning tag is
and the cancel tag is
Thus, when I convert a Word document to the Ant template I merely select all the text (CTRL-A) and click a button. I then have a basic structure set up for an HTML document with a white background. All I have to do is fill in the title. Naturally, this will work for any combination of tags. If you routinely use bold and italic, set it up in a single button. Even where a tool already exists, the custom buttons can provide a handy shortcut. The custom tool is convenient wherever you have frequently used tags or tag combinations.
All in all, I'm very pleased with the new revisions in Ant and encourage the author to keep up the good work. Ant is shareware and can be downloaded from the Ant site. As always, I recommend registering and paying for shareware.
Tip of the Month
This month's tip comes from someone close to WWWiz Magazine. The perpetrator is our own Doug Wolfgram of GRAFX Group, Inc., a company that provides enterprise-wide multimedia solutions for mission-critical communications. In addition, GRAFX is the designer and producer of our online presence, @WWWiz. Doug was looking for a way to beat HTML's intrinsic inattention to extraneous spaces, tabs, and paragraph delimiters in order to indent text. Although there are several ways to do this he came up with an ingenious one which uses standard HTML markup tags and therefore works very rapidly. Basically, he uses list tags which produce indentation but doesn't use any list items. Thus, the code might look like this:
Text to be indented goes here.
This can be carried to whatever level is needed to create the desired effect.
There are several other ways to achieve the same effect. The <BLOCKQUOTE> tag will produce the identical effect but, of course, it takes a lot more typing. The more common solution is to use a transparent GIF image. This can be done in three different ways:
1. Make a transparent image of the exact size to create the desired effect.
2. Make the image a single pixel and use the HEIGHT and WIDTH attributes in the IMG tag to size the image appropriately.
3. Again, use a single pixel image, but use the HSPACE and VSPACE attributes in the IMG tag to create the effect.
Actually, Doug's solution is the best because it is browser independent; some browsers don't recognize transparent GIFs and/or the IMG attributes mentioned above. However, the IMG methods offer greater control over the spacing since the list indentations are quantized.
Thanks, Doug. It's a pleasure working with creative people.
New on the Bookshelf
Ed Tittel, et al.'s Foundations of World Wide Web Programming with HTML and CGI (IDG Programmers Press, $40) is one of the few books I've read from cover to cover. This book contains very thorough coverage of CGI but is not intended to teach HTML. The book is rated at Beginner to Advanced Reader Level but I would hard-pressed to recommend it to a beginner.
The book begins innocently enough with the basics of HTML and CGI but quickly moves into such arcane topics as the Document Type Definition and writing CGI scripts. It's almost impossible to discuss CGI without talking about Perl, and the book does assume you can read some code. CGI scripts can be written in many different languages. In fact, you can use any language that can read and write to the standard input and output. But Perl is the de facto standard. Fortunately it's not a difficult language and you should be able to follow the examples if you are familiar with any programming language.
Most of the treatment of CGI that I've seen in books prior to this one are limited to discussions of forms and image maps. This book goes far beyond that. Not only are forms and image maps covered in detail, but so are MIME, using WAIS for indexing and searching, robots, spiders, and Web crawlers, relational database interfaces, and more. There are also chapters on designing, testing, and installing CGI applications, and some very pragmatic advice on how and where to find CGI resources and libraries. Hopefully this will save you from developing everything from scratch.
The book comes with a CD-ROM which is readable from DOS/Windows, Macintosh, and UNIX machines. Most of the software from the book is available on the CD-ROM. These are called out in the text along with the URLs of the sources where you might want to look for more recent versions. The CD-ROM is organized with HTML files which can be read with your browser. All the resources are available from a single home page. This is a welcome trend in the more recent CD-ROMs included with books. It's a big improvement over a directory tree full of files with nothing more than a short read-me file for guidance.
Overall, I thought this was a great book, but I reiterate my earlier warning that this book is not for beginners.
As long as we're on the subject of CGI, another book has also come to our attention. John December and
Mark Ginsburg's HTML and CGI Unleashed (Sams.net, $50). Like Foundations...
this book has a thorough coverage of CGI but it has a detailed description of HTML as well. This book is
slated for Accomplished to Expert Users. Anyone interested in CGI should check out this book in addition
John December's Presenting Java (Sams.net, $25) is conceptually at the other end of the spectrum. I also read this book through and praise it for its general coverage of Java. Many of us will soon be using Java browsers and applets (i.e., Java applications) but very few of us will get into programming Java. Whereas HTML programming is accessible to most people because of its simplicity, Java is a "real" programming language (probably best described as a subset of C++ with some extensions) which requires strict adherence to language syntax as well as careful planning and coding to develop an application. But this is not a book for programmers. Rather, it's an introduction to what Java is about and what it can do. It gives examples of programs/applets that can be created with Java. The author also tells where to find the Hot Java browser and other Java resources. There is also some discussion of creating Java applets for the technically inclined.
Java is bound to be the "next big thing" and I'm glad I was able to get my feet wet with this quick
introduction. I recommend it if you want to find out about Java.
Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.0 Beta
Netscape Navigator 2.0 Beta
Ed Tittel et al., Foundations of World Wide Web Programming with HTML and CGI (IDG Programmers Press, $40)
John December and Mark Ginsburg, HTML and CGI Unleashed (Sams.net, $50).
John December, Presenting Java (Sams.net, $25).