XHTML, the standard, was first released back in 2000.
Roughly five years later we begin to see major websites
revised to use this standard. Even the favorite whipping
boy of standards-compliance punditry, Microsoft, presents
their primary homepages, msn.com and microsoft.com in
XHTML. Standards compliant XHTML sites are still the
minority. The reason is simple. When the W3C released
the new standard, the rest of the web running on HTML
did not cease to function. Nor will the rest of the
web, written in various flavors of HTML, cease to function
any time soon. Without any pressing need to conform
to the new standard, designers continue to use old,
familiar methods. These methods will perform in any
modern browser, so why bother switching?
These sentiments are similar to ones I experienced.
A kind of "if it's not broke, don't fix it"
mentality sets in. Whether HTML was "broken"
or not is a different argument. To the casual Internet
user, their standards are fairly direct. If a site displays
without noticeable error and functions to their satisfaction,
these standards are met. Whatever additional steps the
browser took to make such display possible is irrelevant
to most users. This kind of mentality is difficult to
overcome in designers accustomed to their old methods.
Technical obstacles to adopting XHTML may be quite
steep as well, especially as regards large, existing
websites with complex scripting. Yet the time may eventually
come where yesterday's "tried and true" HTML
is little more than an ancient language, unable to be
interpreted by modern electronic devices. Whether one
agrees with the direction the W3C takes in the development
of HTML is irrelevant, you are just along for the ride.
With some perseverance, getting the hang of XHTML is
possible. In form, it is not as different from HTML
as Japanese is from English. Knowing HTML grants a basic
knowledge of the language, it simply becomes a matter
of learning a particular dialect. Even an original nay-sayer
such as myself managed to do it.
Benefits of XHTML
There are 2 primary benefits to using XHTML. First is
the strict nature of valid XHTML documents. "Valid"
documents contain no errors. Documents with no errors
can be parsed more easily by a browser. Though the time
saved is, admittedly, negligible from the human user's
point of view, there is a greater efficiency to the
browser's performance. Most modern browsers will function
well in what's usually referred to as "quirks"
mode, where, in the absence of any on-page information
about the kind of HTML they are reading, present a "best
guess" rendering of a page. The quirks mode will
also forgive many errors in the HTML. Modern browsers
installed on your home computer have the luxury of size
and power to deal with these errors. When browser technology
makes the leap to other appliances it may not have the
size and power to be so forgiving. This is where the
strict, valid documents demanded by the XHTML standard
The second benefit is in the code itself, which is
cleaner and more compact than common, "table"
based layout in HTML. Though XHTML retains table functionality,
the standard makes clear tables are not to be used for
page layout or anything other than displaying data in
a tabular format. This is generally the primary obstacle
most designers have with moving to XHTML. The manner
in which many designers have come to rely on to layout
and organize their pages is now taboo. Simple visual
inspection of XHTML code reveals how light and efficient
it is in comparison to a table based HTML layout. XTHML
makes use of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), which, when
called externally, remove virtually all styling information
from the XHTML document itself. This creates a document
focused solely on content.
XHTML makes use of "div" tags to define content
areas. How these "divisions" are displayed
is controlled by CSS. This is known as CSS-P, or CSS
Positioning. Trading in "table" tags for "divs"
can be tough. Learning a new way of accomplishing an
already familiar task is generally difficult. Like learning
to use a different design program or image editor, frustration
can be constant. Looking at "divs" as a kind
of table cell might be helpful, though they are not
entirely equivalent. As required by the XHTML standard,
always make sure there is a DOCTYPE definition at the
top of the document. This is not only required by the
standard, but it will force Internet Explorer 6, currently
the most common browser, to enter its "standards
compliance" mode. IE6 and Firefox, both operating
in standards compliance mode will display XHTML in much
the same way. Not identical, but far better than IE6
operating in quirks mode. Learning how to iron out the
final differences between displays is the final obstacle
and can require a bit of tweaking in the CSS.
Clean code has multiple benefits. It creates a smaller
page size which, over time, can save costs associated
with transfer usage. Though the size difference may
appear small, for someone running a highly trafficked
site, even saving a few kilobytes of size can make a
big difference. Further, some believe search engines
may look more kindly on standards complaint pages. This
is only a theory, though. In a general sense, any page
modification that makes the content easier to reach
and higher in the code is considered wise. Search engines,
so it is believed, prefer to reach content quickly,
and give greater weight to the first content they encounter.
Using XHTML and "div" layout allows designers
to accomplish this task more easily.
XHTML is the current standard set by the W3C. The W3C
continues development of XHTML, and XHTML 2.0 will replace
the current standard in the future. Learning and using
XHTML today will help designers prepare for tomorrow.
Valid XTHML produces no errors that might slow down
a browser, and the code produced is clean and efficient.
This saves in file size and helps designers better accomplish
their search engine optimization goals. Learning XHTML
is primarily about learning a new way to lay out pages.
Though frustrating at first, the long term benefits
far outweigh any initial inconvenience.
About the author:
Eric Lester worked in the IT industry for 5 years,
acquiring knowledge of hosting, website design, before
serving for 4 years as the webmaster for Apollo Hosting,
Apollo Hosting provides website hosting, ecommerce hosting,
vps hosting, and web design services to a wide range