HTML – XHTML

A few years back it was widely agreed that HTML 4.1 was the last release of the HTML family of standards.  After all, we were moving towards XML by way of XHTML, and all our web experiences would be better for it.

Times, they are a changin’.

Unless you are in the web design world, you may not have heard much about HTML 5.  You may have notice, however, that browsers continue to move forward and offer new capabilities – like Mozilla’s Firefox latest upgrades touting open video and HTML 5 support among other things.  These may spark your interest from a consumer point of view, but should also spark your curiosity about what you need to be doing as a web designer.

First, should we all adopt HTML 5 and start to move forward with it in our designs right now?  I’d say – it depends.  While the standard is not yet finalized, we do see where it is headed and we also see how browsers are starting to adopt many of the changes (click here for some of the differences between HTML 4 and HTML 5).  But this brings up an issue you need to take into consideration – adoption of new technologies by the masses.

If you have looked at any of your web site statistics, you may find that adoption of new browsers / technologies has slowed.  Don’t get me wrong, there are some that adopt right off the bat (as shown in this older IE7 / Firefox 2 adoption rate post) but others may choose not to adopt for a myriad of reasons (older hardware, distaste for change, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it mindset, etc.).  In your web statistics, you may be surprised how many IE 5 and 6 (along with Firefox 2 and other older browser versions) are hitting your sites.

You, as a web designer, need to look at the new standards and test against them to ensure what was created earlier still renders as you intended.  If you have created your code using the standards, then backwards compatibility should not be much of an issue.

The issues seem to come in when you code exclusively to bleeding edge standards, test with the latest browsers, then wonder why your site does not get the traffic / response / praise from your customer as anticipated – and they are not using your computer loaded with the latest software wizardry.  So, as we have said since design began – we tend to forget that we need to design to include the lowest common denominator.   And for me, as I’ve stated before, I think of my wonderful mother.  How would this impact her and the computer / browser she uses?

Technology is moving forward, and we must move with it.  As we move, don’t forget about others who may not be as technically savvy as you are – the folks who may not upgrade just because something new is available.  Stick with the standards in coding, but allow for others to come on board as time moves forward.  And when you get the time, be sure to look at the HTML 5 specs so you can be familiar with (and start to adopt as you move forward) what is starting to become reality.


 

After years of listening to folks ask questions on cookies, and years of working as a web designer, it’s about time I talked about cookies.  You and I have heard many of the stories before, and I can recall family members asking me to turn off javascript, ActiveX and cookies so they could be safe – never mind the consequences that this decision had on the functionality of many sites.

So my intention with this post is to help others understand cookies.  A secondary area will be to show that folks can set their browsers to accept these items or not (so watch out webmasters).

What Are Cookies?

Wikipedia states, ‘…a cookie (also tracking cookie, browser cookie, and HTTP cookie) is a small piece of text stored on a user’s computer by a web browser. A cookie consists of one or more name-value pairs containing bits of information such as user preferences, shopping cart contents, the identifier for a server-based session, or other data used by websites.’

In a nutshell, cookies are used in tracking (using the term very broadly).  If you log in to a site and set up some user preferences, or if you are using shopping cart or even some banking technologies, you are probably using cookies.

Are Cookies Good or Bad?

Wikipedia further states, ‘Being simple pieces of text, cookies are not executable. They are neither spyware or viruses, although cookies from certain sites are detected by many anti-spyware products because they can allow users to be tracked when they visit various sites.’

I believe this to be an important point because cookies have received a bad rap for years.  And some of the early information that was passed around about cookies has – unfortunately – stuck in some people’s minds.

Cookies are not bad.  They store information on the client machine and store information on the web server you (the client) are visiting.  Keep in mind that cookies are small text files sent from Web site to user’s browsers.  They are used to maintain state (for those who use personalized pages like iGoogle or MyYahoo among many others) as well as allow servers to better meet our needs when shopping and cruising the internet.  Some facts to remember (from the article Cookies – Facts and Myths:

  • Cookies cannot be used to get information from your hard drive.
  • A Web site can read only the cookies that it puts into your browser. A Web site cannot read cookies created by any other Web site.
  • A cookie cannot be used as a virus.
  • Cookies will not fill up your hard drive (it would take about 100 million cookies to fill up a 10GB drive; this is virtually impossible).

What Can Cookies Do To My Machine?

Not much!  Again, they are just a text file, and you can review them to see what they contain.  There is a great set of information on what cookies can do and answers to many of the questions you may have on what they can’t do on the Unofficial Cookie FAQ.  Again, this is highly recommended reading if you are thinking of using cookies or want to learn more about what they can be used for.

How Do I Turn Them On / Off?

For this area I highly suggest reading ‘history and settings: Enabling cookies‘ from Google. They’ve provided instructions for enabling cookies in popular browsers currently in use. Once you have visited the site, click a link for the browser version you’re using to get specific instructions.

My thanks to Will Bontranger and his Understanding Cookies article and his weekly newsletters!  I highly recommend subscribing – his article was the catalyst for this post.

As always, thanks for reading.  If you have more information or wish to comment, please do so!  Take care!


 

Cookies — Facts and Myths

Templates – some people love them, others loathe them.  I’ve heard stories that some designs were a gift from God (so to speak) and others have sworn they were the work of the devil.  So – let’s take a few minutes to review what they are, and aren’t.

Design Preview

For many, this is a huge plus.  The person needing the website can actually see the design elements of a site!  Keep in mind that elements can be changed, but it may take time and even retooling large portions of the template (depending on what you have to change).

Of course, not all templates will meet all design considerations.  Many folks look at sites they like certain elements of, and then want to combine those elements into their site for additional functionality or a better look and feel.  That is all wonderful, but – as I’ve said many times before – don’t steal the elements!  Purchase them or get permission from the creator or owner of them.

Some may want something that only they can envision.  Taking that from the inside of your mind to the web is where a professional web developer / designer comes in, and I’d recommend finding one that is certified!

Time Savers

Templates can be helpful to the designer because they already have a framework pre-built.  If the designer can offer you something that is 70% or 80% complete (from a design and coding perspective), then it shouldn’t take long to add your content and branding to make the site yours!

And templates are helpful for the owner because they don’t have to pay the designer to build it from scratch (time = $$).  If most of your costs are labor costs, think of the savings in this area!  Better yet, if you locate a template that is designed to let you make many of the changes with minimal skills – the ongoing costs for maintaining your web content were just dramatically decreased.

What’s Your Language

Are you looking for something you can edit?  Let me be real clear here, the language of the web is still HTML (and we’re headed towards XHTML for sure).  Just keep in mind there are many other choices out there, including offerings that either extensively or exclusively use  Flash and XML.  No matter what your choice is, check to ensure the template is coded to the standards for the language.

Why is that even a consideration?  As browsers mature and continue to be revised to render all the information they receive (remember, your web browser is just an application), they need some guidelines on how to render the information and what the correct interpretation of the information it receives is.  That is why coding to standards is a must – so demand it from your template provider.  As standards are changed, it makes it much easier to update the existing template information to conform to the latest standards.

What You See…

Well, that may not be what you get.  If you design to go with a template, look at all the pages (if possible) that come with the template.  If there are many pages that come with it, try out the various design elements.  Review how the design changes from section to section and even from page to page (consistency is a GOOD thing, but elements will change on various pages based on the purpose of the page).

But really, many templates sites only show you the home page, and not everything on that page functions.  So review what comes with the template.  Is it just that home page in HTML format?  Maybe you get a PSD (Photoshop file) image that you can then slice and dice?  If the template is in Flash (or uses Flash elements), do you get the FLA (Flash file) so it can be altered if needed?

It doesn’t take much to see that you may need more than Notepad to manipulate many templates.  Even if you get all the files needed that made up the finished files, in many cases you will need some knowledge and additional software to edit the files to meet your needs.

Read the Fine Print

EULA is short for End User License Agreement, and you normally see that with most software package you purchase or use.  Look for the template usage agreement if you are looking to purchase a template.  Why is that important?  You will need to know if the images need to be changed out or can be used with the purchased template, or if you can use the template on additional sites, or even if you can remove the copyright information from the template and replace it with your own information.

Each company is different here, so I would highly recommend looking at this document closely.  If you choose not to do that, you very well could receive a nastygram from someone with a claim that you violated something you agreed to.  And if your customer gets that notification, rest assured they will come to YOU for remediation, since you were the professional that would have known about proper, agreed up use for the template.

So – Is It Cheating?

I don’t believe it is cheating at all!  The maker of the template certainly deserves to get their requested payment, and the owner of the business and web designer win by having the ‘skeleton’ of the site ready to fill with their information and branding.  Templates certainly have their place, and not all applications will be right for a template.  But they are certainly helpful for those wanting their site up quick – and presented in a way that they can see (or visualize) before actually putting it up live.

Having said that, I do not believe that templates will replace professional web designers.  They are only another tool in the tool box for them.  They can be a real time saver when creating a bare bones site (using the templates that come with Adobe Dreamweaver, CoffeeCup HTML Editor, Microsoft Expression or any other number of web development tools) to current coding standards.

As always, this is not intended to be all comprehensive on the subject of templates, but I hope it is a thought-starter for you.  If you have comments –  feel free to post them.  Take care!

One of the great joys of my work is to assist others in getting on the web.  Some folks want to have me set up their site, then they want to maintain it.  Others have a site, but want me to fix it so they can work on it.  Others just want to learn how to do what I do.  All of those things are fine!

One of the questions I’m asked is how webmasters can get started writing their own pages.  A close second is how can I learn web programming using scripting languages like PHP or ASP. I must admit, active scripting can be an intimidating undertaking.  I don’t claim to be an expert in any language, but have learned (through trial and error) to become proficient in a few of them.  HTML / XHTML is my forte, but with help from other knowledgeable folks on some sites, you can also learn to bring life to your pages.

Before you jump into programming, you need to have an understanding of a few things.  First – what platform and scripting options have your web server has been configured for?  Most of you will use some form of web hosting company, and many allow scripting and database activity.  The trick is this – your web hosting company is not the place to get much scripting support from (apart from some self-help and support pages).  That’s because they are not there for that purpose, that is what a web designer / professional is there to do for you!  But you should be able to at least find out what operating system your server is running (Linux / Unix / Windows) and the version of the operating system and any scripting that is installed and available on your server, such as PHP or ASP) you are working with, and whether databases are installed or are available.  This also helps because you can ask what type of server you have installed on the platform (Window generally will use IIS as the web server, and others generally run Apache).

Here’s why you need to know this information – you should be writing PHP for use with MySQL (generally), or ASP with Access, etc.  This is because there are large differences in the available languages for use on different platforms (Windows has many options available for their base (IIS can use .NET, ASP, and a host of other programming skills, and Linux / Unix uses PHP, Perl and other skills).  And there are often times where something developed on one platform does not mean it can be used on other platforms.

Knowing this, you are in a position to start your learning experience.  Take it slowly at first, programming can be a lot of fun, but most can find it a frustrating experience as a beginner.  It may be hard to learn how this is done, but it is worth learning if you are doing it on your own.

I recommend starting at the following sites.  There are others who recommend the purchase of hard-copy books on Web Programming.  I won’t knock that advise if you like to have some paper in front of you.  But I also want to point out that ALL the info you may ever need is certainly out there online (so take advantage of it – don’t steal the code others have made, but certainly don’t reinvent the wheel if others have already posted it and allowed you to use it)!

Here are a few sites to get the creative part of you moving.  Enjoy!

PHP/ UNIX
http://www.phpbuilder.net
http://www.php.net
http://www.phphelp.com
http://www.w3schools.com
http://www.php.net/support.php

ASP / WINDOWS
http://www.15seconds.com
http://www.asp101.com
http://www.w3schools.com
http://www.aspin.com

HTML / Java
http://www.w3schools.com
http://www.javascript.com
http://www.javascriptkit.com
http://www.java.com

These are but a few of the thousands of sites that can help you in your knowledge quest.