Friday, April 04, 2008

Web Browser Support for Print and Screen Presentations

Robert O'Callahan, from, gave a brilliant talk in Canberra, 4 August 2007 about the development of the Firefox. This was a mix of the business and politics of web browser competition, the social aspects of how to do open source development with a global community and the very technical details on how to do better code.

Some of the points I found of most interest were about the value of "Fuzz Testing", the way Firefox is very popular in vertical slice of Central Europe, running from Finland, down to the Mediterranean (for no obvious reasons, which must be a good topic for someone's PHD).

I asked Robert about HTML 5 versus XHTML 2. The W3C's approach of revising XHTML has not found favor with web browser developers at Mozilla, Apple or Opera. The issue, as I see it, is that the browser developers want to built features for interactive applications into their browsers, so that so many non-standard plug-ins and extensions are not needed. But I want to be able to do plain, old fashioned web based static documents which scale and print well. This is so I can use web pages in place of Powerpoint and PDF. I can't see that this would be very difficult to implement.

At present web browsers do not do a good job of printing, tending to break images and paragraphs across pages and not supporting new CSS features for formatting pages. Also web browsers do not do a good job of supporting CSS features for screen presentations.

As a result I have to do three versions of each document: HTML for online viewing, Powerpoint (or Slidy web pages) for a presentation and PDF for printing. If browsers supported formatting just a little better, then I could do it all with HTML, perhaps with just the one HTML file.

Many do not bother with separate versions of documents, and so there are vast numbers of PDF documents clogging up corporate and government web sites. These documents are hard to read on screen, large to download and hard to read by those using accessibility aids and on hand held mobile devices. Most of the documents use no fancy formatting and if the browsers supported web standards just a little better HTML versions would display and print adequately.

Robert argued that doing page breaks and layout well were very difficult problems. But , I don't want it done really well, just a little bit better. How hard it be for the web developer to avoid breaking up and image or a paragraph across a page boundary?

Another quibble I had was the insistence of web developers to include a requirement for quirks and backward compatibility in the HTML 5 standard. As a web author I don't need to know about strange things people did with HTML in the past. Browser developers may well choose to support features and quirks which old versions of HTML had, but I should not need to know of them, as I will not be using them.

If this old baggage has to be in HTML 5 for some reason, then we need "HTML 5 Lite", with them left out (just as there is XHTML Basic). This is not because we want to stop browsers rendering old documents, but have something simple for web designers to use.

I did make an attempt to put some of these points in the relevant W3C forums, but was essentially told: "We browser developers will dictate what the web standards are from now on.".

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