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Designing with Web Standards Jeffrey Zeldman
Published by New Riders
456 pages
£ 27.50
Published: June 2003
reviewed by Andrew Macpherson
   in the September 2004 issue (pdf), (html)

About 3 months ago I was putting up Mambo OS (an excellent PHP content management system) for a client, when the client had the cheek to submit the site to the W3C conformance test.

It looked bad at first, but in fact there were about 20 distinct errors on the template and everything else was down to the somewhat interesting markup in the content that the client was responsible for. However the exercise showed me how things had moved on since I had started writing HTML. It triggered a week of reading round the W3C site's links -- the site itself is fairly impenetrable.

Eric Meyer and Jeffrey Zeldman (A List Apart) were common references, and the books came highly recommended. Certainly the content in the New Riders books was thought provoking.

Let's deal with the O'Reilly technical book first. It's a different intended audience, much the same as this newsletter. Buy it. Now, before you write another bit of HTML. Enough said? It really leads you into the heart of using CSS to separate content from presentation -- the alternate CSSes for print, presentation or display, and some of the flaws in current browsers. The style is fairly light, the examples, though black and white are clear, with the contrast needed to illustrate the points being made.

All 3 books mention that most current browsers are in a poor standards compliance state. Summary: nothing with a version less than 5 even heard about standards, Internet Explorer doesn't (full stop), Mozilla is the current leader. But Zeldman later points out that IE has a non-compliant, but sane box model whereas the standards have a thoroughly insane box model which is not fixed until CSS 3 (with a mode switch). This is a big issue and is covered to some extent in all, but most thoroughly in Zeldman.

Meyer on CSS is a nice book with the colour illustrations one would expect from the subject matter, A bit wide for reading on the sofa -- it is better on a desk -- to accommodate a mass of marginal notes, The text fortunately is in a sufficiently narrow column to be readable, though a blacker text font would be more accessible, and this failing was highlighted by good strong headings.

This is an ideas book that takes one off onto the trail of ``How could I?'' and deeply stimulating ideas. Not a must have, but despite being 2 years old it has not aged, and I am glad to give it space on my bookshelf.

As Hamlet said ``Methinks the lady doth protest too much.'' If the only book in this trio you buy is Jeffrey Zeldman you will conclude that web standards have been deliberately screwed up by factional interests. He tries very hard to make the case for dropping tables as layout elements, using the box model which prevents proportioned layout, and putting in the CSS workarounds that enable one to work round the IE incompatibilities.

Actually he does a good job of the last point, but reading The Definitive Guide first will let you understand how some of the tricks work. Much of Zeldman's hard content is good, though spoiled greatly by lack of colour in the illustrations, the shades of grey were insufficiently distinct to communicate some of the differences he was trying to communicate.

The soft content was infuriating. Perhaps if one had met him it would be fine; perhaps. I kept going because I did want to get the technical content but I found it hard, and to some extent it has dated by trying to document the differences in 2002's browsers, and though IE does not seem to have moved on Mozilla and Opera certainly have. I can't recommend this one.

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