< style sheets >
HTML is for structure|
A very promising technique seems to be the use of style sheets. HTML is not really a page design tool. Any HTML coder knows it is a very limited instrument for such a purpose. It was originally setup to be a structure description language. It should contain the structure of the document, like paragraphs, headers, images, titles etc. The browser should take care of the physical appearance.
Of course this limits your options. You get very plain looking documents using your only structure elements. Very soon after the first incarnation of HTML tags were added to control the layout of the page and the appearance of text. The table and frame tags are gratefully used by webdesigners as a design tool. Some even use things like stretched single pixel GIF images to get exact control.
The problem now is you can only use one page for one purpose. Whatever technique you use. Most pages are written for the web. They are not usable on a Web TV, they are too big to fit on a TV screen. They are unusable for blind people, who probably would like to have an aural incarnation of the page. Or big fonts and high contrast display.
A different approach would be much better: separate the design of the page and it contents. Use only plain HTML for the page, and use a different tool for its physical appearance. That way you can make a web page accesible for everyone. The tools would be interchangeable, and not dependent on the contents of the page.
Style sheets were designed for this purpose. They are often referred to as cascading style sheets, or CSS for short. Cascading refers to the behaviour that only the last determines how the page looks. First there is the web page, you add your style sheet to it, and it is visible in a web browser. But a blind person can use his own style sheet after that and make the page audible. Or someone not having exactly 20/20 eyesight, could add his own style sheet with big fonts and high contrast.
Style sheets can be as simple as a font description for a whole page, or the appearance of links without underlining. But you can do a lot more, like control a text box with position and size. Or an image location, overlap images with text, etc. You can put the style sheet in a seperate file. To give a web site a new look you would only have to change one file! Just replace the style sheet and you have a completely different web site.
A big advantage of style sheets is that you will need a lot less code. You won't have to repeat layout tags in every page. You only have to concern yourself with the pages' contents. You need not worry about inadvertently deleting a table tag that would make your page disappear. Which happens a lot, by the way. If you don't like your site anymore, just replace the style sheet. A redesign in just hours, instead of days or weeks if you only use HTML.
The problem with style sheets is their relatively late appearance and acceptation. Internet Explorer 3.0 was the first to have partial support for CSS1, Netscape followed with an also limited implementation in version 4.0 of its browser. There are still a lot of NS 3.0 browsers around, and some version 2.0. So designing completely with style sheets is not an option. We will probably have to wait for the fifth generation browsers for full support of style sheets.
Another problem is that by now everyone is used to frames, tables, font tags, spacer images and the lot. People don't give up things they are accustomed to easily. You will have to relearn a lot of things. Invest time and money. Pages you already made will be have to rewritten completely to implement style sheets.
The problem with promising things is they will stay just that. JAVA once was, and my guess it's already dead now. It's just another (slow) programming language. And no cross-platform tool, which was it's promise. I hope style sheets will do better. At least they have the full support of Microsoft and Netscape, which is not a bad thing in itself.
Maybe you would do good, to invest some time in learning style sheets. They may very possibly come widely accepted. And if they do, you are ready to take full advantage of them. And if they do you won't be left behind if they really take off. I would gladly give up the use of layout tables when they do.