Chapter 4

HTML's Role on the Web


You've already seen how HTML is used to emphasize and organize text in Web documents. And you've seen how hypertext and hypermedia links can be used to maneuver on the Web, access information, and download different file formats. You've also seen that extensions to HTML from Netscape and Microsoft have added certain abilities to HTML.

Now let's discuss where HTML is today and where it's going in the future. In this chapter, you'll learn about the advantages of Web pages compared to other Internet services, how HTML has changed with the Web, how to recognize and understand the different flavors of HTML, and how to decide what types of HTML you're going to use.

Why Create Web Pages?

Having discussed how exactly the Web works, you can move on to why you might want to create Web pages. There are a number of reasons you may want to do this-more than likely, you've already got some ideas. But consider the following possible examples:

Figure 4.1 : Federal Express has come up with a great reason to use the Web-customers can track packages without calling their 800 numbers.

Web Applications

Another emerging use for HTML on the Web is as a basis for something called a Web application. In essence, a Web application is a Web site designed to do more than simply present pages and hypermedia links to its users-it actually acts as a front end for data processing.

For instance, consider the notion of a Web site designed to give a company's salespeople the ability to access product information and confirm orders while on the road. Using HTML, the basic interface for this sales database can be made available on the Web. With the appropriate browser software and an Internet connection (perhaps even over a cellular modem), a salesperson for your company has nearly instant access to the information she needs.

Once the data are entered on the page, they are passed by the Web server to programs (often referred to as CGI-BIN scripts or applications, as discussed in Chapter 15) that process the information-looking up the product in the database or taking the order. The results of these programs can be generated complete with HTML codes, so that the answers can be viewed by the salesperson in her Web browser.

Example: Searching on the Web

Not all Web applications are necessarily business-related-and even the applications that are don't necessarily have to be limited to employee use. Consider one of the most popular Web applications available: the Web-based search engine.

These Web applications use HTML pages to offer an interface to a database of Web sites around the world. You begin by accessing the page and entering keywords, which the Web application passes to a CGI-BIN program. The program uses your keywords to check the database of Web pages, and then generates an HTML page with the results.

The URL for that results page is returned to the Web server, which treats it as a standard link. Your browser is fed the link, and it loads the newly created page, complete with hypertext links to the possible database matches.

Let's take a look at the popular Infoseek search application. Start out by entering in your browser and hitting Enter or Return.

Once the page is loaded, it should look something like figure 4.2. In the field on the Web page that allows you to enter text, enter a few keywords that might suggest a hobby that interests you. One of my hobbies is acting, so I might try entering acting plays musicals or something similar.

Figure 4.2 : The infoseek Web search application.

Click the Search button on the Web page, and the Infoseek engine will begin searching for related Web pages. When it's finished, you're presented with a list of hypertext links. Click any link to view the related page and see if it offers the information you're seeking.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Web

Most small or large businesses have a compelling reason to create a presence on the World Wide Web. It's an important new medium for communication that is relatively inexpensive to implement, it's a boon for dealing with customer service issues, and it's gaining popularity in leaps and bounds. But any good HTML designer should realize that there are also certain disadvantages to the Web.


There are many good reasons to commit to creating a presence on the World Wide Web. I've already hinted at some of these in this chapter, but let's look at them in detail. Most of these are geared toward businesses, but you'll notice that these advantages are available to any Web site:

Example: Travel Agent Web Site

Let's roll all of these advantages into a hypothetical Web site for a travel agency to show exactly what I mean.

All-Rite Travel has decided that it needs a Web site and is trying to determine the ways in which the site will help win and keep customers. The agency relies on professionally designed and printed brochures that are updated annually for general information about the agency and its services. It has a quarterly newsletter for repeat customers and generates laser-printer flyers and mailers for special deals. How can the Web help All-Rite Travel (see fig. 4.3)?

Figure 4.3 : Here's what our fictious travel agent's index page might look like.

Multimedia and Interactivity

First of all, the agency's presentations can be multimedia-oriented. Taking advantage of the Web protocols allows sending sounds, graphics, and even video of travel destinations across the Web. If the agency has pictures of accommodations in a vacation resort, for instance, it can put those on its site. Sounds, video, or text generated by a travel writer or photographer can also be added. A map to its offices, links for customers to send e-mail, and information about its affiliations can all be online.

And using hypertext, All-Rite can pick from relatively unlimited resources for more information. It would take only a few hours to build links to all of the Chambers of Commerce in major U.S. metro areas. Links to airlines, major hotel chains, limousine services, car rentals, and credit card companies could all be added.


While All-Rite would probably want to continue with its print advertising and brochures, the possibilities for offering information over the Web are enticing. Since customers can take on as little or as much information as they want, the Web can house all sorts of extras. Special employee pages could tell customers which agent is most specialized in their area of interest. Editorial writing by agents and other specialists could give tips on travel safety, saving money in restaurants, or tracking expenses on corporate trips.

And the Web page could be instantly updated with the best deals the agency comes across or packages-as they happen. The moment you're ready to make a sale notice or offer a special price, you can do it on the Web. Once All-Rite's customers are used to its Web presence, those with a special interest in traveling can easily check the Web site every few days for the latest offerings.

Easy High-Tech

Once the agents have learned a little HTML, they can add pages or edit them on their own. Make the Web site known on business cards, brochures, and elsewhere, and customers will see it as an extra value-All-Rite is "plugged in" to the Web, and its Internet-savvy customers can learn a lot of what they need to know without bothering to phone or come by the agency's office.


It's difficult to say that there are disadvantages in having a Web site, since most people and companies will use a Web site to enhance their marketing and customer service efforts, not supplant them. That said, there are a few hurdles to leap, and they should definitely be considered before your Web project takes off:

Secure Connections on the Internet
Some Web server software packages offer an implementation of the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL), a protocol that sits "on top" of TCP/IP (the Internet networking protocol) and "below" HTTP. Its purpose is to secure the transmission of HTTP data over the Web.
With an SSL server (usually noted by its https://-protocol URL) and an SSL-capable browser program, transmissions over the Web are encrypted in such a way that users trying to read the data as they pass over the Internet are treated to nothing but garbled text.
SSL is a feature of, among others, the Netscape Enterprise Server, which is designed to allow users to access a Web site in a secure fashion so that credit cards and other personal information can be passed with relative assurance.
Although this is not directly relevant to HTML designers, if you have the opportunity to create a commercial Web site (or otherwise ask for personal information from users), you might look into the possibility of using an SSL-based secure Web server to offer your users peace of mind. And, while SSL isn't the only security scheme, it's the most widely supported.

HTML and the Changing World Wide Web

You already know that the Web is really only a few years old, and that graphical browsers have been around since only mid-1993. So how could the Web have had enough time to change dramatically? In the computer world, it doesn't take long.

The Web and HTML were initially designed for use by academics in a fairly limited way-they planned to collaborate on physics projects and share information in a hypertext format. Publishing on the Web meant they could put experimental data and their conclusions on the Internet, with links to other data and other researcher's notes, or even links that would download graphs and charts.

A few years later, people are talking about the Web as if it were literally the greatest thing since sliced bread. The World Wide Web is touted as the next logical medium for publication. It's the printing press of the future, where everyone who puts together a newsletter, magazine, sales brochure, and (in some cases) a television show will have to have a presence.

Sounds pretty demanding, doesn't it?

The Forced Evolution of HTML

Along with these changing demands for the Web have come changing demands for HTML. It's only in the last year or so that professional designers, writers, layout artists, and their ilk have begun to take an interest in the Web. And what did they find when they got there? You have to use HTML, with no control over justification, no wrapping text around graphics. In the Henry Ford tradition, you could use any color for a background-as long as it was gray. And HTML itself is some bizarre cross between word processing and programming that designers aren't always thrilled to learn.

Given this atmosphere, it becomes clear why programs like Netscape Navigator-with their special layout commands-are so popular. Many professionally developed Web sites have shunned users other than those with Navigator, thinking, "If they can't see it, too bad. The design can't be compromised." It's up to each designer, right?

Aside from Chapters 19 and 20, a very useful discussion of Netscape versus HTML standards can be found at Andrew King's web site at

The problem with these extensions and extras is that HTML's entire philosophy goes against the idea of strict layout and design. From the beginning, HTML was conceived as a very nonspecific method for presenting pages. With many implicit commands, it allowed browser programs considerable flexibility when it came to emphasizing text. Essentially, an HTML browser is given a suggestion like "emphasize the word 'weight,'" but it isn't told exactly how to do it. It could choose italics or bold or place the word in a slightly different font face. In HTML 2.0, the font family isn't specified, nor is alignment on the page. That's up to the HTML browser-at least according to the original theorists.

But then again, HTML was only originally intended for scientists to share ideas and figures-not for Madison Avenue to share its latest campaigns.

The Current State of HTML

With these commercial demands, however, have come different solutions. For every extension Netscape adds to HTML, there is generally (eventually) a standard agreed to by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) that meets the same need. Unfortunately, the implementation isn't always the same. So, it's possible for an HTML 3.0 level standard, for instance, to provide for exactly the same layout functions as Netscape-but do it in a way that isn't compatible with Netscape's browser.

So HTML is currently in a bit of a flux. The best you can hope for is that the HTML standard is agreed upon and maintained more quickly in the future as more ideas pop up. At the same time, it's important that the standard remain well thought-out, and that it isn't allowed to become bloated and unworkable.

In fact, this is probably the justification for recent changes to the standard's bodies. With the W3C taking control of HTML, it suggests a shift in the ultimate power over HTML to the corporate players. From now on, you can probably assume that HTML extensions beyond what is generally considered HTML 2.0 will become standard on a case-by-case basis. Overall, this is probably a good thing, since standards can be agreed on as technology emerges-and competing browsers can all use the same methods to incorporate new technology.

Deciding What Type of HTML To Use

So the question becomes, which side do you choose? Do you develop pages that use Netscape-only commands? Do you develop two sets of pages-for HTML 3.0 and for Netscape? What about those special Internet Explorer commands?

There are a couple of different scenarios you should consider when putting together your HTML pages. You'll need to know more about HTML, but once you do, you can make an informed decision about the types of commands you're most likely to use and which ones you can do without. Of course, you can use as many different flavors of HTML as you choose-as long as you remember to give your users a choice (see fig. 4.4).

Figure 4.4 : A 'front door' page allows users with different browser programs to choose how they'd like to view the Web site.

You can add to your site CGI scripts that identify a user's browser and serve it the correct type of HTML.

With that in mind, then, let's look at the possibilities.

The HTML 2.0 Standard

If you can get by with less sophisticated layout functions, go with the lowest common denominator-currently HTML 2.0. This level of HTML lets you add text, graphics, and different types of links so that pages are very complete and useful. With any level of HTML, hypermedia links can be made available, but they'll still be limited to the browser's ability to handle them. Even text browsers can save hypermedia files (like sound and video) which the user can view or hear later using other programs.

What HTML 2.0 doesn't include are a great deal of explicit formating tags. There's no way to center text and graphics, for instance, and only limited ways you can format graphics on the page. Aside from clickable graphics links and some calls to external scripts and programs, there isn't much "interface design" you can accomplish with HTML 2.0, either. Data-entry forms, tables, frames, and other elements are all added by other levels of HTML.

The HTML 3.0 Level Standards

As the HTML 3.0 level standards become more and more widely recognized, you can easily update your pages from HTML 2.0 to HTML 3.0. It may be a while before this is necessary-browsers have only just begun to recognize some HTML 3.0 elements.

Remember, though, that even with HTML 3.0 you'll be preventing a good number of viewers from getting the full effect of your pages. HTML 3.0 incorporates special graphics features, background colors and images, tables for displaying data, and other features that may seem indispensable, but will be lost on users of older graphical browsers-and any of the text browsers. If you're going to use HTML 3.0 elements, you should include at least a text-only option as well.

Netscape and Internet Explorer HTML

If you've spent any amount of time on the Web, you're sure to have encountered pages that say something like "Netscape Navigator is recommended for viewing these pages." With Netscape controlling around 60 percent of the browser market, a number of HTML designers have felt free to use HTML elements that can be interpreted only by Netscape-including certain implementations of tables, Netscape frames, special layout tags for centering or right-aligning pages, and other features. You'll have to decide for yourself if leaving out 40 percent of your potential users is a good idea.

It's absolutely true that some of the most attractive Web sites are designed using Netscape's variant of HTML (or special Internet Explorer tags), and that might be most important to you. If so, you should at least consider adding additional text-only or HTML 2.0-only pages to your site for other users.

Making the HTML Decision

The bottom line is that you should always consider your HTML 2.0 and text-only users, and make efforts to include them in your Web sites. Other extensions to HTML and add-ons for Web sites-including the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), Java and JavaScript programs, and others-will work only with certain browsers. Much of the time, noncompliant browsers will simply ignore these commands, but if this is the case, you need to be aware that some users aren't seeing everything you have to offer.

When you use a non-HTML 2.0 element, it's a good idea to let your users know. A simple statement such as "These pages are best viewed in…" is a nice way to let folks know that they might be missing out on something. If your first priority is the appearance of your page, this is a decent compromise to make.

If your first priority is giving your users information, though, then you're best off either using the lowest common denominator of HTML (HTML 2.0 and, over the next few years, HTML 3.0) or offering different ways to view your sites to your different users.


There are certain advantages to the Web, such as multimedia, interactivity, timeliness, and a certain air of "tech awareness" that make creating HTML pages something of a necessity for businesses and a good idea for families, too. There are disadvantages as well, including the cost in time and money, the learning curve for Web design, and the constant need to update.

HTML has been forced to evolve over the last year because of the involvement of millions of people, larger businesses, and commercial artists. Spearheaded by Netscape Navigator, a number of extensions to HTML for page-layout purposes have confused the mission of the Web. As a designer, it's up to you to decide who your audience will be and the most appropriate flavors of HTML to use in order to reach that audience.

Review Questions

  1. Is it possible for a Web site to actually save businesses money? What business services are often enhanced by Web sites?
  2. Why is the Web's multimedia capability an advantage in using the Web for your business?
  3. Explain why the Web's "flexibility" was an advantage for our fictional travel agent in the Travel Agent Web Site example.
  4. What's one of the worst things that can happen to a Web site?
  5. What is a Web application?
  6. The Web was originally conceived as a research tool-what has it been touted as recently?
  7. What HTML standard is considered the lowest common denominator of HTML?
  8. Give an example of an HTML extension to Netscape that doesn't appear in the HTML 2.0 specification.

Review Exercises

  1. Use a browser other than Netscape (preferrably an older version of Mosaic or a text-based browser) to access the Netscape home page at Anything look different?
  2. With your browser, access some big-name corporate sites like,, and Notice the types of information they offer and how the information is presented.
  3. If your ISP offers a page of local business links (or if you can find some via a Web search engine), take a look at those and consider how (and if) you would improve on them in some way. What do they do better or worse than the large corporate sites?