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Siegel Strikes Again
Apr 14, 1997 :: Michael Sippey

Just when you thought he'd disappeared into a morass of confused web sites, David Siegel is back. And this time the self-proclaimed "HTML terrorist" is throwing smoke bombs in the pages of Web Review.

I've had problems with Siegel before; in a piece a couple of months ago, I took him, and his book Creating Killer Websites to task for putting web page design over web site design. There's a difference, I argued, between creating pages that are nice to look at, and sites that are well structured, informative, and easy to use.

That piece struck a chord with many readers, but it struck a minor chord with Siegel -- who wrote to complain that I hadn't mentioned the fact that his book was the number one best seller at Amazon.com in 1996. (This fact, of course, probably has more to say about Amazon.com than it does about Siegel's book. But I digress.)

Siegel's newest foray into self-aggrandizement is his mammoth feature last week on Web Review, titled "The Web is Ruined and I Ruined it." In it, Siegel claims that he single-handedly destroyed the web by "mixing chocolate and peanut butter so they could never become unmixed." In his mocking tone, he admits to "the hangable offense of mixing structure with presentation, and in HTML and SGML circles, that's a big no-no."

After meandering about for 600 words with a solipsistic history of the web (where his design ideas liberate the teeming masses from the boring gray background and the horizontal rule), Siegel finally gets to the point of his piece. It seems that he has finally embraced the idea of separating content from structure. He's seen the bright new future, and it's one where designers use cascading style sheets to abstract the way a page looks from what a page says. This must be a big step for Siegel, who advised all of us to define table widths in absolute pixel terms and indent our paragraphs with invisible images.

But don't think he's using his grandstand to eat humble pie, and admit that his HTML ethic has been corrupted from the start. Not in the least. While he walks down the aisle to the altar of style sheets, he can't help but take a few last swipes at HTML "extremists" -- you know, those of us who have believed all along that markup tags can actually be used to do something more than provide vertical white space.

Siegel writes...

A few sentences earlier, I wrote "they would not be part of the document" in italics. Remember that? Did I mean italics? Or did I really mean emphasis![italics mine] Oh, yeah, that's what I meant, but I'm used to hitting the I key, not the <EM> key. Wow. Are they that extreme, those HTML extremists er, I mean, purists? Yes, they are that extreme. They can't believe everyone is using <I> for italics when they really mean <EM>, for emphasis.

What Siegel fails to realize is that there can be a difference, for some web browsers, between an italics tag and an emphasis tag. For people that don't actually read the web, but instead listen to it through voice-synthesis technology, the <EM> tag could make a world of difference.

Siegel, though, does admit that he has led his followers astray, but that they should follow him into the brave new world of style sheets...

No longer should we pour our text into tables, for I have led us through the desert for 40 years (seemed like it anyway), and we have emerged in the promised land, where style sheets give us the margins we seek.

Well, David, welcome to the promised land. Glad you could make it. Us extremists sure are happy you and your design-happy minions are finally embracing basic tenets of data design, when it's finally convenient for you to do so. But you know what? It's not really about the margins you seek.

The thing that's powerful about content/presentation abstraction -- whether it's through style sheets or not -- is the ability to extend web-content to something that doesn't look like a web browser at all. Today, not all users on the web are running on the large screen monitors with millions of colors where Siegel's sites look best. Tomorrow, not all users will be using what we know as a web browser. Try viewing any of Siegel's pages on MSWebTV, and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about.

Siegel addresses this point, pointing out that style sheets can degrade "gracefully." To do that, of course, he wants to know what our "technographics" are, or the size of the monitor I'm using, what color depth I'm set to, and how fast my connection is. Of course, Siegel still wants to have "authoritarian" control over the way the page looks, giving control to the end user only as a last resort.

It's this authoritarian egotism that irks me more than anything. The web is open, and when content becomes abstracted from layout, it should be up to the user how they'd like to see the content. This doesn't mean there's not a role for designers, but the user should reign supreme. If I want to read a site the way Siegel intended me to, then great. But if I want to have something other than a browser -- a web site harvester, perhaps -- suck out all the content on a daily basis and email it to me in plain ASCII, then I should be able to do that. Regardless of how Siegel wants my margins set.

When it gets down to brass tacks, I can't hide the fact that I'm pleased Siegel is embracing this "new" religion. For better or worse, plenty of web designers listen to what he has to say, and the more people using cascading style sheets in a year, the better. But I have a feeling that it's very convenient for him to be pushing CSS at this point in time. First, maybe he's finally realized that it's extremely difficult for his design company to maintain complex web-sites patched together with the "duct tape of the web" (his words, not mine): tables and single-pixel GIFs. Hand-tagging a site where content is fused with layout is a difficult thing to do, and cascading style sheets solve that problem.

Second, Siegel has books to sell. The sequel to Creating Killer Websites will most likely do well at Amazon.com (although I have a feeling that Jeff Bezos wishes that they could start selling to an audience that's a bit more mainstream). And if Siegel can tell a good story about the way he's seen the light, he can sell enough books to keep his half-dozen personal sites in domain names until the year 2000...

 

 

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