“Oh what a tangled web we weave, When first we practice to deceive”

The unauthorized biography of the miracle table

Once upon a time, there was a patchwork of computers between scientists, mathematicians, teachers, and all-around geeks. This patchwork allowed information to flow quickly and dialogues developed. One day, a technique was discovered to make this information pretty. Images could be added to these pages of inter-linked documents and viewed in a new “browser” called Mosaic. This made the esoteric patchwork of scientific notes appealing to the average person and the Internet as we know it today was born.

It didn’t take long for browsers to become more sophisticated. Mosaic evolved and Netscape Navigator was the way most people accessed the world wide web. Microsoft decided they needed to build a better browser and control the Internet and intranets of companies around the world. The Browser Wars had begun.

Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer began creating two versions of the Internet, each filled with super features that only worked with their browser and not the other. Netscape would jab, and Microsoft would counterpunch. It was an exciting free-for-all and the ones hitting the mat at a dizzying speed were the web page designers trying to make their sites look decent in both browsers.

The Internet soon became filled with pages that were a mishmash of misunderstood code, boring layouts, and really bad writing. In 1996, David Siegel released his book Creating Killer Web Sites and the web was changed forever. Well, maybe it wasn’t THAT dramatic. Siegel introduced the world to the graphic use of tables to layout a site. Tables are officially used to display information in a tabular format. Columns and rows intersect to show how much the red, pullover sweater will cost on the new www.pullover-red-sweater-store.com web site. But Siegel said “wait!” We could take this ugly web site, throw in a table, chop it up again, take some big happy images, cut them into smaller pieces, reconstruct them with yet another nested table, add some text here, a little color there, maybe a shadow or two, throw in some images to keep the cells from collapsing, and voila! A web page that looks decent in Netscape and Internet Explorer and actually looks fairly nice. The miracle table was born.

Life in Internet land seemed to be full of bliss, pages were beginning to look interesting, web sites were fairly easy to build, and the miracle table was flexible enough to contain the growing design challenges. For you see, Netscape and Internet Explorer continued to fight for the biggest share of the browser market. More and more, designers found their sites only looked and behaved properly in one of the two browsers. People began building mirror sites for those with slow internet connections, Netscape users, Internet Explorer users, and more. The population of users also began expanding. Screen readers were developed for those who are blind. WebTV brought the internet to the living room television. People began asking for internet access on their cell phones and PDA devices. The miracle table was beginning to crack under the pressure.

Luckily, there was a group of rogue developers fighting to stop the browser war madness. These underground heroes fought with guerilla tactics unseen in any previous battle. They created the World Wide Web Consortium and started pounding sense (standards) into the Internet Community. They issued doctrines (suggestions) and distributed propaganda (w3c.org). They demanded the browsers begin to work together, adopt a set of standards, and the world would be happy and free again. Surprisingly, this bloodless coup-d’etat actually worked.

The W3C has been guiding the browsers, developers, and designers down a peaceful path toward a new era of web design that is cross-browser compatible (Internet Explorer, Opera, Safari, Firefox, et al), platform independent (web pages, screen readers, PDA devices, cell-phones, . . . ), much faster to download, more accessible, easier to develop, and ready for the future. Welcome to the world of standards-based web design.