Guru puts on the style for restless designers...but it's not all smiles at W3C

January 22, 1999

Tim Greenhalgh meets the Norwegian who redefined style on the world wide web, and Tony Durham sums up a year of successes and setbacks for the web's energetic standard setters

Show two people a web page and chances are one will love the way it looks, the other will embrace what it has to say. Hakon Lie is comfortable with the chaotic idea that no two people see things in the same way.

The originator in 1994 of the concept of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) believes that the design community on the world wide web should perhaps be more at ease with this notion.

"We can't make everything look exactly the same on the web. This must be an important realisation for designers. They should embrace the difference," he says.

But Lie is unlikely to champion a return to the aesthetically arid web of five years ago. His long-term project has given web designers an unprecedented level of control, balancing that with the user freedom intrinsic to the internet. As a research scientist at Norwegian Telecom Research multimedia group Lie was compiling information on potentially useful innovations when he first embraced the web in 1993. "I saw Tim's (Berners-Lee) wonderful invention at the beginning of that year. I stumbled across it one night. I was amazed. It really changed my life."

Lie applied for a research associate's job at CERN in Geneva, where Berners-Lee was developing the web and began work on better ways to control the design of information and its display across all computer platforms. "We understood that HTML worked excellently for research documents, technical papers and so on but did not offer much to the commercial world."

Lie had completed his master's thesis within the electronic publishing group at the MIT Media Lab in 1991, "The Electronic Broadsheet - all the news that fits the display", which fed into CSS, particularly the personalisation of content and display.

Enter the style sheet, a basic language that allows author and users to attach style such as fonts, spacing, and aural cues to HTML and other structured documents. Style sheets separate presentation from content.

Lie says: "The problem is that there are a lot of Netscape 3.0 browsers out there and this browser ignores CSS. It displays the information adequately but without style.

"The Web took off one or two years too early. All the ideas such as style control were being addressed. And the specification for CSS being too late to be included in the NS 3.0 browser was a serious problem."

The CSS specification has really taken root only in the past year as more users replace their browsers. The recent specification for CSS2 should speed this process.It allows designers to use around 130 properties, including downloadable fonts. CSS2 supports media-specific style sheets so that authors may tailor document presentation to standard browsers, aural, braille and handheld devices, printers and so on.

Even more ambitious is the release of the XSL specification, expected to be fully endorsed by the World Wide Web Consortium by the autumn. While CSS can be used to style HTML documents, XSL can transform them. For example, XSL can be used to transform XML data into HTML/CSS documents on the web server. This way, the two languages complement each other and can be used together.

The tension is one of timing. Lie says: "The problem is that today browsers do not support XML. It has the same problems that CSS had. The community is impatient because things have happened incredibly fast on the web. It is good to slow down and ensure that everything is fixed first rather than rush ahead and have to repair later."

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