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The Thing About Pesky SGML | GEGATT

sgmlBelieve it or not, and regardless of your level of familiarity with the acronym, you are beholden to SGML standards every day of your life. SGML stands for standard generalized markup language and it allows any computer or data driven system to look at some simple tags and coding and interpret that coding into proper formatting. The reason SGML is so important is that both HTML and XML are sub-standards derived from SGML with XML finding its home in everything from Microsoft Word to the batches of freely available word processors.

HTML, on the other hand, is hypertext markup language. Or, the standard by which all websites are still built. Yes, you can use PHP and other languages, but by the time you’ve done everything you will still have used HTML coding and principles to build and style the page.

Once again we have to go back in time to get to now when it comes to building websites. When the internet first started out, the holy grail of web design was in the successful attempt to mimic the printed page. Good web design was all about creating reliable and reproducible sites that followed a standard. The standard used practices we often find in documents including left justified, right justified, center justified, tables and charts. In addition to these, and showing off some REALLY annoying internet features, were scrolling and flashing and colored text that was **SHUDDER** horrible and horrifying. I still have nightmares.

Since HTML became the standard and HTML is a sub-standard of SGML then it follows that with the advancement of standards and practices on the internet comes advancements in how we interact with data. The idea was to remove as much of the styling from the HTML and general text in a website. Designers wanted to style once and apply that in as many places as possible. This meant the inclusion of CSS or cascading style sheets. You could, with CSS, create a long style guide that took text types, headers, images, and all sorts of elements and to tell a web browser how to display things.

As usual, Microsoft attempted to use its clout with numbers of users to insert its own HTML and CSS standards rather than actually comply with 99.99999% of everyone else. This, of course, leads to designers having to create ‘special’ stylesheets and webpages catered only to Microsoft and IE standards. In truth, I tend to follow the rule that if you’re on IE we don’t support your ability to cleanly view the website. Additionally, many many many people are still using older versions of IE instead of updating AND the older the version the more buggy and hole ridden the experience. If you insist upon using IE, update to one of the newer versions.

SGML standards aren’t going away. At least, not in the foreseeable future. These standards also support e-books, Amazon’s Kindle reader format, and documents you type. The cool thing is, for most people they are totally transparent. Meaning, unless you have an absolute need to see what’s happening you ain’t gonna. And even then, chances are, you won’t know how to enable the view and it’s the software for the win.

Because, let’s face it, understanding that Times New Roman, 12pt font, double spaced, 1 inch margins, with specially formatted headers and footers, bolded first level headers, italicized second level headers, and regular type third level headers doesn’t really matter a whole lot. Getting to even that rather simple level of styling isn’t what most people want to do. Wanna know why I know this? I teach formatting and style guides as a part of writing and technology classes in order to help students use Microsoft Word in a way that academically helps them advance. They don’t get it and it’s one of those areas where I hear most of the complaints.

It’s so true.

What is important is that the industry is making a knowing and concerted step between SGML and HTML to XML or extensive markup language. XML allows for minimal markup with maximal styling effects, is more dynamic than either the larger SGML standards (and therefore better) or HTML and has more inherent functionality than HTML.

HTML, as a language (if you can call it that) is going on version 5 or HTML5 and is currently in the preliminary stages of adoption of both standards and usage. Apple, when releasing both the iPhone, iPad, and Safari web browser has stated the applications are HTML5 compliant, though they don’t state which HTML5 pre-standards they are complying with.

Facebook, a couple of years ago, in a bid to avoid Apple’s closed software ecosystem for devices (and something Apple wanted when releasing the first gen iPhone) attempted to begin creating HTML5 applications for smartphones, which is an amazing advancement in software development and the loss of platform specific programming. Since the web browser is designed to work, inherently, with the way we are and will use computers (check out Google’s Chromebooks and previous iterations of Microsoft’s OS with IE) and you begin to understand why companies are looking at HTML5 as the next big thing.

HTML5 pairs withCSS3 (then next CSS standard) andJavascript, which leads to: If you wantto be a web designer there are the three things you need to learn first. Of those three, HTML is the easiest. CSS is what will tell all of those tags (



) what to do and how to look. CSS also gets rid of the pesky and awful table setup (think Excel) where you create a table, columns and rows then programmatically alter size and shape until, when all is said (and never done) you’re working inside of a box that has individual HTML code in each cell.

Whatthe combination of HTML’s

and CSS does is create nice, transparent boxes that can be moved and styled from a single, short file. This is amazing as it means creating multiple pages requires less code. Less code means shorter load times. Shorter load times means happier viewers and happier viewers (for those who care about it) means repeat viewers.

Taking this to the next level, the United States military has standards in place for both physical as well as for electronic or digital material. These standards, ten plus years ago, followed SGML. More recently the military is moving to a strict XML standard, all of which is logical given that SGML, XML, and HTML are related and, at a certain level, look very similar.

The next step is to realize that none of these standards (regardless of versioning) are new. They are all pretty old while not all always being used. Adding in web software like WordPress or Movable Type or Drupal or other software meant that both dynamic and static pages needed a common place to look for styling and, rather than re-writing the style to each page, it was easier to create CSS pages that could be references than to recreate inline styles.

An early example of this (and one that confused hades out of me) was, a website dedicated to computer, software, and technical news and information had a style I loved. I was never able to replicate it, but I didn’t know (when I cared about the site) about CSS and stylesheets and HTML and dynamic pages. Now I do, which is why end-user and input experience (how does the person finding my website experience it; and how does my inputting data or content feel) is an important part of website creation. I am not a programmer nor do I care to style pages and I’m willing to spend money on a style that is nice and flexible.

Other people love the way these things work and with video, javascript, Java, CSS, and HTML the experience only grows more and more dynamic and amazing. Someday we will all wake up within the dream that is internet VR and realize we’d, somehow, slipped out of reality into something entirely new and we’ll be stuck (and happy).

Until next week, ciao.

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