Do we really need HTML and CSS on the web?

Published on and tagged with css  html  ideas

A provocative question, I know. But I like to try to get to the bottom of something from time to time, and to give my fancy full scope ;-)

Let’s start with another question: what do we do on the web? We read news, we compare prices, we buy products, we learn, we look at pictures, etc., in short we are interested in content. Content is king. So the design of the sites is not that important. Of course it is more pleasant if a site has a nice design, but that’s not the reason a site is visited. It’s because of its content.

So we can say the web is about content. Ok. But HTML and CSS are primary for design purposes. Hm. Could it be that HTML and CSS are a wrong solution for websites? It is possible. There are some indicators for that:

  • HTML and CSS are (too) complex, which makes it difficult for non-technical people to create websites
  • too much time must be invested to make a website look correct in the different browsers
  • extra work is needed if a website should be accessible for disabled people

What could be an alternative? I think an alternative approach should be similar to plain-text email, with no possibilities to format anything. So it would be really easy to create content, just open an editor and start writing (like writing an email). And you would no longer have to worry about the different browsers, because the content is shown in the way it was entered, with just one font and one font size…

What do you think about this topic?

10 comments baked

  • Bret Kuhns

    HTML was originaly designed for the very purpose that you mention. Its original incarnation was nothing more than a markup langage used to style text in a way that aided information sharing. If you look at the original HTML tags, there wasn’t much in the way of stlyish formatting (images, layouts, etc). All of that changed, and perhaps for a reason? The web is now a maketable industry. News channels on TV are supposed to be so that people can get news information, but all the news channels are always working to make the nicest looking sets, get more attractive anchors, and use snazzy video effects with their news reports. None of this really affects the information they provide, it just gets more people to watch, and the more people watching means more advertisement revenue for the network. Do you really think the web would be as popular as it is today if everyone used a text-based browsers like they did in the early days of the internet?

    And in response to “HTML and CSS are (too) complex, which makes it difficult for non-technical people to create websites”. Does WYSIWYG ring a bell? It’s not the perfect solution, but it works for non-technical people. I can think of a few small businesses that rely on Dreamweaver to create their online presence.

  • automagically

    That does make sense. I think another example of content being king is the fact that I read your site through my RSS on Netvibes, so whatever the site looks like, doesn’t really matter, I just want the content.

    I like the idea discussed on Digg a while back, of just providing different versions of the site under subdomains. Like would be straight up text files, or look basic like Craigslist, since you gotta have links and forms at least! Or do you? Hmm. I can see benefits of creating a basic version of your site, akin to craigslist. Might be really helpful for people with disabilities (and avoiding law suits, unlike Target), and could just use the same content from the database of the normal site. I start out with a basic wireframe skeleton type site with no styling while writing the php and testing forms anyways, why not keep it for that subdomain?

  • Leandro Ardissone

    The problem with the HTML and CSS is that WYSIWYG tools usually make the website non-standard compliant and this is the reason of the difficult of create HTML + CSS sites that looks good for everyone (including the standards geeks).

    Otherwise, plain text is great. I love to read RSS for this reason, I have my reader with plain text and images from the post/article which becomes in a faster and clean reading. I think that this is the main reason for RSS is created apart of the read-all-at-the-same-place.

    I will love to see all the internet like old BBS with only text and design means ASCII draws all around.

  • Hypercubed

    Like Bret said that was the intent of HTML. HTML was all about content and nothing about markup. Then people started to make very stylized web pages using images embedded in tables embedded in tables embedded in tables and so on. Soon the HTML became so convoluted with style markups that the content became hidden. That is where CSS and XHTML comes in. If you move all the style to the CSS then the HTML/XHTML is only content.

  • KesheR

    Damn, we are humans, we need colors and rounded boxes and all that makes an eye happy. It is necessary in some way.

    For further discussion: should web technologies be rebuilt from scratch?

  • ryan

    I think the current crop of popular blogging tools & services – such as livejournal, wordpress, blogger, etc – have actually made content delivery as easy as you suggest; Opening up livejournal and making a new post takes about as much technical knowledge as firing off an email.

  • scott lewis (work)

    I agree with Ryan. Basically, you’re looking at the wrong level of abstraction. People want to “make a webpage” and “get some information up there”. That has nothing to do with writing HTML. Or, at least, it shouldn’t. It comes down to tools. Blogger, et al. provide the tools to make a webpage and get some information up there without touching actual HTML.

    To look at it from the opposite direction: HTML is a horrible format for presenting a document. Our minds aren’t trained to jump over things like «BOLD» and «ITALIC» and just focus on the content. Not to mention the little dance you have to go through to get the page in the first place, I mean, who though GET / HTTP/1.0 was a human-friendly way to request HTML pages anyway?

    We have these immensely powerful parsers, thick network clients, and renderers dedicated to reading HTML and presenting it’s contents to us in a human friendly-way. When we read webpages we ignore the HTML and focus on the content. All that is required is to build tools that allow us to do the same when creating content.

    WordPress, Blogger, etc., are just part of the infrastructure. The mythical ‘average user’ shouldn’t be expected to manage files in an Apache DocRoot any more than they should be expected to build a server, set up DNS entries, or write a TCP stack.

  • cakebaker

    @all: Thanks for your comments.

    @Bret Kuhns: “Do you really think the web would be as popular as it is today if everyone used a text-based browsers like they did in the early days of the internet?” No, it was probably necessary to use design to attract new users to the web. But the more I use the web, the more unimportant the design of websites becomes. Nowadays, I read most content in my RSS reader ;-)

    Yes, I know there are WYSIWYG tools out there. But for me it is not really WYSIWYG, because the “what you get” part depends on the browser you use.

    @automagically: It is a good idea to use subdomains if you can automate that, but as soon as you have manually to maintain them, then it is too costly.

    @Leandro Ardissone: Well, even if a site is standard-compliant it could be unaccessible because a wrong font size was used, or wrong color combinations, etc. With removing the possibility to define such things you remove also such problems ;-)

    @Hypercubed: Yes, HTML was intended for content, especially for structuring content. But is such a structure needed? Or wouldn’t it be more interesting to see what structures would emerge?

    @KesheR: Yes, design is important for humans. But there are areas where design is not that important: emails, forums, sms, newspapers, books, and IMHO the web.

    I think it is not necessary to rebuild the web technologies from scratch (and almost impossible). An evolutionary process is better, and with RSS we currently see such an evolutionary step.

    @ryan & scott lewis: That’s true, with the blogging tools it is relatively easy to publish something. But for me the format used on the web should be like an extension of the plain text format, which even a non-technical person can edit with every editor.

  • Markus Bertheau

    Without doubt, content is the most important thing on a web page. But we humans perceive content with more ease if it’s presented in a well readable form (See column layouts in all print media – It’s not easy to make columns in your email or blog post). So on one hand HTML/CSS makes it possible to mark up content in an easily perceptable way, but on the other hand the same techniques — font sizes, colors, faces, graphical elements — can be used to create a web page that is overcrowded and distracts the reader from the real content.

    In the end I think that just text wouldn’t suffice. We could restrict the misuse of the presentational capabilities of HTML and CSS by using only semantical markup and a static CSS.

  • Yebot

    One can make beautiful websites with HTML and CSS. One can make beautiful music with instruments and know-how. Of course, the act of making music is a senseless one, but the world would be a boring place without beautiful music. The act of making beautiful-looking websites may also be senseless, but a lack of beauty on the web would make it boring.

    If content is king, beauty is queen.

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