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Publications > Dateline Houston > April 2004 > Feature Article

Volume 43, Issue 7

April 2004

Book Review

Mastering HTML and XHTML

by Jeff Staples, Information Developer, Kitba Consulting

Deborah S. Ray and Eric J. Ray. 2002. San Francisco, CA: SYBEX Inc. [ISBN 0-7821-4141-2. 1,107 pages, including index. $49.99 USD (softcover).

Warning: May cause damage if dropped on foot. (heh, heh)

Yes, this is a hefty book—1100 pages and then some. However, if you are looking for an HTML/XHTML reference, this is the right resource. About one-third of the book is a collection of resource material to assist you as you create your HTML/XHTML documents, including an alphabetized reference of most syntaxes that you are likely to use.

Mastering HTML and XHTML addresses the needs of the novice as well as the pro. Each chapter provides a helpful chapter-level table of contents so that you can quickly scan to determine if the chapter is for you. (Gee, including elements helpful to your audience—I wonder if tech writers wrote this book?)

Each chapter concludes with a "Where to go from here" section. These are nice launch points, indicating options for branching off from the respective chapter as opposed to taking each chapter sequentially.

Part 1 ("Getting started") provides a launch into HTML for the novice and a good review for the more experienced coder. In addition, you are exposed to XHTML—similar to HTML but "more flexible, forward-looking, and compatible with XML" (p. 5). If in the past you have learned by doing, you will find some helpful insights into creating HTML/XHTML documents. For example, I was familiar with creating lists in HTML, but in this chapter I learned how to designate the list as numeric or alphabetic. (Okay, I'm easily thrilled.)

For web site creation, the authors cover the code needed to specify URLs (absolute or relative), documents (in folders and on the Web), and e-mail addresses to link your HTML/XHTML documents, such as linking to pages within a site, at other sites, and to specific pages within pages. And for adding images to your site, the authors help you avoid "image overload" by covering image basics (size, formats, and height and width) as well as image maps, your mode for attaching multiple links to a single image.

Moving on from the basics, Part 2 ("Advancing your skills") focuses on more intricate elements of HTML/XHTML. What's a table without rows and columns (instructions provided)? However, the authors go beyond with more esoteric table elements, such as specifying a background image.

Entering information into a form on the Internet is becoming standard practice. As you explore developing forms with HTML/XHTML, learn the mechanics for formulating forms that offer two-way communication between browsers and servers. The authors cover the mechanics for the parts that you see on a form (such as input boxes) and the parts you that don't see (such as how the server processes the information).

To frame or not to frame—seems frames are a love or hate with most people. The authors discuss frame pros and cons and give instructions for frame creation, formatting, and control.

XHTML uses the same elements and attributes as HTML; however, you need to update the syntax in your existing HTML documents to convert them to XHTML. The authors explain why you would want to make these conversions (for example, newer technologies will likely require XHTML) and discuss converting your HTML docs by hand or using a tool such as HTML Tidy.

To add uniqueness to your documents, Part 3 ("Moving beyond pure HTML and XHTML") covers style sheets, JavaScript, and multimedia. Cascading style sheets are the easiest and most consistent way to format HTML/XHTML documents. The authors discuss how to associate style sheets with a document (for example, embedding style sheets or storing separately from the document) as well as how to develop your own style sheet.

To hold your users' attention, try adding JavaScript to your documents. You will cover the basics of event handlers and those sometimes-pesky session cookies. Or maybe multimedia will be best for your users. However, don't go overboard. Some helpful questions can help you decide whether multimedia is right for your site. In addition, the authors explore special-effect options such as animation, sound, and ActiveX controls.

It's unlikely that you will be creating stand-alone documents. In Part 4 ("Developing Web sites"), the authors discuss creating sets of HTML/XHTML documents for a whole entity such as a web site, kiosk, help system, or personal digital assistant. And as with most projects, creating a bigger entity such as a web site requires planning. The authors provide specifics for planning, creation, and testing, along with important "must have" elements such as usability through navigational elements.

If you're ready to go live with your documents, check out publishing options through ISPs, a corporate server, or your own server. And in addition to FTP, learn about other uploading options.

In Part 5 ("Applying HTML and XHTML to advanced applications"), you learn how to use HTML/XHTML in more unique ways. For example, to bring excitement to your web site (and your users), use dynamic HTML/XHTML. With dynamic HTML/XHTML, "users can view new content without reloading the page, change screen colors with a mouse click, and view animations without installing a plug-in" (p. 409).

Maybe the information that you want to publish is in a database. To avoid all that data entry, convert the database information into HTML/XHTML documents. The authors help you determine whether this option is for you, and they discuss the generation process. And don't forget to help your users by making your web site searchable. However, search engines can have drawbacks such as generating overwhelming results lists, so review alternatives, such as navigation menus like breadcrumbs.

In Part 6 ("HTML and XHTML development tools") explore the various tool sets available,including text editors, WYSIWYG editors, and XML editors such as the flexible, powerful epcEDIT. Then, validate your documents to check syntax and conformance to standards. As with development tools, various options for validation exist, including the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) free online validator.

With Part 7 ("A bridge to XML"), the authors focus on the link between XHTML and XML. They explain the specifics of XML along with discussion and samples of creating and using document type definitions (DTDs). For cell phone or other non-traditional applications, XHTML modularization breaks up the HTML/XHTML code so that you can create documents that do not have to use (or don't need) the entire markup included in the code set. The authors cover various modules available with a brief explanation and example code.

Part 8 ("The XML family of applications") extends the discussion of XML by exploring various XML-based languages, including the key concepts for using extensible style-sheet language transformations (XSLT) style sheets and processors. An XML tree model reference offers information about how a processor handles your XML document while XML Schemas validate XML documents.

In this book, the Rays have put together virtually everything that you need to know to create HTML/XHTML documents. Although not groundbreaking, the information is presented in a straightforward style and arranged in an easily accessible manner. Basically, it's a "one-stop" reference for prospective coders.

However, if you are expecting HTML for Dummies, you will need to continue your search. This book is designed for the professional (novice to pro) that wants to get in and get out with the information needed to accomplish their tasks. Examples of Web pages, code, and processes, though few, successfully serve to bring a visual element of the tasks along with results of intended (and unintended) code.

Is bigger better? It can be for a reference text that is easy to navigate and serves as a development asset. The Rays' mega volume does just that.

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