Sure, by now, most web sites are just too big to hand-craft everything -- and with great tools like Dreamweaver, you don’t have to. But if you’re a serious web professional, there will still be plenty of times when you need to understand how the HTML is really working -- or not.
One day, you’ll need to tweak errant HTML into shape. Another day, you’ll need to add a feature that’s not supported by your editor -- say, a CSS2 property. Equally important, there will be higher-level concepts and techniques you may simply not have come across in your travels -- especially if, like most folks, you learned by spying on other folks’ source. And, of course, if you’ve found reasons to use XHTML, chances are you’ll really need some guidance there.
At times like these, what are you gonna do -- go read the original W3C specifications? Get real. Rather, we recommend a book that’s almost the polar opposite of the specs documents: HTML & XHTML: The Definitive Guide, Fifth Edition by Chuck Musciano and Bill Kennedy.
Where the specs can be stunningly abstruse, this book’s as clear as the mountain air atop Everest. The specs appear almost deliberate in their refusal to give you any context. This book tells you why you’re doing what you’re doing -- and why you shouldn’t do what you shouldn’t be doing. The specs are -- by definition -- interested only in setting standards. This book’s very healthy respect for standards is matched by equal respect for the real world, which is full of deprecated HTML that works.
This Fifth Edition has been thoroughly updated for the latest browsers and HTML/XHTML technologies, including Netscape Navigator 6, Internet Explorer 6, HTML 4.01, CSS2, and the final release of XHTML 1.0. Musciano and Kennedy encourage you to use XHTML 1.0 for new pages and applications, while leaving the old stuff alone.
They also take a brief and unhappy look at XHTML 1.1, which you probably won’t have to worry about for a while -- if ever. You can feel the steam rising off the page: “If you think of XHTML 1.0 as unwieldy, picky, and time-consuming, you’ll find XHTML 1.1 even more so. In our opinion, XHTML 1.1 is an example of the standards process taken to absurd levels, defining a standard that may be academically pure but is essentially unusable.”
The book’s coverage of forms is especially thorough. The authors review what has to happen on both the server and client side in order for a form to work, then cover all the basics (for example, when to use POST vs. GET; how to use each form interface element). There’s also a section on creating effective forms, including how to cope with limited displays and browser constraints. You’ll also walk through using email to collect forms data (essential when you can’t write CGI or your ISP doesn’t support it), but remember that email responses are far less secure!
We especially like the last chapter, "Tips, Tricks, and Hacks" (and, frankly, wish it were even longer). Favorite hacks: using tables to create multicolumn layouts complete with straddle heads and side heads, and overriding others’ targets to help your site visitors break out of someone else’s misbegotten frames. Best of all, unlike some “hacks” we’ve seen, this book’s HTML won’t transform your pages into formless chaos when someone has the audacity to use the wrong browser. Bill Camarda
Bill Camarda is a consultant, writer, and web/multimedia content developer. His 15 books include Special Edition Using Word 2000 and Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies®, Second Edition.