It was HTML, once: now it’s ex-HTML

editor has been expressing disdain for XHTML. He can probably take heart from the fact that, ten years ago, someone somewhere was probably saying “why can’t I write webpages in this standard I’ve been using for years (troff/rich-text/postscript/LaTeX/plain text)? Has HTML just been invented to make my life more difficult?” And that, ten years before that, the same thing was being said about computers in general. Has the generalized fountain pen suddenly stopped working? Well, if it’s anything like my specific set of fountain pens, then almost certainly.

But as for advantages, I can only point to personal experience, from a point of view that is less tied to simply getting a single document up and running, and instead considers a whole website of constantly changing content. XHTML has been an absolute godsend, for reasons which include (but aren’t limited to) the following:

  • XHTML documents seem to be displayed more predictably in browsers, and look more similar from one browser to the next.
  • They are easier to style reliably, because they avoid hierarchy ambiguities that HTML permits (is that element in that element, or is it in that one? Oh: that one isn’t closed, so browsers all interpret the hierarchy differently).
  • The necessity of an ALT tag (which has nothing to do with XHTML, really) means that the writer is fulfilling a legal requirement, which is: visually disabled users can access an image-heavy site.
  • XHTML documents are easier to build upon when you want any Javascript, because their hierarchy is sorted and because they permit various XML-based functionality.
  • XHTML’s shift of emphasis away from presentation means that one can always strip off the presentation at a later date, and know that much of the semantics is preserved. This is invaluable if a site is being redesigned or otherwise redeveloped.

I’d also add that XHTML documents are easier to repurpose and extract information from. Typically content-writers shouldn’t be made to actually write the (X or not)HTML without some sort of intermediary software softening the blow, though, and I’m rather surprised that it’s necessary in editor’s case. The workflow which is currently causing him so much friction was probably, previously, allowing him to write bad HTML without a single complaint, and you were merely postponing your headaches so that you or someone else would have to suffer from them in the future.

As a case study, when we recently took over management of a website, the only version of the old data was a collection of XHTML documents, hundreds of which we had to decompose and insert into our content management database. But because it was (a) well-written and (b) good XHTML, a three-month job that might have involved visual checking, manual editing and intensive proof-reading was reduced to a week of coding using powerful XML technologies. Now that’s an efficient technology, efficiently used.

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