The State of Web Development

By | February 13, 2006

I believe in Web Standards. I believe that Andy Clarke was mostly (or completely) right when he said:

While I understand that for many, learning standards based development is difficult, particularly for creative people who have not been required to work with code before, I believe that the time has now passed for those working with old fashioned methods to be called web professionals. There are now so many web sites, blogs or publications devoted to helping people learn standards and accessible techniques that there are now no excuses not to work with semantic code or CSS. Those people still delivering nested table layout, spacer gifs or ignoring accessibility can no longer call themselves web professionals. (Source)

This all leads up to a fun little experience I had today. I got an email from my domain registrar informing me that “simscycle.com” would be expiring in the next month or two. This is a site that I programmed a couple years ago. I didn’t do any of the design work, I just implemented their existing design in a custom content management system. Because I don’t believe in putting my name on crap, I rewrote the code for the design using XHTML and CSS, resulting in a beautiful (speaking of the code), accessible, standards-compliant Web site.

Fast-forward a year or so, and the owner of the company, the woman who initially paid me to do the work, has never taken the time to learn the very simple content management system I put together for her. Now that she has paid me to make it easy for her to update her own site, she has decided that she would rather pay another company to do all the updating for her. So this other company contacted me about changing the nameservers on the domain to point to their hosting instead of mine. I did, and I deleted the site off my server and forgot about it.

Fast forward several more months, and we arrive at today. When I got the domain renewal email, I remembered that we hadn’t transferred the actual domain name to the new company, just changed the nameservers. As I was emailing the woman who owns the site and her contact at the new development company, I got curious and decided to look at the site and see if they had made any major changes. At first glance, I was pleasantly surprised to see that they appeared to be using my code without any changes. Then I noticed that the menu looked slightly different, so I did a quick View Source to see what they had changed. Two words: wow.

It turns out that they changed everything, with not a single improvement and a load of whatever-the-opposite-of-improvement-is. They went back to a tables based layout. Not because the XHTML/CSS combo was incapable of producing the look they wanted — like I said, they didn’t even change the design! The reason they switched back to crappy code is because they didn’t know any better! This is a professional web development company, one whose website lists scores of companies as customers, and they lack the basic skills to work in web development in this decade.

Roger Johansson wrote an article entitled “Ten reasons to learn and use web standards.” This is a great article that the folks at this other company should read. I won’t list all of them, but I do want to highlight a few ways that they made simscycle.com worse by throwing web standards in the garbage:

4. Faster loading and reduced bandwidth usage

Well-structured markup that separates structure and content from presentation is generally much more compact than table-and-spacer-image-based tag soup. Documents will be smaller and faster for visitors to download. Like it or not, there are still many, many people connecting to the Internet through dialup.

If your site has a hosting plan with a limit on free bandwidth usage, smaller documents will reduce costs – provided traffic doesnâ??t increase.

Looking at the main index pages of each version of the site, this point really hit home. The new and “improved” version: 324 lines of code. My standards-based version: 99 lines. Same information, same look, 3.3 times the amount of code. Enough said.

5. Provide the foundation for accessibility

Using web standards does not guarantee that all aspects of your site will be accessible to people with disabilities, but it is a very good start. Make sure your documents are valid, well-structured, and semantic, and youâ??re well on the way towards having an accessible site.

Like 99 percent of the sites in the world, if you try to visit simscycle.com on a PDA or a cell phone, it will not be an enjoyable experience. If you try to visit it in a screen-reader (because you are blind), your experience will not be wonderful. This site was accessible, and now it isn’t. Doesn’t sound like a step forward to me.

7. Make your markup easier to maintain

Would you rather wade through many kilobytes of multiply nested tables and spacer images or just browse through a clean and well-structured document when you need to update your site?

Removing, inserting or editing presentation-free content is much easier and more efficient than having to make sure you get all the presentational cruft right. Using CSS to control layout also makes it much easier to make site-wide design changes.

I don’t really care about this, since I am no longer responsible for updating this site. But let me just say that with the way it had been set up, if the owner of the company decided she wanted an entirely new design for the site, I could implement it in a matter of hours without touching any files other than the external stylesheet. It would take that long on the current site just to change a background color, and they will have to open a lot more than one file.

I understand when a site built by a high school kid for his uncle’s company looks like crap. What baffles me is that a company that DOES web development, a company that is paid a lot of money by a lot of companies to DO web development, doesn’t take the time to LEARN web development. I am a professional web developer, and I spend an hour a day reading the latest in web development. I am constantly learning, because what I know today will not be enough in a year. But this company is using what I knew in 1999, and they are making money off it. Absolutely ridiculous.

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