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Dueling DHTML’s

>Which one should you choose?

by Daniel Will-Harris

9-15-97 - First a note about this column. Because technology can move faster than a speeding electron, you might think that this column, which comes out every two weeks, could be out-of-date at the end of two weeks. Not so. Why? Because I continually update columns with the latest news. The previous column was updated with new information twice in two weeks.

This column has been updated.
Update 2


>Incompatibility incorporated

September 15, 1997: Imagine if there were two different kinds of TV, say one from Macroscope and one from Netscope. Each TV works great on its own, but if you had a Macroscope you couldn’t see everything that happened in a Netscope TV show, and if you had a Netscope, you couldn’t see everything that happened in a Macroscope show. Doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Unfortunately, that’s where browsers are at, at least for the moment. Both Macroscope, sorry, Microsoft, and Netscape have invented their own new forms of HTML. Both are called “Dynamic HTML” because they allow the page to literally be dynamic, to change based on what the user does. Both are incompatible with the other. So if you want to take advantage of all the spiffy new features, you may either have to create three versions of your page (one for each Version 4 browser, and one more for the Version 2 and 3 browsers, just in case). It would be like making the same TV show three different ways. It’s not practical, and it’s not going to fly.

In a short while you’re going to see at least two new design tools from companies known for their web products. These programs will let you create a dynamic HTML page that will be coded in such a way that it will work for both V4 browsers. (You can get a taste of Macromedia’s entry at their new DTHMLZone though their real product won’t be announced until October 6th.)

>More incompatibility:
older browsers

This is a neat trick, but it’s one trick short: the pages still won’t look right on V3 browsers and most people are still using V3, or even V2 browsers. This means you will probably still need two sets of pages, just to support older browsers (more about this problem in a future column).

Almost 40% of the visitors to this site are using Navigator 4, and about 25% are using the IE4 beta. But you’re a more advanced user than most. On other sites I've polled, it’s more like 12% using Navigator 4, and 5% using IE4.

So which DHTML should you choose? Neither, at least for a while, unless you’re certain your audience is advanced and using a V4 browser.

The best way to handle this situation is to ignore it. While the W3C, the group in charge of creating Internet standards, has been slow in the past, they’re catching up. HTML Version 4 and the upcoming XML (Extensible Markup language) will be standard across both major browsers (probably in V5 of each). When that happens, one page should work on both browsers. So hold your horses and wait.

>In the meantime, you need to remember who’s reading your pages and design your site accordingly.


> Flash!

If you can’t wait for HTML4 and want something like Dynamic HTML now, I suggest you check out Macromedia Flash (formerly known as FutureWave Splash). It’s a brilliant system that creates almost unbelievably small files that deliver high quality, anti-aliased vector graphics, including interactive buttons and streaming animation. The plug-in and ActiveX control are just over 100K so they take almost no time to download. The install is automatic in IE3 and 4, and Nav4, but Nav3 users will still have to close the browser, then install manually.

Flash can provide a level of interactivity and smooth animation simply not available elsewhere. You don’t have to wait for minutes, like you do with ShockWave, these files start appearing and playing as they’re being downloaded.

The Flash authoring software is easy and visual. You can create static images that, because they’re vector, allow you to zoom and still retain full quality, or you can create interactive buttons or animation. The file format is amazingly compact (a full page of interactive buttons I created was just 13K!), yet because the graphics are vector, they can fill an entire screen.

Don’t be confused. There’s ShockWave Flash, and there’s ShockWave (which is the older, Director format). It’s ShockWave Flash that you want. This is really fine software that could change the face of the web in a practical, yet still dramatic way.

DTHML is not streaming, so you must wait for the whole page to load before you can start using it. This is a problem, because DTHML pages can get large, and therefore become slow to download. We all  know that slow pages are pages that often go unread. That’s yet another reason why Flash is a better solution for now--it is streaming, so there’s less waiting, and more to see, sooner.

Flash is a great alternative to DHTML because it will work with Navigator 2 and newer, and IE3 and newer. Plus, you can create a single HTML file that supports Flash for both IE and Netscape, and will display a plain GIF file for older browsers that can’t handle plug-ins. That’s an all-in-one solution. It really works. It works today, and it works for more browsers than anything other than plain HTML. Try it.

Why haven’t you seen more of it? Well, major sites, such as msn and Disney are using it. But a lot of smaller sites seem to think people are incapable of downloading a plug-in or ActiveX, even though the process is much simpler than it once was. Don’t let this stop you, start using Flash, and just provide a download page to make it easier for your visitors to get the free software.

>Update #1, September 17th

I have seen the future. Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to tell you about it. One of the great things about being in the computer press is that you get to see new programs (or new versions of programs) months before they go into beta. One of the frustrating things is that you have to promise not to tell anyone. Companies show you these new versions early to get your reaction and to make sure you keep them in mind when you’re looking at other new programs that may be released before theirs is. In order to see their newest stuff, you usually have to sign what’s called an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), whereby you promise that you won’t name names or give out specifics under penalty of having to give them your left kidney.

So while I was the first in the press to see this, I can only give you some hints of what’s to come, with more details as soon as it’s legal to tell you:

The product is from a company well-known for web site creation and management software. The preview product I saw proved that early next year you’ll be able to create a single DHTML page that will work for both IE4 and Navigator4. Better yet, you’ll be able to create complex interactive elements without any programming by using simple point-and-click techniques.

Will the page still look good on V3 browsers? It’s too early to tell.

Despite the sophistication of the new tool, it still didn’t offer the level of interactivity and animation available in MacroMedia’s Flash, or Flash’s streaming abilities. DTHML pages can’t work until they’re fully downloaded, and since they contain a lot more code than HTML pages, they can take longer to download. Will users wait? That remains to be seen.

The bottom line is still the same--while DHTML offers some interesting features to make web pages more interactive, that doesn’t necessarily mean you need it. While many sites may jump to add these flashy features (at least once tools are out to make it easier), technology for technology’s sake is not good design.

If DHTML can add something to your page that plain old HTML cannot, and if your visitors use V4 browsers, then DTHML makes sense. If you can’t answer “yes” to both those criteria, you shouldn’t be using it.

>Update 2, September 26

Yesterday I saw a demo of an upcoming HTML product from you can download a beta of yourself on October 6th.

The new product makes DHTML page creation easy. It’s all drag and drop. You can create the most complex DTHML pages, with reactive buttons, and text and graphics that fly in and out on cue. It looks like a terrific product (except, perhaps, for its site management, which is weak).

As impressive as the demo was, the question still remains: Why use DHTML (which isn’t backward compatible to 3.0 browsers), when you can do the same things using “Flash”? Flash can do all the same things but in files that are smaller, files that are “streaming” (so you start to see things before the entire page has downloaded), and files that can work on older browsers. IE browsers can download the ActiveX control automatically, without user intervention. Navigator 4 can auto-install the plug-in. Nav3 users still have to install the plug-in, but it’s only about 100K and just involves double-clicking on a single icon--your site visitors can do that!

There may come a time (maybe as soon as next year), when a majority of web users are using V4 browsers. But even when that happens, I’m not convinced that DHTML is more compelling than Flash. So while you’ll have a choice of great DHTML authoring tools, you’ll also have a great alternative.



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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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