Style sheets represent a major breakthrough for Web page designers, expanding their ability to improve the appearance of their pages. In the scientific environments in which the Web was conceived, people are more concerned with the content of their documents than the presentation. As people from wider walks of life discovered the Web, the limitations of HTML became a source of continuing frustration and authors were forced to sidestep HTML’s stylistic limitations. While the intentions have been good — to improve the presentation of Web pages — the techniques for doing so have had unfortunate side effects. These techniques work for some of the people, some of the time, but not for all of the people, all of the time. They include:

  • Using proprietary HTML extensions
  • Converting text into images
  • Using images for white space control
  • Use of tables for page layout
  • Writing a program instead of using HTML

 

These techniques considerably increase the complexity of Web pages, offer limited flexibility, suffer from interoperability problems, and create hardships for people with disabilities.

Style sheets solve these problems at the same time they supersede the limited range of presentation mechanisms in HTML. Style sheets make it easy to specify the amount of white space between text lines, the amount lines are indented, the colors used for the text and the backgrounds, the font size and style, and a host of other details.

Flexible placement of style information

Placing style sheets in separate files makes them easy to reuse. Sometimes it’s useful to include rendering instructions within the document to which they apply, either grouped at the start of the document, or in attributes of the elements throughout the body of the document. To make it easier to manage style on a site basis, this specification describes how to use HTTP headers to set the style sheets to be applied to a document.

Independence from specific style sheet languages

This specification doesn’t tie HTML to any particular style sheet language. This allows for a range of such languages to be used, for instance simple ones for the majority of users and much more complex ones for the minority of users with highly specialized needs. The examples included below all use the CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) language [CSS1], but other style sheet languages would be possible.

Cascading

This is the capability provided by some style sheet languages such as CSS to allow style information from several sources to be blended together. These could be, for instance, corporate style guidelines, styles common to a group of documents, and styles specific to a single document. By storing these separately, style sheets can be reused, simplifying authoring and making more effective use of network caching. The cascade defines an ordered sequence of style sheets where rules in later sheets have greater precedence than earlier ones. Not all style sheet languages support cascading.

Media dependencies

HTML allows authors to specify documents in a media-independent way. This allows users to access Web pages using a wide variety of devices and media, e.g., graphical displays for computers running Windows, Macintosh OS, and X11, devices for television sets, specially adapted phones and PDA-based portable devices, speech-based browsers, and braille-based tactile devices.

Style sheets, by contrast, apply to specific media or media groups. A style sheet intended for screen use may be applicable when printing, but is of little use for speech-based browsers. This specification allows you to define the broad categories of media a given style sheet is applicable to. This allows user agents to avoid retrieving inappropriate style sheets. Style sheet languages may include features for describing media dependencies within the same style sheet.

Alternate styles

Authors may wish to offer readers several ways to view a document. For instance, a style sheet for rendering compact documents with small fonts, or one that specifies larger fonts for increased legibility. This specification allows authors to specify a preferred style sheet as well as alternates that target specific users or media. User agents should give users the opportunity to select from among alternate style sheets or to switch off style sheets altogether.

Performance concerns

Some people have voiced concerns over performance issues for style sheets. For instance, retrieving an external style sheet may delay the full presentation for the user. A similar situation arises if the document head includes a lengthy set of style rules.

The current proposal addresses these issues by allowing authors to include rendering instructions within each HTML element. The rendering information is then always available by the time the user agent wants to render each element.

In many cases, authors will take advantage of a common style sheet for a group of documents. In this case, distributing style rules throughout the document will actually lead to worse performance than using a linked style sheet, since for most documents, the style sheet will already be present in the local cache. The public availability of good style sheets will encourage this effect.

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