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Father of CSS plans for Web publishing future

Presenting a polished layout is crucial to newspapers and magazines publishing on the Web. Opera CTO Hakon Wium Lie says the CSS Web standard is adapting accordingly.

W3C's mockups for template layout tools with CSS.
W3C's mockups for template layout tools with CSS.

OSLO, Norway--Good news for anybody with a newspaper who needs to reckon with Internet publishing: the man behind a key Web technology has your needs in mind.

After years of relative obscurity, the Web formatting standard called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets has come into its own, taking a starring role as the mechanism for building a new generation of interactive, elaborate Web pages. CSS is growing in new directions now, and the technology's original creator believes its next direction for improvement will be dealing with more complicated Web page layout chores.

"There is important work left to be done for layout," Håkon Wium Lie, who is also Opera's chief technology officer, said in an interview here. The new CSS3 under development now can handle multi-column text arrangements, "but you couldn't replicate a printed newspaper in CSS."

Now there's work under way to address that with CSS modules called grid layout and template layout, Lie said.

"You paint a layout with ASCII art," a sort of visual design made out of text directly in the CSS code, Lie said, "then fill content into that. It's an experimental specification, but one I think has that compactness and terseness and minimalism that's part of CSS but still allows you to do quite advanced layouts."

Opera Chief Technology Officer Hakon Wium Lie
Opera Chief Technology Officer Håkon Wium Lie Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even though the Web is expanding from online documents to online applications, publishing is still very important. In particular with the arrival of the iPad and other tablets, tools to create a polished, flexible layout are essential as publishers seek to capitalize on the medium.

The layout tools likely will be a part of the current CSS3 specification under development, probably as modules, Lie said.

Lie, who worked with Web creator Tim Berners-Lee at CERN, was the founder of CSS in the 1990s. The technology has gradually advanced, with the latest vanguard figuring prominently in new demonstrations of what's possible with Web pages and increasingly Web applications as well.

Initially used for basic font styling and some graphics chores such as rectangular boxes, CSS has grown up.

Some new CSS3 feature include transformations--which for example let elements be moved around a Web page, resized, and rotated--and transitions--which control effects such as photos zooming into the background. Both of those benefit from hardware acceleration.

Internet Explorer has been something of a thorn in the side of CSS fans, but that's changed with IE9, which supports not just CSS2.1 but also CSS3. Microsoft also has become active in CSS development, for example by submitting numerous tests to help browser makers ensure they truly support the standard.

Also helping out the newspaper crowd is the addition of Web Open Font Format, which after years of fitful effort appears to have won over typography experts as a way to venture beyond the small collection of "Web-safe" fonts.

Work is underway to endow CSS with a visual layout system designed to be easy to use but powerful.
Work is under way to endow CSS with a visual layout system designed to be easy to use but powerful. W3C

CSS3 lets programmers create Web pages that can detect when a user's mouse pointer is hovering over an object, triggering an action without having to rely on lots of JavaScript. Also new are drop shadows to give a 3D layering effect with less Photoshop toil and network data usage.

"When designers get their hands on these effects, they'll be able to create wonderful pages. It's going to take much shorter time than they do today using Photoshop," Lie said at an Opera press conference here.

Also replacing a lot of manual programming is support for border radius, which can bring curved corners to otherwise rectangular boxes.

"A request that came in early in CSS1 was that people wanted to do rounded borders. We thought about that. I think it looks so 1970s--nobody ever would want to have that kind of design. I was very wrong about that," said Lie, chuckling.