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Standards body translates Web for devices

The World Wide Web Consortium proposes a rewrite of the Web's standard language that proponents say will make it easier for smaller devices to read Web pages.

The basic language of the Web is due for an overhaul--one that proponents say will make it easier for an array of Web browsing devices to read Web pages.

Standards body the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) today released a proposed recommendation--the penultimate stage in the W3C recommendation process--of Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML). The proposed recommendation would rewrite Hypertext Markup Language (HTML), commonly referred to as the Web's lingua franca, in Extensible Markup Language (XML), a newer technology for creating Web languages.

Web authors use HTML to design basic Web pages. HTML tags designate format and page elements such as paragraph breaks, color, tables, lists, and the like. XML defines a tagging structure for the creation of industry- or task-specific languages. One example is MathML, for creating Web pages with mathematical content.

High on the list of goals for XHTML is to make Web pages more easily readable by devices other than the traditional desktop browser, as devices such as handheld computers become ever-more-connected to the Internet. XHTML divides elements of a Web page into groups called "modules." When a device with a small screen accesses the page, the server can choose to send the device only the module with information that will fit on that small screen.

"As the Web explodes into a variety of new devices, we want to keep a lid on the costs and improve the quality that content," said Dave Raggett, HTML Activity lead for the W3C and visiting engineer from Hewlett-Packard. "This will make transformation for devices like the PalmPilot and WebTV easier. With today's markup, you can't do a good job."

Part of the trouble with today's HTML is that it grants Web coders too much leeway with their tagging. For example, Web authors designate paragraph breaks with a paragraph tag (<p>), but tagging the end of a paragraph with a close paragraph tag (</p>) is optional. XHTML would eliminate that kind of ambiguity. Also, current HTML is not case-sensitive, but XHTML would be.

"The way people use markup is incredibly messy," said Raggett. "The idea was to clean up the definition of what HTML is in practice. In XHTML you always have to say what you mean."

Fortunately for Web authors, XHTML browsers will be able to read documents written in HTML. And learning the new language should be easy for Web developers, since XHTML will base its tags on the traditional HTML tags.

Now that it's a proposed recommendation, XHTML will undergo a round of comments before being considered for final recommendation status. The time between proposed and final recommendations is typically six weeks.

In addition to the proposed recommendation of XHTML, the W3C today released HTML 4.01, the first revision to basic HTML since version 4.0 came out in December 1997. Version 4.01 fixes minor errors, according to the W3C.