HTML: Still not all it's cracked up to be

The ever-growing jumble of standards, frameworks, and tools does little to ease the pain of Web application development

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The same is now becoming true for client-side Web technologies. Countless new frameworks and methodologies have sprung up. Should JavaScript developers put their stock in jQuery, Dojo, Prototype, MooTools, or something else? Each offers its own developer ecosystem and its own idea of what constitutes best practices. And JavaScript libraries aren't the end of it. These days there are even CSS frameworks, such as Blueprint and the 960 Grid System, designed to speed to process of site layout.

Wanted: Better Web tools
With so many options to choose from it's easy for developers to go a bit wall-eyed. In the case of my friend's site, my predecessor had made some good choices. Unfortunately, his execution didn't match the quality of his tools. He loaded a complex CSS framework but ignored it everywhere it proved too restrictive for the client's design demands. He was using a JavaScript framework to add client-side effects, but his grasp of good programming practice was limited, leading to a site that performed slowly, had poor cross-browser support, and was riddled with bugs.

In the end, I had to scrap the site. Preserving its visual presentation as closely as possible, I set about recoding the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript portions essentially from scratch. This time I did it in an orderly fashion, with clean, well-organized code, better attention to browser compatibility, and with a mind to flexibility and scalability, so the site wouldn't need to be torn apart again the next time my friend asked for changes.

That's not to say I advocate rip-and-replace as good development practice, or even that everything went smoothly with the rewrite. On the Web there's always too much trial and error. Compared to the rational, sober, verifiable development methods they teach in computer science programs, much of modern Web development amounts to playing darts.

So while it's easy to dismiss tools like Flash -- and I still argue it's a platform whose time is past -- mainstream Web developers have reason to envy those who build applications with proprietary tools. A tightly controlled ecosystem backed by a major vendor makes it easier to define best practices, set development targets, and deliver results with a minimum of chaos.

We need more of that in mainstream Web development. Adobe has introduced some interesting tools for HTML5 support in its Creative Suite 5 product line, and Adobe Dreamweaver was invaluable to me in making sense of the legacy code in my friend's Web project, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. The time for Flash and other RIA platforms is over, but the time for HTML5 is just beginning. What Web developers need now are not more alternative tools, but tools that will help us unify the ones we already have.

This article, "HTML: Still not all it's cracked up to be," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in software development at InfoWorld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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