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Thinking Ahead: The Forward Compatible Website -by Adam Plante
Most students find schools and academic programs through the web. That is a well-known fact. We know that most students will find a school by using a search engine (namely Google) and we know that most of them use Internet Explorer as their primary browser. We know these things because of data collected from the past. What we don't know is how they will find programs in the future. There are numerous new web technologies on the horizon and many more in the emerging final stages of development. Mobile Internet use through cell phones, PDA's, and notebook computers is on the rise. We know that image is heavy on the minds of prospective students and that a dated look in the website on the outside reflects a dated program on the inside. With all these new rapidly implementing technologies there is one dominant possibility. Chances are that the students will be immersed in the new technologies long before most people will know they exist. All this makes it difficult to balance budget and time restraints with the need to keep up with technology. Fortunately, there is a way to help balance the scale. Enter forward compatibility.
Forward compatibility can be defined as "the ability of a system to accept input from later versions of itself." In the case of web design this definition extends a bit further as the word 'input' refers to the website itself. The web page in HTML format is the input for the browser or other viewing technology. A forward compatible website will be able to be viewed by newer technologies. This actually sounds a lot harder than it is.
Incorporating forward compatibility into a website requires proper implementation of three core concepts to achieve extensibility. 1. The careful use of web standards. 2. Defined and validated information. 3. The separation of content and layout.
This should result in an easily upgraded, cross platform compatible website. This website would be as adaptable to newer technologies as it would be to a new look and feel. That's a lot to digest so allow me to provide some examples.
The careful use of Web Standards Web standards are guidelines for how a web page should be coded and how a browser (such as Internet Explorer or Firefox) should interpret that code. Code from a standards compliant website, in theory, will be easily read from one browser to the next as well as from one designer to another. The World Wide Web Consortium is a useful resource for determining interoperable technologies, offering guidelines and support for accessibility to all Internet users.
Defined and Validated Information Defined and validated information refers to more than just accurate information. It refers to having a linked file, which provides definitions and categorizations of information. XML was developed with this in mind. With XML, information is not only broken down into what type of information it is, it has a definition of what kind of information is valid for that type. For example, a type of information could be 'state', which only allows a value of two capitol letters (PA) instead of a written out name (Pennsylvania). The major advantage of using XML is that it was made to be the standard means of information exchange from one technology to the next.
The Separation of Content and Layout The separation of content and layout is the easiest of the three concepts to visualize, but is made possible by the two concepts above. Imagine how easy it would be to change the complete look of a site without changing the HTML of the site. A single document that describes how a site looks is linked to multiple documents that contain the information a page will display. By making changes to the one document, all the pages containing the information will adopt the new look. This concept is currently in practice at Zen Garden. In this site you can see over a hundred different appearances for the one site which all use the same exact HTML code. Creative professionals interested in the project can submit a web standards compliant style sheet, and pending approval, the new design will be posted.
Advantages to forward compatibility observance include easier and more cost effective redesign of a website, portability of a website to newer technologies like Blackberries and web-enabled cell phones, and better search engine ranking. Beyond these immediate benefits, forward compatibility allows extensibility for future growth.
Forward compatibility, however, is not flawless. Various technology vendors have at times attempted to push proprietary standards over conventional ones. This sort of behavior was more prevalent during the browser wars of the late nineties and is occurring far less frequently these days. Far more likely an issue is rushed or improper implementation of the three concepts above. Forward compatibility takes time and is a careful process. It has to be done right to be useful and requires foresight and a careful attention to detail. Similar to any implementation, the technology is only as good as the technician using it.
As support for web standards grows and XML becomes more prevalent, consideration for forward compatibility in your web site makes more sense. Its advantages out-weigh its flaws and if done correctly, it will save time and money as well as make site additions easier and search engine optimization more effective.
Adam Plante is the senior web design/developer for EDU Internet Strategies. He has several years experience in Higher Education Marketing, preparing usable, functional and creative websites for colleges and universities.
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