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HTML 4.0 Strives to Make the Web More Accessible
By John Makulowich
Like all else on the Internet, proposed standards are in a constant state of flux, in development or under review. Among the more important is the recently released public working draft of HTML 4.0, known as hypertext markup language, the publishing language of the Web, by the World Wide Web Consortium (http://www.w3.org/).
The consortium, jointly run by the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science in the United States, the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control in France and Keio University in Japan, develops common protocols for the World Wide Web. It also maintains a Web information repository for developers and users, reference codes for standards and a variety of prototype and sample applications to demonstrate use of new technology. More than 180 organizations are consortium members.
The bottom line on the draft, the product of the W3C HTML Working Group, is to make the Web more accessible, appealing, interactive and international, according to Tim Berners-Lee, W3C director and inventor of the Web.
After public and member review, the consortium expects it will be endorsed as a new W3C recommendation. Members of the working group include Adobe Systems, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft, Netscape Communications, Novell, SoftQuad, Spyglass, Sun Microsystems, HotWired, PathFinder and Verso.
What's new in this version? According to Dave Raggett, the lead architect of W3C's HTML activity, developers will have greater control over forms, frames and tables plus all the benefits of scripts, style sheets and objects. Those who followed the development of HTML through version 3.2 (released in January) will see enhanced features in multimedia and hypertext.
For example, developers can now create read-only controls in forms, group form controls together, add labels to their controls and offer keyboard shortcuts on controls. Also, they can create in-line frames, which amounts to putting frames inside HTML documents. Further, developers can exercise more design control over tables by grouping columns and controlling borders. And finally, document authors now have a standard way to embed objects and scripts, support style sheets and include key symbols and glyphs used in mathematics and markup.
In an outreach campaign called the Web Accessibility Initiative, the consortium sought to improve the Web's availability for those with disabilities. Thus, among the new features for forms and tables are support for captions to render table content in Braille or speech. Along with support for groupings, labels, keyboard shortcuts and titles, these features should help to reduce barriers to users worldwide.
On the international front, which recalls the original intent of the World Wide Web, HTML 4.0 offers the markup needed for any language including multilingual documents. The specification does this by supporting the international ISO 10646 character set and lets content providers manage differences in language, text direction and character encoding schemes. One result is that authors can use right-to-left or mixed text.
The complete draft is available in several formats, including HTML, postscript and pdf. Links to the complete specification are available at http://www.w3.org/TR/WD-html40-970708/.
John Makulowich writes, talks and trains on the Internet. You can reach him at email@example.com; his home page is http://www.cais.com/makulow/.
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