Sorting out what dynamic HTML really means

dynamic (adj.):
  1. Energetic: vigorous
  2. Marked by or tending to produce progress
  3. Of energy, motion, or force in relation to force

    This last definition from Webster's seems most appropriate when it comes to describing the twin forces of Microsoft and Netscape. Both have begun using the term "dynamic HTML" to refer to two completely different agendas, standards, and directions they want to take the principle guts of the web. Bear with me.

    If you want to try out some of the neato cool stuff on the privacy of your own PC, first you'll have to download the latest v4 Microsoft and Netscape browsers. I'd provide links to them here myself, but they would quickly be out of date. Besides, by now you are no doubt an expert at finding where these lurk in the two companies' web sites.

    My interpretation of where Microsoft is going is to fatten up your desktop client by being able to run substantial client-side programs and do more nifty publishing things with the web. This includes doing data-driven clients, by that I mean that the client can download an extract from the entire database and manipulate it without having to constantly go back to the web/database server for more data. Or that updates to the data can be immediately reflected in an HTML table. That sounds both interesting and terrifying: interesting because you can do some truly interactive things, and terrifying because who wants to download all that code anyway? Here is their white paper on dynamic HTML and here is a example of the expanding outline and changing color features in IE v4.

    But the real trojan horse behind dynamic HTML is the shift that Microsoft wants us all to take to move away from ODBC and towards OLE DB, what they call Active Data Objects. While implementing ODBC on every desktop isn't for the timid, it is almost mature enough to be truly useful as a cross-platform data query interface. So it is time for Microsoft to do another bait and switch and move us all over to something that it can own and evolve without any outside interference. And in the process, tie us all into its Visual Basic/SQL Server/Wintel series of products.

    Want to read more on this? Check out this paper, called Choosing the "Right" VB5 Data Access Interface, which I urge you to read carefully between the lines.

    Now, what about Netscape? Of course, they have their own idea of what dynamic HTML is, and take style sheets to a completely different direction from Microsoft, using a new LAYER set of tags. Documentation on layers can be found here.

    Netscape has their own agenda, of course, and that is to get you to use JavaScript to interact with their style sheets. As near as I can figure this out, you write the JavaScript code to generate a bunch of HTML tags, which then get displayed by the browser.

    I am still trying to sort all this out. But the real challenge will be to see how people move from writing plain HTML text (such as what is on 99% of the pages on current websites) to these more dynamic extensions. And here is where the real battle royale will be fought: in the scripting arena.

    Scripting is important because it presents a means to automate the mundane tasks of preparing web content. Again, Microsoft and Netscape are coming at this from two different directions. Microsoft has their rich following with Visual Basic developers, and these guys now have some pretty decent tools to do some cool things on the web. Netscape has JavaScript, which has less of a following and history, but more buzz because of the potential cross-platform win and all-around Java hype. (Even though the two share little besides their first names.) And a wildcard in the fray is Dave Winer's Frontier, which began life and a substantial following as scripting extensions to Macintosh web servers and will be available for Wintel soon, he says.

    Which is the best approach for building your own web pages? I honestly don't know. But if you want to do more reading, perhaps the best (and almost understandable) series of articles on scripting issues has appeared in the current issue of the Web Journal, a quarterly publication from O'Reilly. You can see excerpts and a table of contents here, and you can buy a paper copy from Amazon if you want to read the articles.

    But figuring out the best approach isn't really the point. The issue is that until Microsoft and Netscape can come to agreement on scripting and HTML extensions, we all will suffer the consequences. Who wants to run both browsers and develop two different kinds of web pages? Not me. So as a public service, I volunteer to host a meeting of the minds: I warmly invite two representatives from each company to settle on a date in June to come to my offices here in New York and hash out a consensus. Come on, now, guys: let's figure out a way to have some common ground.

    Even if we do establish a common dynamic HTML scripting interface, it may be too late: the kind of people that will be able to develop more dynamic web pages is going to be a very small subset of the grandmas and kids that do it now. This dynamic stuff is for very skilled programmers. Sure it has lots of promise, and more and more vendors are entering the fray with their own scripting and database webware products. Stay tuned for some interesting announcements this summer.

    In the meantime, I am composing this in WordPad.

    Site keeping and self-promotions dep't

    Two CMP-related advertorials that I have been managing have appeared in print this past week. First is the third edition (out of four) for the Intranet Construction Site, a series that combined with a web site offers how-to articles on picking the right intranet web server and how to manage your web site. The supplements ran in Network Computing, Information Week, and Communications Week. Second is another NT in the Enterprise supplement that ran in Network Computing, examining NT and database issues including my own article on NT server clustering.

    Also on the stands this week are two articles I wrote for Windows Sources magazine: one for their "NT Admin" feature on eCommerce called "Setting Up shop on the Web:, examining Microsoft Merchant, IBM's net.Commerce, and iCat's servers. The other piece is my "Browser" column, this one taking a long look at a new way to manage Tektronix' networked printers -- with a web browser, of course.

    Speaking of eCommerce, a major report that I have written for Decision Resources is about to appear at the end of this month. Here is an excerpt from the report, and I will be happy to send you a complementary copy (when it appears in print) if you send me a SASE ($.55 postage, please).

    David Strom
    +1 (516) 944-3407
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    entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.