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Archive: 2 June 2008

The Missing Link

One of the few things I think XHTML2 got absolutely, totally, 125% right was freeing the href attribute from the few elements that accepted it and spreading it all over the language.  It saddens me that this isn’t happening in HTML5, especially since at least 1.5 of the four reasons given seem off base or flat-out incorrect.  From where I stand, at any rate.

Here, let me explain by having a pseudo-dialogue with the four reasons.

It isn’t backwards compatible with existing browsers.

Neither was CSS, table markup, PNG support, or any number of other worthwhile advancements in the web.  And yes, table markup was an absolutely worthwhile advancement: previous to that, the only way to have a table of data that lined up in any fashion was to space-format it and throw the whole thing into a pre element.  Ugly nonsemantic fun!

For that matter, if lack of backwards compatibility is an accepted reason to exclude something from HTML5, then a whole bracket of new elements—like, say, nav, article, aside, dialog, section, time, progress, meter, figure, video, datagrid, header, footer, need I go on?—need to come out of the specification right now.  They’re totally unsupported, and may not even be stylable, by older browsers.

(Yes, I just proposed that the term for a group of elements be a “bracket”.  A pod of whales, a flock of seagulls, a bracket of elements.  Try it out, see how it feels on the tongue.  A little angular, perhaps?  Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.)

It adds no new functionality that can’t already be achieved using the a element.

What?  What?!?

Given a table where each row contains several cells of of summary data, and there is a desire to be able to click on a row to get more detailed information via a search keyed off that summary information, please explain to me how being able to use <tr href="..."> on each row as opposed to writing a whole bunch of JavaScript to associate a click event listener and delegation code and handler functions and target assembly logic just to simulate what <tr href="..."> would do, were it permitted, constitutes “no new functionality”.  Please.  I would love to hear that one.

Unless of course HTML5 is going to let us wrap a elements around whatever arbitrary collection of elements we like, in which case, never mind.  I’ll just wrap all my trs in as and be done with it.  That’d be keen.  Will that be possible?  Will the HTML5 syntax be so flexible as to permit that?

Yeah, that’s what I thought.

Not that I spent half the week banging my head against this problem and getting a bunch of hand-holding in the arcana of JavaScript and inconsistent browser event handling just to address what twenty-five seconds or so would have sufficed to resolve in an href-everywhere world or anything.

And for the flip side of this, see Wilson Miner’s “Accessible Data Visualization with Web Standards“, where a bar graph is built out of spans so that they can all be wrapped in an a element in order to let you click on any “row”—that is, what would have been a row had he been able to use table markup—and get more information.  Yes, absolutely, all that stuff should be in a table, but it was a case of have a table with a bunch of not-that-easy JS forced onto it, or have the contents of every cell in a row be a separate hyperlink to the same destination, or do simple markup with savaged semantics.  We shouldn’t be forced into that choice.

It doesn’t make sense for all elements, such as interactive elements like input and button, where the use of href would interfere with their normal function.

True enough.  So don’t add it to those elements which would suffer, like input and button.  Or, alternatively, define behavior conflict resolution in those cases.  There might actually be good reasons to have button accept an href value as a fallback in cases where the normal function of the button fails in some manner.

Either way, the fact that adding href doesn’t work in some cases is no reason to forgo its addition in all cases.

Browser vendors have reported that implementing it would be extremely complex.

I’m always willing to hear why implementors think something is complex to implement, as they’re often subtle and fascinating insights into web browser development.  Still, it seems to me that everything ubiquitous href attribution would imply can be recreated with a heavy dose of JavaScript event handlers and related code—(on)click for the sending you off to the target (and any :active-style effects you wanted to bring in), (on)mouseover or plain old :hover for the interactive effects, et cetera, et cetera.  Are they really saying that it’s more complex to support this sort of thing in markup than it is to support all the scripting and DOMiness that permits people to laboriously recreate it on their own?  If so, why?  I’m really curious to know what would make this “extremely complex”, which sounds a good deal more dire than “complex” or just plain old “difficult”.

I’m open to having my mind changed by strong evidence that this would be borderline impossible to implement, even though it can apparently be simulated via existing DOM/JS implementations.  Anything short of that, however, isn’t going to convince me that this should be dropped.  It was a good idea when it was in XHTML2, and it shouldn’t be abandoned if there’s any chance to save it.

June 2008
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