Making Sense of XHTML

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Web designers have embraced it. Software companies have made it this year's buzzword. But all the attention paid to it doesn't mean that XML is tangible -- or beneficial -- to the average Web surfer.

The idea is solid: XML, which has been in development since 1997, is a metalanguage -- a set of rules allowing people to write data-organizing markup languages such as MathML, where terms correspond to specific concepts. But implementation of XML has been slow. Until the recent releases of Internet Explorer 5.0 and Netscape 6, few browsers supported XML. And even fewer developers built Web sites using the metalanguage.

All that may change. XHTML, a bridge between XML's data-organizing capabilities and the easy-to-understand syntax of HTML, was approved by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) earlier this year. W3C approval gives the go-ahead for widely deploying the technology across the Web.

Developers may be boning up on XHTML syntax, but how will the new markup language affect Web surfers? Users who access the Web through cell phones or PDAs could benefit the most from XHTML, says Simon St. Laurent, author of XML: A Primer, Building XML Applications, and XML Elements of Style. "XHTML is a lot cleaner, so you can build a browser for a smaller device," he says.

In the meantime, XML and XHTML implementation is spreading. The XML Web directory XMLTree provides a sorted directory of Web sites built using the metalanguage. The hub site XML.com provides a buyer's guide of XML-ready applications.

Future plans for XHTML 1.1 include breaking up the markup language into modules so developers can build browsers composed of several discrete parts. Users can then swap those modules in and out to customize their browsers.

In the meantime, XHTML will act as the evolutionary step between HTML and XML. But don't count on HTML becoming extinct. "I don't think we're getting rid of HTML," St. Laurent says. "We're just extending what it can do. HTML will be around for a long time."

Macworld.com Senior Editor LISA SCHMEISER ( lisa_schmeiser@macworld.com ) used to work for a Web-design firm and has written for Salon.com, Suck.com, and TeeVee.org.

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