Simple syntax weaves the fabric of the Web

The language of the World-Wide Web is used everywhere and is simple enough to teach yourself, writes Nick Langley

The language of the World-Wide Web is used everywhere and is simple enough to teach yourself, writes Nick Langley

What is HTML?

Hypertext Markup Language is used for creating and displaying documents on the Internet, and enabling them to reference other documents via hypertext links.

Where did it originate?

If the Americans invented the Internet, then the Europeans invented the World-Wide Web.

At Cern, the European Particle Physics Lab, researchers needed a way of creating and sharing documents which incorporated text, images and sound over the Internet. The result - HTML - got its final boost into the outside world when academics at the University of Illinois developed the first Web browser - Mosaic - as an easier way of viewing HTML documents.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web, is still chairman of the World-Wide Web Consortium (W3C), which does its best to control standards for HTML and HTML authoring tools.

What's it for?

HTMLis a document layout and hypertext specification language, but not a publishing tool or programming language.

Essentially there are three types of HTML syntax: tags, which tell the browser how to display the content; text, which is the content; and comments, which can be read in the source HTML but are not displayed by the browser. HTML tags also tell the browser where to find, load and integrate multimedia elements such as images and sound.

What makes it special?

Based on the Standard Graphical Markup Language (SGML), it is the universal language for creating hypertext documents which Web browsers can read. It can also be endlessly enhanced. This is a nightmare for W3C, which tries to keep a consensus among its members by publishing recommendations, but a joy to developers, who can do much as they like.

How difficult is it?

With a L20 textbook, a text editor such as Notepad on Windows or Simpletext on a Mac, and a Web browser to view the results, you are away. There are also sophisticated Wysiwyg authoring tools, some of which can be picked up free.

This is one instance where teaching yourself by dabbling and progressively exploring is a good way in. You can also view other people's HTML documents by visiting over-elaborate Web sites where the image content takes minutes to download to its appointed space.

Where is it used?

Absolutely everywhere.

Not to be confused with

HRT and hypertension (condition brought on by worrying that your dotcom shares will be wiped out overnight).

What does it run on?

You don't even need a GUI to create HTML documents, let alone a browser, but you won't be able to view the results without them.

Few people know that

Berners-Lee's parents both worked with Professor Tom Kilburn on developing the first stored-program computer. How's that for pedigree?

What's coming up?

The W3C XHTML recommendation was published in January this year. This brings "the rigour of XML to HTML", and can be put to immediate use with existing browsers.

XHTML is modular, reflecting the reality that browsers are no longer "one size fits all" - a cellphone cannot offer the same richness as a multimedia PC.

The HTML 4.1 specification, which fixes bugs in HTML 4.0 (1997), was released on Christmas Eve 1999. Visit the W3C Web site for all the details.

You can go to workshops such as QA's Upgrading to HTML 4 Workshops, which will cost you £816 including VAT for two days. Or you can go to the W3C web site and pick up guidlines. Introductions or writing HTML and details of more advanced learning materials for nothing.

Rates of pay

Nobody wants HTML on its own, but with other Web design skills and languages like Visual Basic or C++ you could be looking at between £25,000-£35,000. If you're a risk taker, you could join a start-up for a lot less, with the chance of cleaning up when the business floats.

Analyst programmer £27,986
Senior analyst programmer £34,455
Team analyst support £38,083

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)