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The must-have Internet design desk reference

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Even if Al Gore didn’t actually invent the Internet, it’s not been around all that long–I think most people would probably agree that 1993 or so was really the start of the World Wide Web as we currently know it. And in that relatively short decade we’ve seen massive–exponential, geometric, almost obscene–growth and change happen across the entire web. For better or worse, there are now at least a dozen programming languages, each subtly different from the one before. Keeping up with one markup language, let alone learning half a dozen programming languages, is enough to make your head spin.

This is why I’m enormously thankful for books like The Web Programmer’s Desk Reference: A Complete Cross-Reference to HTML, CSS and JavaScript by Lázaro Issi Cohen and Joseph Issi Cohen (No Starch Press, 2004). I think every web designer, programmer and developer would agree with me–that HTML makes up the “skeleton” of most every page on the Internet. Going with that same house analogy, CSS would be likened to the “façade,” or decorative elements–siding, windows, drapes, and so on–while JavaScript would be, roughly, the “invisible” aspects, such as plumbing or wiring.

And yes, while there are plenty of other web-relevant languages and standards out there, a good, functional and working knowledge of HTML (plus CSS and JavaScript to a somewhat lesser extent) is critical for anyone working in the Internet industry to have. (That’s one of my minor beefs with the book–the term “Programmer” in the title makes it seem exclusive to programmers. This isn’t the case in any way, and this sometimes-scary word could, I think, be potentially off-putting.)

While HTML is vastly easier to grasp than, say, C++ or even PHP, it’s still (to coin a term) “sprawly” enough to necessitate a ready reference. After all, at the end of the day, who is going to remember all the browser compatibility information for the compact attribute of the <ul> tag? And while there are certainly plenty of reference websites out there (many of which are outdated or just plain bad–ironic…), I would venture to say that most designers/programmers/developers/etc. probably prefer a print reference that can be bookmarked and annotated. I know I do, anyway.

This substantial volume, weighing in at over three pounds, is an ideal cross-reference. Its first pages contain a number of alphabetized indices, making it easy to locate the particular HTML/CSS/JavaScript element that you’re looking for. While the individual entries do not explain particular elements in depth (this is, after all, a quick reference guide, and not a tutorial manual), clear and concise definitions are given, and examples are provided for most.

While I can’t say enough about the usability and the content of the book, I would be doing the reader a disservice if I wasn’t to mention that the prevalence of horizontal lines as dividers across pages seem more than a little off-putting–at a certain point, they almost become distracting. I would recommend that, in a future edition, some of the extraneous horizontal rules be removed for clarity’s sake.

Also included in the book are two large sections on Microsoft transitions and filters and on Microsoft HTML+TIME (Timed Interactive Multimedia Extensions), components that I probably would have omitted from the book entirely. With more and more people migrating away from Internet Explorer in favor of the open-source Firefox, Microsoft browser-specific technologies are something to steer clear of–not to mention that wipes and fades and such between web pages are just silly, not to mention hideously unprofessional. But, for reference’s sake, it’s a nice bonus for those programmers who are interested in, say, reverse-engineering or modifying a pre-existing site mechanism.

The book is absolutely stellar otherwise in terms of content; every obscure tag that I could think of was listed, as the book contains the most relevant and up-to-date standards available at the time of its printing. Any future updates will likely be reflected on the book’s website, whose URL is listed in the introduction.

So, with only a few minor quibbles to speak of, I have to give this book an enthusiastic “thumbs up.” The Issi Cohens are to be commended for wading through such an immense volume of material, distilling it down to the basics and then cross-referencing it all. This is a must-have volume for any web professional who’s looking for an accessible and understandable guide to the Internet’s core languages.

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