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risks of markup (bold, etc.)

1993-09-03 06:39:58
I came across this item in the RISKS digest, and thought it
appropriate to this list.  (Apologies if it has appeared here
already; I no longer subscribe.  Also, for that reason, please
CC me with any replies you want me to see.)

I sincerely hope that no MIME richtext/enrichedtext
implementations will ever have the problem discussed here, but I
suppose the possibility can't be ruled out.

Problems like this, if they occurred too often, could really put
a damper on the spread of enriched text schemes.  If, to ensure
that emphasized words retain their emphasis by retaining their
mere presence, one has to avoid using an enriched text scheme's
emphasis operator, one might wonder why one is using the enriched
text scheme at all.

If there are related IETF mailing lists dealing specifically with
enriched text issues, could someone (i.e. Nathaniel, lest several
people do it) forward this message to those lists?

Forwarded message:

RISKS-LIST: RISKS-FORUM Digest  Wednesday 14 July 1993  Volume 14 : Issue 75

   ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator


Date: Wed, 7 Jul 1993 09:44:07 +0200
From: roeber(_at_)axcrnb(_dot_)cern(_dot_)ch (Frederick G.M. Roeber)
Subject: Re: Important words in other fonts

Recently I have been working with the "World Wide Web," a project
designed to unite the various data resources on the internet into
a common web of information.  The Web began a few years ago at
CERN.  I am working at CERN as well, and some people who saw my
work or articles thought I was an official web project member.

So, on my 'signature' page ( )
I included a disclaimer:

  Please note: <b>I am <i>not</i> an official member ...</b>.

The lingua franca of the web is HTML, or hypertext markup language, which is
based on SGML.  The codes in angle brackets above are SGML, and stand for bold
and italics.

I looked at my page with my whiz-bang X-based web browser (NCSA Mosaic), and
sure enough the line appeared with nice bold and italicised words.

A short time later, I got a call from a somewhat annoyed web project guy,
demanding to know why I was claiming to be an offical member.  It seems that
on his NeXT browser, the word "not" was mysteriously absent.

The problem was that his browser didn't support italics.

Why?  Well, when the Web began it was "hypertext" based.  Everything was
supposed to be simple, plain text accessible by everybody.  Though HTML was
based on SGML, this was more to be "standard" than to support fancy markups.
The core team had a nice plan as to how they would expand, slowly and in step.
Then the NCSA came along, with their elegant multimedia X-based browser.
Suddenly the web became "hypermedia," and (as it supported much more of SGML),
even plain text could be marked up in much fancier ways.  So people started
writing documents depending on the capabilities of NCSA Mosaic, leaving the
earlier browsers behind.  In this case, that lapse changed the entire meaning
of a rather important sentence.

There are a few points here:

  1) In important sentences of electronic documents, don't put
     important words (like "not") in other fonts or representations.

  2) In fact, avoid needless font and representation twiddling.

  3) Don't assume everybody has the same advanced tools you do.

  4) If you're going to use a standard, use *all* of the standard.
     HTML is based on SGML.  The <i> code is legitimate SGML.

  5) If you can't represent a requested font, for pete's sake don't
     just ignore the text!  Put it up however you can.  In this
     case, when I protested my innocence, the other guy loaded up
     the page on the old line-mode browser on the VM system.  This
     browser ignores virtually all markup commands, so the unadorned
     sentence -- including the 'not' -- appeared.

  6) If you launch a project in to the public, be prepared for
     someone to take the ball and outrun you.  You can't stay
     firmly in control.  This emphasizes point 4 -- the whole point of
     "standards" is so that when this happens, things are still compatible.

Frederick G. M. Roeber, CERN/PPE, 1211 Geneva 23, Switzerland 
roeber(_at_)cern(_dot_)ch or roeber(_at_)caltech(_dot_)edu | work: +41 22 767 
31 80

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