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Book Reviews

World Wide Web Bible, Second Edition

by Brian Pfaffenberger

Web Page Design: A Different Multimedia

by Mary E.S. Morris and Randy J. Hinrichs

Just when you think the hype swirling around the World Wide Web can’t get any bigger, it does. TV commercials are full of ever-greater numbers of URLs, radio programs endlessly encourage listeners to “check out our site,” and major newspapers have given up on actually writing columns, preferring to reprint summaries of the discussions taking place in their interactive forums.
Through it all, talk about personal home pages has garnered the lion’s share of the ink. It’s almost a mantra: home pages are a fabulously democratic new medium; everyone can be a journalist now; money doesn’t matter, ideas do. Etcetera.
For all this babble, though, building a personal web page is hardly a cakewalk. A total newcomer can learn how – and fairly quickly, at that – but even seasoned computer users will need a little help. Which is where these instructional books come in.
Creating Web Pages for Dummies, like many of the other books published under the …for Dummies brand, is chock-full of stupid jokes and condescending writing. The foreword, for example, predicts that the reader is “hoping this foreword doesn’t ramble on much longer so that you can get to the good stuff about how even a dummy like you can design your own World Wide Web pages.” All in good fun, I suppose, but lame after a few pages, and positively painful after 16 chapters.
That said, the book does offer a clean introduction to HTML. Anyone willing to put up with the abuse will come out knowing how to put a web site together.
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page treats its readers with far more respect than the Dummies volume. Paul McFedries writes clearly and with good humour, and he reserves his insults for the know-it-alls of the wired world. Overall, the HTML lessons move at about the same pace as Dummies, but the ones in Idiot’s offer more context, and better explanations of why things should be done one way and not another. For example, we learn that some browser programs will not display pictures, and this is why captions are important. Tips like this are rare in Dummies. And, although it’s pointless to pretend that Idiot’s brief style guide will do much to stem the current tide of abysmal online writing, it’s good to see it all the same. Every little bit helps.
Instant HTML Web Pages doesn’t contain any abusive prose either, but the book is such a lame effort that it manages to insult the reader’s intelligence anyway. The cover promises that “Never before has it been so easy to exploit the huge popularity of the web. With this handy guide and CD-ROM, you can design your own pages in no time.” That this book even exists is, I suppose, evidence that the first sentence, at least, is correct.
Wayne Ause makes no effort to teach even the basics of HTML. Instead, he’s dumped a stack of amateur-looking web sites on a CD-ROM and invited readers to toy with them. And all but a few of the book’s pages are devoted to overlong descriptions of the enclosed sites. Not an impressive effort.
On its back cover, Official Multimedia Publishing for Netscape promises that it will help users “design dazzling, content-rich sites.” In the new-media arena, “content” is a slippery word that evades easy definitions, but it’s probably fair to say that most people take it to mean good writing, good ideas, and clever execution. Not flashy pictures and 3-D icons. But this book encourages readers to think of themselves as “visualization solution experts” early on, and it never sways from its the-sparkier-the-pictures-the-better-the-web-site focus.
We get guidelines on how to use Illustrator and Photoshop to tweak graphics for use on the web, and we get a passing introduction to topics like VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language). Through all that, though, it’s still tough to figure out who this book is really aimed at. Professional graphic artists will find the exercises too simple, and hobbyists just won’t have the software. At one point the book makes this plain, saying that “the discussions that follow will be less useful to a professional who doesn’t have access to a modeling application.” Official Multimedia Publishing for Netscape is a passable primer on web graphics, but, despite its promises, it has little to do with content.
Web Page Design: A Different Multimedia is everything that Official Multimedia Publishing for Netscape is not. It’s a remarkably well thought-out guide to the new design challenges the web poses, and it’s a joy to read. This is no beginner’s guide, but the principles it outlines would make sense to someone who’d never surfed the net. This book is all about content: the terse, smart-ass writing style that’s peculiar to the web; the logistics of hypertext storytelling; the elegant use of graphics and multimedia. More than any of these books, this one helps readers to understand the web, and what sorts of content works well on it. And if it ends up preventing a few welcome-to-my- page – here’s – a -picture – of – my-cat sites, so much the better.
World Wide Web Bible does not pretend to be aimed at newcomers, and its detailed coverage of nearly every aspect of the web will no doubt intimidate some technophobes. But of all these books, it’s the most well-rounded guide; it’s clearly written, and nothing is left unexplained. We learn about the origins of the web and HTML, the Netscape-Microsoft browser wars, the new promise of technologies like Java and VRML, and we also get competent instruction on putting a site together. The writing is dry, mind you, and the book assumes that readers have spent some time with computers. Hardly ideal for first-timers, but people who’ve worked through a book like The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page will find it extremely helpful.
The ideal newbie’s guide to the web has yet to be written, and I think that has more to do with the basic reality of new media – that nobody really gets it yet – than with any failure by these authors. The graphic artists, the writers, and the code geeks still haven’t agreed on what’s important. In the meantime, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page, combined with a flip through Web Page Design: A Different Multimedia and a copy of World Wide Web Bible on the reference shelf are as close as we get.