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What is HTML?

Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML, is the normal language used to design pages meant for use on the World Wide Web. By using special commands, known as tags, web page designers can format a text document for presentation, using different font types, colors and sizes. HTML also allows a web page designer to create the hyperlinks that allow users to jump from page to page, and to embed images or other files within a web page if desired.

The first version of what was to become HTML was ENQUIRE, a hypertext system created in 1980 by Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at the CERN nuclear laboratory. Originally intended as a means for CERN researchers to share documents more easily, in 1989 Berners-Lee and CERN colleague Robert Cailliau proposed a similar system for use on the Internet. This became public in 1991, and was followed in 1993 by the publication of the first HTML specification. This was followed in 1995 by the publication of HTML 2, and in 1997 by HTML 3.2 (HTML 3 was originally proposed in 1995 but later dropped). The current version is HTML 4, from 1999, though HTML 5 was recently published in draft form.

Although the introduction of HTML helped fuel the explosive growth of the World Wide Web, there were many complaints that the code became increasingly cumbersome and complex, especially as browser support in the early years was uneven. HTML 4 started to establish some standards, and to remove some elements that were considered to be unwieldy. The launch of Extensible Hypertext Markup Language (XHTML) in 2000 was intended as the next step in cleaning up HTML. XHTML derives from a cross between HTML and Extensible Markup Language, or XML. XHTML requires a more rigid syntax than HTML, theoretically making the code easier to produce and check. However, although there were many similarities between HTML and XHTML, browser support is still patchy even today, and it seems likely that HTML will continue to be the dominant language used for web pages.

In use, HTML consists of elements, data types and character references. Elements can be thought of as the commands of HTML, for instance the element <p> at the start of a block of text tells the browser that the following text should be formatted as a new paragraph. Some elements have attributes associated with them, for example the <body> element may have the attribute text=”#FFFFFF”, which would tell the browser to display the text contained in that section in white (FFFFFF is the hexadecimal equivalent of 255, 255, 255, the RGB code for the color white). Data types can mean many different things, depending on whether the data type is for use by elements, for example style sheet or script data, or for attribute use, for example colors, languages or sizes. Finally, character references allow for the use of symbols within web pages. An example of this is the ampersand, or & symbol. This symbol is used as part of the language of HTML, so in order to use an ampersand as part of the text within a web page then the designer needs to use “&amp” in order for the symbol to display properly. There are over 250 character references available for use; in addition over one million numeric character references allow web designers to access letters and symbols from languages world-wide.

In order to produce an HTML file, all that is really needed is a basic text editor – an HTML file is just a text file. Windows Notepad is ideal for this, as is SimpleText for those with Macintosh computers. However, writing HTML files using a text editor can be slow, and requires a solid knowledge of HTML commands. Most web page designers now use one of the many HTML editors available now, such as Dreamweaver. These editors use a WYSIWYG approach, and will allow a designer to create HTML files using a “drag and drop” style, allowing the designer to preview changes in the appearance of the web page as HTML code is added or modified.

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