Is What You See Always What You Get?

By: Mark Brading


When you use a visual HTML editor like FrontPage or Dreamweaver, you are using a WYSIWYG: What You See Is What You Get. This means that, at least in theory, what you see while you're editing the page should look just like what you get when you're done. While word processors have pretty much got the concept working now when it comes to printing (it didn't used to be as reliable), there are still problems when it comes to HTML editors and web browsers of course, if you've spent more than five minutes using visual HTML editors, then you'll already know that.

A Few of the Advantages of WYSIWYG.

WYSIWYG is quite uncontroversial at this point. Its advantages are clear, in that it lets you make your page look exactly the way you want it to while you're writing it, with no surprises. In the early days, it was sometimes referred to as being like a kind of 'interactive print preview'. Professional typesetters were at first opposed to its use in publishing, but it's easy and quick enough that it has come to dominate. The alternative now though, is to go back to the days of layout commands, which isn't something most users want to do.

On the web, WYSIWY can be far more problematic, because what comes out of the other end of the program isn't static printed page, it's computer code, HTML, that has to be interpreted by a web browser before it becomes viewable.

Good Browsers Bad Browsers.

The first problem with what you see in an editor being what you get in a browser is that all the different browsers available don't always make the same page look the same way. How are HTML editors supposed to account for bugs in Internet Explorer? They can't, really though it would be good if they could.

Each piece of HTML editing software is forced to either write its own HTML rendering engine (the engine that decides how the code is translated to a visible page), or use one from an existing program. This all adds to the complexity but is essential for reliability. Recently for example, Dreamweaver moved over to Opera's engine, which means that it shows pages the way Opera does. FrontPage has always been closest to Internet Explorer. Because Mozilla is open source, there are a lot of HTML editors based on its engine; the most usable of which is Nvu.

That doesn't exactly help, though, when it comes to things looking the same in every browser if you use Dreamweaver, for example, what you see will be what you get in Opera, but not necessarily in Internet Explorer. This is a problem that can be partially solved by testing everything in every browser, but doing that doesn't let you see what your page is going to look like as you're going along.
A bigger problem is when the WYSIWYG writes the code it is writing it for that specific browser and doesn't take standards into account. As standard compliant code will normally work in all browsers and the code the editor may use can be so different that it can be a real nightmare trying to correct or even find the problem.

Should You See What You are Getting?

While users demand WYSIWYG software, it's somewhat misguided when it comes to the web, for the simple reason that it expects everyone to be using your site the same way, and designs towards that expected use. In reality, the web was designed to be a document format that was interpreted by the program receiving it; meaning that if a browser wants to leave out all the graphics, or ignore all your tables, then it's perfectly justified in doing so. This is especially significant when it comes to mobile browsers, they simply don't have large enough screens to display normal designs, and it's silly to force them to try.

Good builders Bad builders

Realizing this is one of the most important differences between being a good designer and being a bad one. Bad designers will be constantly nudging at their designs, doing everything they can think of to get them to look exactly the way they intended in every browser possible, even if it doubles the size and complexity of the code. A good designer will write good code that displays in all browsers, but doesn't necessarily have to be pixel-perfect.

With the exception of Dreamweaver which now will write in valid code, the expense (around $400.) restricts its' use to mainly web developers. Almost all others are far less expensive, so are more widely used. Creating far more web pages that don't even come close to looking the way you want them to when they are uploaded to your web space. You not only see what you get you also get what you pay for.

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