For smooth sailing, try out alternative to Netscape frames

Are frames giving you a pain? There are some decent alternatives--and I don't mean the
frames enhancements in Netscape Communications' Navigator 3.0.


Ever since Netscape 2.0's arrival, the frames capability has allowed division of a
World Wide Web browser screen into several windows, each containing a separate, scrollable
Hypertext Markup Language document. You can jump to other documents or even other Web
sites in one frame while the rest stay put.


In theory, it's a wonderful enhancement to streamline how users locate information on
Web sites. One common trick is to place an icon bar in one frame so visitors can use it to
load specific pages in the other frames. But in practice, frames just aren't working
out--at least not the way they're incorporated on many sites I see.


Site designers have failed to pay enough attention to navigation through the frames
maze. If they've customized the Back and Forward and Home buttons for their icon bars,
they tend to be lazy about putting navigational aids on other pages, and limitations of
different browsers make these essential.


The latest versions of Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer do correct
several of the worst frames problems. The most obvious is that each browser's built-in
Back button now jumps to your previous frame instead of bouncing you all the way back to
the page you were on before the frameset loaded.


But all visitors don't have the latest and greatest browsers. And even the improved
browsers still have trouble tracking backwards when a visitor jumps across multiple
documents loaded within different frames. Furthermore, if someone pauses to load a graphic
or a frame onto a page all by itself, ""back frame'' may not understand which
frame to jump back to.


For government hosts that serve a broad range of users, frames may not be the best
choice. These sites need to simplify navigation for the lowest common denominator. Frame
alternatives--JavaScript inserts and Web bots--make more work for site developers, but
they make navigation easier for visitors.


JavaScript is the scripting language developed by Netscape Communications, not the full
Java programming language of Sun Microsystems Inc. JavaScript is a separate entity, used
mostly to provide dynamic activity within a Web page, such as text scrolling.


Javascript also can be used to create floating button bars. Visit the HotWired pages at
http://www.wired.com  to see how this looks.
Unfortunately, you simply have to remember the bar is there, because it disappears behind
your active window.


Netscape would do well to follow Microsoft's lead and support an ""always on
top'' toggle to keep the bar visible. Government site designers can do their part by
keeping their floating bars narrow enough not to blot out the main window.


One reason developers like to load a button bar as a frame is that it lets them
maintain all their navigation aids in one document. However, the newest page-creation
tools, such as Microsoft FrontPage, let you create bots that maintain a section--say, a
footer or one column of a table--across many pages.


If you make a bot that represents your button bar, it will handle the updates on all
pages for you. Simply change the bot, then let it make its changes on its associated
pages, and reload the updated files to your server.


Visit http://www.earthworx.com/normal.htm
  to see an excellent example of a site that uses FrontPage to maintain a friendly
face for non-frames visitors. If you must have frames, the EarthWorx page has a button to
reload in the frames environment.


You can use JavaScript to steer users automatically to your site's frames or non-frames
pages, depending on what type of browser the server senses. If you have UseNet newsgroup
access, visit the com.lang.javascript feed, which has several ongoing threads on how to
use scripts to help users navigate, including how to choose between frames and non-frames.


Be aware, though, that JavaScript can be tricky. John Robert LoVerso of the OSF
Research Institute has posted a Web page documenting known bugs and instances in which
JavaScript can be used as a hacking tool.


His site at http://www.osf.org/~loverso/javascript/index.html
  discusses using a Web page to trigger the opening of a second window measuring just
one pixel square. That nearly hidden window can log all uniform resource locator accesses
made after its creation.


LoVerso also illustrates how interactive forms can be used to trick users of Netscape
Navigator 2.0 or earlier versions into letting a server steal files from their hard
drives. To test such a button, visit http://www.osf.org/~loverso/javascript/track-me.html.
  Don't say I didn't warn you.


A site called 411 is a great source of basic information on how JavaScript works and
how you can install it. Visit http://www.freqgrafx.com/411/index.html.
  See Netscape's introduction at http://home.netscape.com/eng/mozilla/Gold/handbook/javascript/index.html.
 


My column on how some Internet servers use ""cookies'' to track a visitor's
progress through a site [GCN, Sept. 23, Page 55]
prompted a suggestion from an IRS employee: Why not just set your cookie file to
read-only, so that no server can write to it?


I tried it, and it seemed to work. Sites that usually write to my cookie file didn't
register with the cookie when I signed on. I'd be interested in hearing from others as to
whether this simple solution works for them. Another alternative is to set your
autoexec.bat to delete this file on startup.


That said, I should repeat that I consider cookies a valuable asset if they help a site
give me better service. The only real problem is the potential for abuse.


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
GCN's parent, Cahners Publishing Co. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.

 



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