Television-quality Web display is possible, but browsers must catch up

Will government
webmasters be SMILing in the months ahead?


Probably only a few. The World Wide Web Consortium this month recommended adoption of
the Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language 1.0 as a standard after six months of
debate. But federal administrators won’t be integrating SMIL into their sites for
months yet.


Championed as the first big effort to control the display format of Web multimedia,
SMIL likely will find its first government use at training sites.


SMIL brings television quality to Web presentation, although video is not the main
focus. For one thing, SMIL aims to deliver multimedia at far lower bandwidth than video
demands.


If you’re familiar with the Extensible Markup Language, you know the basics of
SMIL. XML lets developers establish specialized tags for organizing, displaying and
searching for specific Web content. SMIL’s specialized tags follow the XML scheme to
control multimedia display and synchronization.


Site managers can dictate when and how multimedia elements show up on their pages by
synchronizing the images, text, sound or anything else referenced as a media object. Media
objects contain encoded transmission information and can be called up by their uniform
resource locators rather than being embedded as code in a Web page.


That means the site’s visitors can see text and hear a voice-over describing
images that change along with the narrative.


SMIL will make it easy for nonprogrammers to create presentations from media files
similar to the way a TV producer integrates existing music, narrative, graphics and video
clips into a news program.


Advanced as it sounds, SMIL is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Talented Web authors
already can create multimedia pages, but they can’t easily control when audio files
or rotating images are launched or how the whole presentation fits together.


SMIL, in contrast, can reference media objects both within a page and at specific
points on a timeline. Its two primary tags make objects act in parallel or sequentially.


SMIL is even more powerful in conjunction with cascading style sheets, which are
outlined in the World Wide Web Consortium’s CSS2 specification. Among other things,
CSS2 adds flexibility to text styles using SMIL.


Designers can make a page look good without having to call on .gif or .jpg files for
the text. And readers can see all the text.


Together, SMIL and CSS2 could give a big boost to government sites that get, say,
sight-impaired visitors. An aural cascading style sheet spec would direct speech
synthesizers that read Hypertext Markup Language pages. SMIL could identify the text that
should be read aloud first.


If these standards are so great, why won’t government sites roll them out sooner?
The audience isn’t ready yet.


Current Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer browsers support only
portions of CSS2 and a small slice of SMIL.


A new round of browsers later this year will support more of them, but government
webmasters know many visitors will continue using older browsers.


That’s why networked multimedia training sites, which have a more controlled
environment, are the likeliest earlier adopters.


Visit http://www.w3.org/Press/1998/SMIL-REC
for details on the SMIL recommendation and pointers to the spec itself.


More information on cascading style sheets is available at http://www.w3.org/Style/CSS/, including pointers
to a great automated validation service that lets you enter the address of a file you want
checked.


A preview developer release of Internet Explorer 5.0 that supports XML and cascading
style sheets is downloadable from http://www.microsoft/com/sitebuilder/ie/ieonsbn.htm.


In the usual Microsoft Corp. fashion, it includes features with CSS-like syntax to do
things that are not part of the W3 specification.  


Shawn P. McCarthy is a computer journalist, webmaster and Internet programmer for
Cahners Business Information Inc. E-mail him at smccarthy@cahners.com.


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