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Educating the Webmaster 2000

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Getting to know your new technological toolbelt

Summary
Congratulations! The turn of the century is here and you've lived to witness it. Now it's time to look toward the immediate future and to figure out how you, as a Webmaster, will keep up with the evolving Internet. This month, Allen Wyke reviews the essential technology you must know and the skills you must have to boost your career.


 

WEBMASTER

 

By R. Allen Wyke

The '90s have finally ended, leaving the number of technologies today about twice what it was five years ago. Technologies are becoming more widespread and generating more responses to requests for comments; standards and recommendations are becoming more solid. Everything is combining to lay the foundation for what we do and how we do it. Welcome to the year 2000, fellow Webmasters!

Over the past year, it's been my pleasure to work with 3 of the top 10 networks (a network being the combined sites of a company) and 10 of the top 50 sites on the Internet. That doesn't make me an expert in all the areas I've concentrated in, but it has exposed me to many theories, methods, and processes -- and to many people who develop and deploy content over the Internet. By relating my recent experiences I hope to help you take the Webmaster's position to the next level.

This month I'll review the key technologies you'll need to be familiar with. Increasingly, your skill and knowledge will become your most important assets: being a Webmaster isn't just about building HTML pages -- various other programming languages have come into the mix -- it's about continuing your education.

Formatting with XHTML
We Webmasters owe our thanks, and our jobs, to HTML. This programming language has been a workhorse, a savior, and a great force in the success of the Internet. But just the same, HTML as we know it today is already a thing of the past. The Extensible Hyptertext Markup Language (XHTML), the new kid on the block, addresses all the shortcomings of HTML. Like HTML on steroids, the more extensible XHTML improves our ability to format and describe the data we publish. (It supports the nesting of other markup languages, for example.)

I think of XHTML/HTML as a kind of shorthand: it doesn't have the depth of XML, the functionality of client-side scripting, or the formatting capabilities of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), but it does have a little of each. More important, we can use all of those technologies in conjunction with XHTML.

Client- and server-side scripting
Client- and server-side scripting is one technology definitely on the move. I often hear comments like "JavaScript is a security risk," but let's face it: so is having a computer, especially one with Windows. The companies creating clients that implement scripting will work the chinks out of the client- and server-side scripting armor, and when they do we'll all be in business.

ECMAScript, the JavaScript standard, will also continue to grow, as well as client- and server-side implementations of JavaScript and JScript, which will push the language to the next level. We should embrace the functionality that JavaScript brings to the table and work to make it better.

Building pages dynamically
If you're not already using technologies such as JavaServer Pages (JSP), Active Server Pages (ASP), and Server-Side JavaScript (SSJS) to build dynamically generated pages and Web applications, you should expect to be doing so soon, because you simply can't maintain most sites without them. Today one must be able to make changes in a single location and implement them across entire sites and networks. Understanding how to use those technologies makes that possible.

You don't often see "content cookers" like Allaire's ColdFusion, BroadVision's One-To-One, and Pervasive's Tango software on today's larger sites, but you can nearly guarantee that the smaller and newer sites will be using them. The fledgling sites don't have the resources to develop their own publishing systems, and a wealth of documentation makes the content cookers easy to implement.

The choice of software is a hard one, and it's best approached from a high level. Attempt to understand the various technologies like JSP, ASP, and SSJS at least a little, and read reviews of the content cookers. If you have the time to play with evaluation versions, or even build a personal page or two with those applications and technologies, then I recommend that you do so. Simply being exposed to them will give you a much better idea of how they interact with databases and other objects to build pages.

Data exchange with XML
Even if the Extensible Markup Language (XML) isn't the final solution for your needs, it's probably a step toward the right one. As sites evolve, Webmasters must develop methods for sharing or exchanging data. Whether the information is for reselling site content, processing orders, or reporting data, the need for defined data already exists. Here is where XML shines, because it can give your data meaning, after which other applications can easily read and decipher the information.

The best way to learn XML is to adopt a project that requires integrating data from more than one source. For instance, maybe you need to give the data in your registration database to your marketing department so they can send snail mail to your users. Or maybe you need to create a report for your CEO that includes statistics on Web traffic and ecommerce transactions. For those kinds of projects you'll be creating document type definitions, or DTDs: schemas that define the data for each application and have enough overlap for you to join the data across multiple repositories (say, Web and ecommerce transaction logs). And because you'll need to do something with the information once you have it in an XML document, you'll be writing an application that validates and processes the data.

You should also look into several different XML implementations, specifically the Resource Description Framework (RDF) and the XML-based User-Interface Language (XUL, pronounced zuul). RDF allows you to partially define the content on your site, while XUL provides a method to define user-interface skins for Mozilla, the open source Netscape Communicator. In fact, you can learn from several implementations of skins. Take your favorite Web application, such as a streaming media player: more than likely you can apply a skin to it.

Emerging platforms and media
Knowing the technologies you should learn is only half the battle. Applying them is the other half. The following areas are ones I think you would do well to focus on over the coming year.

Broadband
If you've yet to familiarize yourself with streaming audio and video, it's time to do so. You can do much more than stream TV commercials, movie trailers, and radio stations across the Internet. With MP3 catching on, an Internet connection and a huge disk drive can now replace home stereo equipment. With the correct technology, one can now enter a query and receive a complete musical listing of '70s rock bands that had five members, the letter L in their name, and a lead singer named Zack. Talk about random-play mode.

Wireless devices
By now I'm sure you've seen ads for Internet-enabled cell phones and PDAs. The functionality and freedom they provide have given them a widening entry to the Web marketplace. Still, information has to get to them somehow, and you as the Webmaster will be the one to see that it does.

Before long your chief technology officer will be asking you to design the content sent to these wireless devices. Formatting will certainly be limited. You'll need to devise a method for defining and describing the content so that these devices understand what headings and paragraphs are. My guess is that XML will play a big role here, maybe in the form of a language for wireless devices.

Internet appliances
You probably won't be serving pages to a toaster anytime soon, but the idea of taking information from an Internet appliance and processing it is very real. For example, a home security company could realistically become a portal for users who want the latest information on home protection. Homeowners could report the types of break-ins they've experienced so that a customer could assess the effectiveness of a system.

In this simple example, a device would need to handle the upload of information, as well as to potentially send down data. I think that in such cases the Webmaster's role is going to split between those who design the appearance of the data and those who send, receive, and process it.

Education
The techie with the most education and experience suffers the fewest headaches. The less you know, the less you're worth in today's job market, because there's always some young prodigy who can handle what you can't. Courses that revolve around the Internet are now offered in grade school, and before long we'll see Internet engineering programs that focus on various technologies, networks, and computing systems.

As a result you must continually educate yourself. Become certified in your interest areas. Read books and articles on new technologies and join local groups. The market is going to get tougher, and if you really want to succeed, you've got to eat it, breathe it, and live it.

Research
For the purposes of this column, I define research as the ability to solve a problem by using the Internet and your skills. Your head start is the handful of sites you visit when you need information about something you're working on.

For at least the next 10 years, the Internet will continue to grow in unexpected ways, and you'll be asked to perform tasks that no one has done before. You'll need to apply not only your technical knowledge but also your problem-solving ability. Your skills will become a commodity, and they -- along with your experience and your ability to provide solutions -- will differentiate you from your competition.