Essay: History of CSS Language

CSS or ‘Cascading Style Sheet’ tells how HTML elements are to be displayed on the web page. It’s an easy way to control the style of a web page, as at once you can change all the paragraph styles, font style, the headers, background colors etc. CSS has come in many different versions over the years. The first level (level 1) was released in 1996 and then built on with level 2 which came out in 1998. Level 3 is being developed at the moment.

In essence CSS is a freely available standard, sticking to W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) rules and describes a document’s presentation using a markup language. It is now incredibly popular with website owners for creating a page that looks great. The main idea behind it is that the presentation of a site is managed and coded separately from the content of the site which has a major time advantage of being able to change the presentation of multiple pages in one single process.

The roots of the idea of formulating CSS go back to a proposition by Håkon Wium Lie on October 10, 1994. Lie was working with Tim Berners-Lee at the time at CERN. There were several other styles that were suggested but CSS became very popular. In all the discussion about different styles, the ‘cascading’ approach in CSS let page managers change multiple sheets or pages at the same time.

There were indeed other models that other people were trying to develop at the time. Pei Wei developed a language that derived from the Viola browser and Robert Raisch who worked for the publishing house O’Reilly had managed to put another model together. DSSSL was another model that was a possibility at the time. However, the beauty of the idea of CSS was that it was a partnership between the reader and the web writer. In other words it was the idea that the style of the document could not just be designed by the writer or the reader by themselves, the needs and wishes of both had to be taken into account. The capability of the device that was displaying the content was also absolutely vital in the design.

Robert Cailliau, who also worked at CERN with Berners Lee and Lie, wanted to separate the structure of a page and its presentation from its content, by which a main principle of CSS was made.

Lie however worked principally with Bert Bos, who worked on the Argo browser, trying to implement his own proposal of SSP (StyleSheet Proposal), to implement and fully develop the CSS standard. In 1994 there was a conference in Chicago called the ‘Mosaic and the Web’ conference. Lie presented his proposal of CSS here and again a year later in 1995 which was a bit more political. Bert Bos presented the support for style sheet in Argo and Håkon in Arena. A huge discussion about the ‘balance’ between author and reader ensued especially regarding the legalities of who should or would be in control. There was seemingly no conclusion made at the conference itself. Nonetheless, the technical developments had to continue behind the scenes, despite any political problems or disagreements.

The W3C took a keen interest in CSS from the start and was keen to learn more from Lie and Bos. This resulted in a special workshop on the subject which was chaired by Stephen Pemberton. A project board was established, with Lie and Bos at its heart and things began to grow and develop. Thomas Reardon of Microsoft also joined the team at this time. In December 1996, after a great deal of work by all concerned, CSS1 became official and was launched. Earlier that year, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 3 had been released and it offered some form of limited support basis for CSS. There was however several bug issues for a few years after the launch of CSS. In fact it was not until the launch of Internet Explorer 5 for the Macintosh that full CSS support was achieved (this was released in March 2000). However, in some ways the whole system remained fully open to bugs and other problems which resulted in the W3C moving ahead with CSS2.1 which fixed the errors in CSS2.

As of June 2012 there are more than 50 CSS modules all published from the CSS working group. There is still great need however for more development to take place moving ahead into the future. 2016 is a bit of a milestone year as it is 20 years since CSS level one specification was completed. Today, CSS level 3 contains advanced features such as flexible layout and animations. The industry is moving very quickly today and there is a need for the language to adapt as requirements change. The newest specifications – Flexbox and Grid Layout – are looking at how best to tackle layout in the future such as scaling and vertical and horizontal alignment. Grid layout especially will allow layout to be far more complex. Getting CSS right in the future is vital as it has a huge impact on the beneficial experience of the end user who should always be at the centre of concern.

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