Web Tips for Webzine Editors and Writers #1: Software, Part 1

This series of posts will start off with very basic information about creating websites and build from there. These posts are targeted to creating webzines and personal pages for writers, but much of the information will be applicable to a much wider audience. Feel free to request specific information in the comments sections.

Do I need any kind of special software to start a website?

It’s a question I come across all the time, and the answer is yes and no. Essentially, you only need as much software required to edit website files, post them to the Internet, and read them.

When I wrote my first website, I used nothing more than 3 programs that came pre-installed on my computer with Microsoft Windows 95 to perform these tasks: Notepad, Windows Explorer, and Internet Explorer, respectively. However, this method required an understanding of at least one markup language, such as HTML, which is required for web browsers to properly display a web page in a desired format.

Do I need to learn HTML?

No. Although an understanding of markup languages is largely beneficial, it is not necessary. There are a wide variety of W.Y.S.I.W.Y.G. (what you see is what you get) web editors available as downloadable software or even as web-based applications, allowing all of the file editing, transfer, and reading to be performed within the web browser.

Even before the much of the web development process became available within the web browser, the web browser has arguably been the most important software in regards to the use of the Internet.

So what is a web browser?

To understand what a web browser is, one must first understand what a web page is. A web page is a collection of interlinked files kept on a server computer that can be viewed simultaneously through a web browser on a viewer’s computer.

Simply put, the server is a computer that acts as an electronic filing cabinet, containing all of your website files. When a viewer attempts to view a web page, the web browser obtains a markup document–the first file in a folder–, which identifies all of the other files that need to be pulled to view he web page. This markup document also contains the text of the page and all of the formatting, such as placement, borders, margins, fonts, etc. Using all of this information, the browser arranges the contents of the files and displays them on the monitor.

Unfortunately, some browsers can read these markup documents slightly differently, sometimes causing different viewing experiences for the same web page. These differences are mostly caused the browser’s built-in layout engine, the part of the software that translates data into a visual display within the web browser window.

Which web browser should I use?

Regardless of which browser you may choose, the viewer is most affected by his or her web browser. For this reason, it has been generally practiced to create websites based on the most popular web browsers. Therefore, it is beneficial to test your web page in at least the most common browsers.

Commonly, Internet users do not know that there is a choice for web browsers, and simply use the one that came pre-installed with their operating system. For this reason, Microsoft Internet Explorer has been, by far, the most widely used browser until recent years. With an increasing abundance of freely available web browsers to choose from and an increasingly computer literate society, web surfers have been moving away to these other free web browsers, such as Mozilla Firefox. The following chart displays popularity of web browsers used to view my website, Port Iris Magazine.

Browser Usage Data for http://www.portiris.com/

As can be seen in the chart, Mozilla Firefox accounts for nearly half of all web traffic for this site, where as Internet Explorer, now only 34% of viewers use Internet Explorer. Google Chrome and Apple Safari are similarly colored in this chart because they use the same layout engine as a basis for displaying web pages.

The complex differences between layout engines are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say, in my experience, there is a much higher degree of formatting specific to the Trident layout engine (Internet Explorer), where as there seems to be a greater compatibility between the other major layout engines, such as Gecko (Firefox, Netscape, etc.), WebKit (Chrome, Safari, etc.) and Presto (Opera).

Internet explorer has the added disadvantage of being only available through Microsoft and only on computers using Microsoft Windows, creating difficulties for individuals attempting to create web pages from increasing popular Mac and Linux operating systems. Most of these alternative browsers are available to download free of charge, and I suggest test-driving a few to see which you like best.

Popular Free Web Browsers

Browser OS Compatability
Mozilla Firefox Multi-platform
Windows Internet Explorer Windows
Apple Safari Mac and Windows
Google Chrome Multi-platform
Opera Multi-platform

Some Other Free Web Browsers

Browser OS Compatability
W3C’s Amaya Multi-platform
GNOME Project’s Epiphany Linux (GNOME) and Mac
Flock Multi-platform
K-Meleon Windows
KDE Project’s Konquoror Linux (KDE)
Maxthon Windows
Mozilla Camino Mac
Mozilla SeaMonkey Multi-platform
OmniWeb Multi-platform
Shiira Mac

In the next post, I plan on discussing software used to edit web pages.

-Casey Seda

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