I was helping another Web developer track down a display problem on a recent project. I pulled up the HTML source for the page, and he was amazed that I knew how to work with the source code. It made me wonder: How much does a Web developer need to know about HTML? I came to the realization that I cannot accept a so-called Web developer who doesn’t fully understand the technology used to create their applications.

Behind the scenes

I show my age when I say that I was around in the beginning coding pages by hand, using a vi editor on the UNIX server hosting the site. I built many sites with standard HTML and Perl. These sites were very functional, but the sites don’t match what is possible today.

The latest version of HTML (4.01) has been with us since 1999. While there have been advances with CSS, JavaScript, and many more related standards, HTML is at the core of the Web experience. The next iteration (HTML 5) is in the works, but who knows when it will be finalized. (It is worth noting that browsers have adopted many features outside of HTML 4.01 — many of which are in HTML 5).

No matter what development platform or tools a developer uses to build a Web application, the end result is a page — or group of pages — rendered via HTML and most likely CSS and JavaScript. This is true for developers using ASP.NET, JSP, PHP, and so forth. On the other hand, the way these pages are developed has changed dramatically with the tools available today.

Why learn HTML now?

If you aren’t proficient in HTML, you may be wondering why it is necessary to learn HTML when there is so much else you need to know. Knowing HTML can only enhance your productivity and value as a developer. After all, it will be much easier to track down a bug in a Web interface with intricate knowledge of how the page is delivered to the browser.

In addition, HTML knowledge (along with CSS) means you can work with an application regardless of the tool used to create it. You are no longer bound to your preferred development tool or the one used to build the site. Also, knowledge of the source code gives you greater control of the end result. You can use your favorite tool to build the application and dig into the source code to tweak it.

HTML isn’t rocket science

I know many Java and .NET developers that would be lost without their IDEs. They are dumbfounded when faced with the rudimentary command-line tools to build their applications. Luckily, HTML is a much simpler language.

HTML is very easy to learn, especially for someone familiar with the Web. In addition, the Web is overflowing with resources to help with the learning as well as great references. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) offers a good HTML introduction as well as many more lessons. TechRepublic provides numerous downloads about HTML, including an HTML reference guide and a CSS Reference Table. I also really like the reference material from SitePoint with sites devoted to HTML and CSS.

There are tons of books available about HTML. Ian Lloyd’s recently released The Ultimate HTML Reference, is a great resource in a surprisingly hard bound book. It provides a thorough discussion of each HTML element, along with example code and browser compatibility information. Another good offering is HTML Dog: The Best-Practice Guide to XHTML and CSS.

A no-brainer

This subject brings to mind the analogy of my son doing his algebra with a calculator. He was fine until I took away the electronic gadget and made him do it by hand. The understanding of the basics was necessary for him to truly understand algebra, and the same is true for Web developers: We must know HTML.

Do you find yourself digging through HTML source code to find problems? Do you think such knowledge is a necessity for Web developers? Share your thoughts with the Web Developer community.

Tony Patton began his professional career as an application developer earning Java, VB, Lotus, and XML certifications to bolster his knowledge.


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