Introducing HTML

If you think HTML is only for die-hard Web-heads, then you may be overlooking the versatility of this very simple computer language. For example, many programs use HTML for easy management of files. Consider IrfanView: this compact graphics program will produce a simple page of thumbnails that can be viewed in any browser. Even Winamp allows you to create an HTML playlist and catalogues of your music for reference or to share with others. Almost every computer has a browser, and HTML works on Unix, PCs, Macs, BeOS and more. This makes HTML extremely versatile and can banish file compatibility issues. Even if you have no desire to build a Web site, learning about HTML can help make the Internet a lot easier to understand.

Getting started - software

One of the beauties of HTML is that it can be written with a program as simple as Windows Notepad. However, you may find some alternatives will speed the process of creating HTML. Some HTML programs are known as WSYIWYG editors (what you see is what you get); in other words, you just move design elements around on a page and the program will write HTML for you. These kinds of programs can be expensive and, while speedy, they are not without their problems. The main issue is that they rarely teach the user anything about HTML; the program does it all for you.

Another option is HTML-text editing programs. These packages help you write HTML by taking care of many mundane tasks, but they do require you to have some knowledge of HTML. My personal recommendation is Arachnophilia. This program is careware, i.e., if you like it, then your 'payment' is to do something nice for someone less fortunate than yourself. It is also very compact - about 2MB - and it will run on many older machines.

HTML programs have featured on many past PC World CDs, and you can check out over 350 more at www.download.com.

Some basic concepts

If you have ever used a Word processor, you will be familiar with many of the processes behind HTML. Essentially, a page of HTML is formatted text with some pictures, and occasionally includes some other features like movies and sounds. You don't need to include pictures to make a Web site, but it will make it more appealing.

Now think about how you type a letter in a word processor. The first step is to create a new document and then to type your information. Then, let's say you want to make two words bold, for example Welcome home. First you highlight the word, then select bold from the menu. Even though you can't see it, your Word Processor program makes a little note that says start bolding at 'W' and finish at 'e'.

HTML is similar, except you type in special characters to define where bold starts and finishes. These special characters are called tags and they (generally) appear in pairs. The first tag begins a certain feature (called the open tag) and the second one stops it (called the close tag). The open and close tags are much the same except the closing tag will also have a slash '/' in it. It may sound confusing at first, but it is quite simple. If you want to make Welcome home bold in HTML, then insert the tag for bold, which is <b>. To display Welcome home in a browser, you type: <B>Welcome home</B>

In your HTML editor it will look like this:

One other term you may encounter here is "container". This simply refers to the area between a pair of open and close tags. For example, in the text above, I have put a bold container around Welcome home.Not all tags relate to formatting of text; others will define paragraphs and insert pictures or links to other pages. Some tags don't appear in the text at all and have a host of other uses that are oblivious to most users. A few tags don't even have close tags. How to create tags and where to use them will be covered in future Here's How columns.

All up, HTML can be pretty simple to learn. The best way to get started is to create a simple page. Then start looking at other sites to see how a page was constructed, which is remarkably simple to do. In your Web browser, click on the File menu and View Source (this may vary slightly between browsers). The HTML should then appear in Notepad. From here, you can start to learn more about HTML, pick up some tips and will be on the way to creating your own pages in no time.

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