Opera CTO: Kill the browser scroll bar

CSS creator Håkon Wium Lie is on a mission to bring the beauty of books to the Web

For a relatively new medium, the World Wide Web still relies on a comparatively ancient method of presenting information to the reader, that of scrolling. Now, the creator of the widely used CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and current CTO of Opera, wants to replace the browser scroll bar with page-based navigation.

"About 2,000 years ago, people used scrolls. That's how they recorded information. The Romans tore the scrolls apart, and binded the pages together as books," Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie said in an interview. "Books are much easier to handle than scrolls."

Lie has authored a proposed extension for CSS, called CSS Generated Content For Paged Media (GCPM), which, if standardized and implemented in browsers, would give browsers the ability to do e-reader-like navigation.

This week, Lie met with publishers in New York, pitching the standard as an easier and lower-cost alternative to building and maintaining dedicated e-readers. Next week he'll meet with other CSS designers at the W3C Technical Plenary / Advisory Committee Meetings Week, taking place in Santa Clara, California, to discuss folding this set of specifications into the upcoming version 3 of CSS.

Opera itself has posted some sample pages, and a downloadable Opera Reader that mimics the functionality of a browser supporting this extension.

Today, many text-based Web pages, including probably this news story, are formatted as a single column of text. Lengthy texts may be divided across multiple Web pages, with a "next page" button at the bottom of each. If the text fills up more than a single browser screen, the browser provides a scroll bar to move up and down the page.

Browsers deployed scroll bars because they "allowed any screen to show any document," Lie said. But, he argued, the scroll bar--an idea borrowed from desktop applications such as word processors and photo editors--places limitations on how content is rendered and viewed.

One problem is that the material being displayed rarely fits neatly into the browser window. The reader may see half-lines, or bits of an image, at the top or at the bottom of the page. "You never hit the line exactly," Lie said. The approach also limits how pages are designed, with many sites defaulting to a single column of text per page, rarely taking advantage of how a browser can move its view horizontally as well as vertically. Also, printing Web pages can be problematic, with the browser not having any instructions how to break up the Web page across multiple printed pages.

"The page can have a much more beautiful presentation," Lie said. "The flipping of the page becomes an event. I think few people would sit and read 'Alice in Wonderland' with a scroll bar."

The goal behind the specification is to provide a minimal set of markup to "turn any website into a paged experience," Lie said. It provides rule-sets to address formatting issues such as setting the number of columns per page, how to paginate a site and how to hyphenate text.

Using a tablet, Lie demonstrated how a Web page could be viewed with a browser that supported this markup. He presented a mockup of a newspaper, complete with multiple columns and full-page ads. The experience of moving through the paper closely resembled that of using the Amazon Kindle reader for tablets, or a stand-alone magazine app such as that from "The New Yorker."

The reader could flip to the next page by swiping a finger across the screen from right to left, and jump to the index by swiping up. Nowhere in the demo did a scroll bar appear. On the desktop, a user could navigate with a mouse, or with the arrow keys and the page-up or page-down keys, or with a pop-up navigator.

Of course, an ambitious webmaster could render the look and feel of a multi-column newspaper today, but it would involve writing a lot of HTML and possibly some JavaScript. By contrast, GCPM will offer a number of controls that can be easily added to the stylesheet.

"Authors should be able to [create pages] without having to hire expensive app developers, and do it in languages they know and in code they recognize," Lie said. "It doesn't take much code to do this."

An obvious market for the technology would be that of book and periodical publishers, who could redesign their websites to look like their printed editions, Lie said. They could even use CSS as the common code-base for all the editions of their products. Beyond the publishing industry, the stylesheet extension could also help Web application developers build apps that more closely resemble native desktop and mobile applications. .

"We're putting this out as a 'lab build' to let people play with it," Lie said.

At present, no browser supports this CSS markup, even Opera's own. But Lie hopes browser makers see the value in this markup, as a way to promote greater use of the Web in general. Much as CSS provided the basis for Web developers to design pages with a certain degree of elegance, GCPM would provide the basis for formatting pages in a more stylish manner.

"We're Web fundamentalists," he said, referring to Opera. "We feel all the information that mankind produces should be on the Web. And once it's there, we should have a good way of presenting it."

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab's e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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