BBC News site: too wide, too tabular

I’ve given it a fair crack over an extended period, but I’ve reached my conclusion: I just don’t like the redesigned BBC News site. In ‘standard’ conditions, a desktop PC running at 1024×768, it’s clearly an improvement: brighter, more airy, less cramped. But away from the norm, they’ve broken the golden rule of any revamp: don’t make anything worse.
As any website’s usage data will show, most people are now running a 1024×768 screen resolution. And monitors are just getting bigger, right? Wrong. I have four ‘web devices’ I use on a regular basis, and the two I bought most recently – an Asus Eee (classic edition) and a Nintendo Wii, both of which have sold like hot cakes – don’t operate at the larger resolution. So when I look at the majority of pages on the BBC News site, I have to deal with arguably the Number 1 no-no in web usability: horizontal scrolling.
(Curiously though, I see the second-level / subject homepages – eg UK or Politics – the page body remains sized for 800-sized screens?)
What’s infuriating is that (a) for all the BBC’s army of supposed design and usability managers, consultants and experts, nobody considered these widely-used devices worthy of appropriate support; and (b) it doesn’t have to be like that. CSS-based coding using DIVs could allow the site to work ‘well enough’ at 800-width, whilst looking its best at 1024. Instead, the site continues to use TABLE markup for layout, in clear breach of W3C advice dated 1999(!):

Tables should not be used purely as a means to layout document content as this may present problems when rendering to non-visual media. Additionally, when used with graphics, these tables may force users to scroll horizontally to view a table designed on a system with a larger display. To minimize these problems, authors should use style sheets to control layout rather than tables.

When I do a coding job, most of my time is spent working with DIVs and CSS, trying to make designs work acceptably across all browsers and all common setups. It’s not fun. TABLEs would be much easier, much quicker and much cheaper for clients. But coding with DIVs is unquestionably the right thing to do.
The BBC isn’t alone here: the major UK news sites are all – without exception, as far as I can see – forcing screen widths beyond 800 pixels. The Telegraph also uses a TABLE approach; whereas the Guardian and Times don’t. But we expect higher standards from the BBC. And that’s what annoys me most. Like a lot of people, I used to advise that whatever the BBC was doing, we all should be doing too. I don’t feel I can say that now.
Am I just being too idealistic here? And where does it leave government’s commitment to dated accessibility rules: what’s the point, when sites with receiving many times more traffic – the sites which define the typical UK user’s internet experience – are imposing a contradictory de facto standard? I’d be more than happy to go back to TABLE coding.

Standard behaviour

I used to get really excited about the release of new versions of the big web browsers. These days the overwhelming emotion is worry, bordering on panic. What is it going to do with the HTML I lovingly crafted to work with its predecessor?
I held my breath this morning as I fired up the first beta version of Internet Explorer v8 for the first time. And whilst there’s nothing catastrophic to report, I’m surprised how may things are ‘a few pixels out’, even things you never thought could be risky. If you’re reading this on the site in IE8, for example, you’ll see the ‘find’ button is out of line with the search box, and there’s an unexpected gap between the header and navigation strip. The Wales Office site adds a few (inactive?) horizontal scrollbars to various DIVs.
There’s been a lot of talk about Microsoft’s Damascene conversion to web standards: effectively they’re saying ‘no really, this time we mean it.’ And Ray Ozzie appears to be thinking and talking long-term:

On one hand, there are literally billions of Web pages designed to render on previous browser versions, including many sites that are no longer actively managed. On the other hand, there is a concrete benefit to Web designers if all vendors give priority to interoperability around commonly accepted standards as they evolve. After weighing these very legitimate concerns, we have decided to give top priority to support for these new Web standards.

In other words, standards-compliance over legacy support. That’s the message web designers want to hear. As I’ve written before, I’m convinced the bulk of HTML coding effort is spent making the same design work identically across all browsers. An across-the-board commitment to universal standards would end that waste of our time, and clients’ money.
So why am I looking at pages which are fine in Firefox, fine in Opera, fine in Safari, fine in Konqueror… but a bit off in the new standards-compliant, ACID2-passing IE8? (No browser hacks, before anyone asks.) Please, please, let this just be ‘a beta thing’.