Interview with Håkon Wium Lie

The inventor of CSS explains how it saved the web — but warns that the battle is not over yet …

When it comes to web design, few people have been more important or influential than Håkon Wium Lie. Working at CERN alongside Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web itself, Lie is the man who gave it its familiar look by inventing CSS.

Without that bold move, the whole business of web design could have been a totally different beast today. As Lie puts it: “This thing could have been owned by one company. It could have been France Telecom, it could have been Microsoft. It could have been one private owner.

“Instead we have a web which is slightly disorganised, and there’s a lot of rubbish out there, but it’s also a wonderful place that reflects humanity as it should be. And it’s free for everyone to use.”

What could have been

So how did it all come about? For those too young to remember, here’s a quick refresher. First came HTML, which was created by Tim Berners-Lee in late 1990. HTML was very simple. It didn’t say anything about the presentation, it was all about semantics. “We could present HTML on a screen or in a speech synthesiser, in many different ways, ” says Lie. “It wasn’t tied to a PC screen or a phone screen, it was universal.”

HTML was used to write web pages for the first browser, Mosaic, released in 1993. “That attracted other people, including designers. And they said: ‘OK this is pretty good but the font is terrible, and I don’t like the grey background, and I want 20 point Helvetica, red …’ But they couldn’t get that, because HTML only gave them the meaning of the elements, not the presentation.”

If the web was to succeed in the wider world, Lie realised, designers would need a bridge between those two worlds. “We wanted people to use HTML. But we also wanted people to say something about font size, colours, typography, layout, margins and shadows and such. Because otherwise they wouldn’t have used HTML.”

“If we hadn’t developed CSS, we could have ended up with the web being a giant fax machine”

If CSS hadn’t been developed, designers might have gone elsewhere, explains Lie. HTML could have turned into more of a page description language, akin to PDF. Indeed, designers had already started making pictures out of their documents. “Because that meant you could control every pixel in there. So you could get the fonts, colours, you needed. You still see some of them around. If that had become the norm, we could have ended up with the web being a giant fax machine.”

Lie knew that to keep HTML as the standard, someone would need to establish another route to the design choices they craved. “So the primary reason for doing CSS wasn’t really to do cool presentation — it was to save HTML, ” he explains. “We wanted to make sure we had a text-based, semantic-based language underneath there.”

Lie felt a real sense of personal urgency. “It was like: ‘Darn, we need something quick, otherwise they’re going to destroy the HTML language.” He wrote the first CSS specification in a week or two.

Future-proof

He wasn’t alone in his mission, of course. Lie discussed the idea with Berners-Lee — although his busy schedule meant he didn’t get involved in the technical work. “There was a very active mailing list, and other people had also proposed similar concepts in the past, so I tried to borrow from others as well.”

Lie developed CSS into a W3C Recommendation with computer scientist Bert Bos, and as a showcase and testbed, integrated it into the Arena web browser. He clearly did a good job. CSS continues to give visual form to the majority of websites today, and even works on a multitude of devices that have been invented since.

That’s partly because those early pioneers had enough foresight to build in a certain amount of future-proofing. “We didn’t have all those mobile phones at the time. But we did consider that maybe in the future we’d be able to do this on other devices than PCs.”

The initial proposal is very conscious about employing properties that work on screens and on speech synthesisers, for example. “Something about the volume and the personality of the voice that reads to you, those were parts of the initial proposal. We kind of saw a world coming but we didn’t know exactly what it would look like.”

It helped that they had such a diverse set of machines at CERN. “Tim was using a Next computer, I used a Sun computer, Robert [Cailliau] used a Mac. So that also told us that we needed to make sure we could get the web to work all over.”

Saving the web

Lie left CERN in 1995 to begin a four-year stint at the W3C, before moving to Opera Software. But despite many years fighting to improve the web, if you ask him if it’s still in need of saving, he’s adamant: “Yes! Constantly! It’s a constant job! It’s not like the web has been done. This is history in the making. The web is only 25 years old. It’s going to be around for a long time, so there are lots of things to develop.”

New threats to the web, he believes, come from commercial technologies, such as the rise of iPhone apps, which allow you to do things you can’t do with HTML and CSS. But the good news is that the web standards community has continually fought back against such commercial encroachments.

“For years, iPhone apps had access to the camera, and web apps didn’t, ” he says. “Now we have access to the camera, the location, the accelerometer. So now you can technically write most of the apps out there with HTML. One of the things we’re missing is the page orientation. We need to do those compelling visual presentations that they can do in apps, make sure we can do the same in HTML and CSS.”

If CSS does survive, it’s clear to Lie that it will continue to change as designers demand new tools. The exact nature of those changes remains to be seen, but Lie is keen that they appear more in CSS than in HTML.

“I think of HTML more as a sort of stable resource for humanity, ” he explains. “For instance, the markup of Wikipedia shouldn’t change. We should update the articles, the content, and we should update the presentation. But the markup is fine, it can live for a long time.”

There’s also, of course, the danger of CSS becoming bloated. “Already, we’ve seen some pushback against adding new features from the people who have to make sure this works on very basic hardware, ” he admits. “In the emerging markets, Android phones are quite minimal. Can we make sure that the browsers run on those? For example, Facebook has re-implemented CSS in JavaScript because it thinks native clients and browsers have taken on too much functionality. “That’s a balance one needs to make, ” says Lie.

Right now, he believes there are too many modules in CSS, although he emphasises that many of them will die because they will fail to attract attention from browser implementors, or due to a general lack of interest.

“Often it’s in the communities surrounding the rendering engines like Blink and WebKit that these decisions are being made. It’s not so much in the standards committees any more. Because unless you can implement it and get it into Blink or WebKit, it’s not really going to be part of the web.”

Less is more

And what of Sass and Less? “I think they make sense, ” Lie says. “Actually, if we’d seen that going back, maybe we should have put some of that functionality in CSS. It certainly makes sense syntactically to have some of those features. And it could have been done … they’re quite elegant and it could have been done declaratively.”

“If we’d seen Sass going back, maybe we should have put some of that functionality in CSS”

However, Lie is sharply critical of Adobe’s proposals for CSS Regions [read his detailed views here], and is unconvinced by authoring tools in general.

“When I write my CSS I write it in a text editor, I don’t use a WYSIWYG tool,” he says. “That world doesn’t really mesh well with the web design world. If you have a WYSIWYG tool you need to have screens of all sizes being simulated. And maybe that’s possible, maybe some people still do it like that, but it’s not something that works for me.”

Passing the baton

In short, rather than the web being ‘finished’ , the work has barely begun. “Billions of people are still not on the web, ” Lie points out. “There are challenges like providing fonts for all these languages. That’s a big job to do. And then, you know, designers will have new requests. We’ll have people coming in and saying: ‘You should do it this way’ or that way.

Lie himself, however, will be taking less of a lead — over the next 20 years he plans to take a step back. Although he will be keeping a close eye on what goes on, and he’s hoping that the next generation will continue to work on CSS. “I don’t want people saying: ‘Let’s throw out HTML and get some new platform’,” he asserts. “Especially if it comes from a commercial company. That’s the worst thing that can happen, if we end up in a monopoly situation.

“We almost had that in the days when Internet Explorer was the dominant browser, and it didn’t work with web standards and Microsoft didn’t fix bugs, and everything started moving at a glacial pace. And it could happen again. Apple and Google are very strong now. Thank goodness there are two of them!”

Words by Tom May. Photography by Rob Monk.


This article originally appeared in issue 269 of net magazine.