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Chapter 13. Dynamic Documents

The standard HTML/XHTML document model is static. Once displayed on the browser, a document does not change until the user initiates some activity like selecting a hyperlink with the mouse.[67] The Netscape developers found that limitation unacceptable and built in some special features to their browser that let you change HTML document content dynamically. In fact, they provide two different mechanisms for dynamic documents, which we describe in detail in this chapter. Internet Explorer supports some of these mechanisms, which we'll discuss as well.

[67]Of course you could embed animated GIFs or applets that dynamically update the display, but the underlying HTML document itself doesn't change.

We should mention that many of the features of dynamic documents have been displaced by plug-in browser accessories and in particular applets. Nonetheless, Netscape and Internet Explorer continue to support dynamic documents, and we believe the technology has virtues you should be aware of, if not take advantage of, in your HTML documents. Section 12.1, "Applets and Objects"

13.1. An Overview of Dynamic Documents

If you remember from our discussion in Chapter 1, "HTML, XHTML, and the World Wide Web", the client browser initiates data flow on the Web by contacting a server with a document request. The server honors the request by downloading the document. The client subsequently displays the document's contents to the user. For normal web documents, a single transaction initiated from the client side is all that is needed to collect and display the document. Once displayed, however, it does not change.

Dynamic documents, on the other hand, are the result of multiple transactions initiated from either or both the server side and the client side. A client-pull document is one that initiates multiple transactions from the client side. When the server is the instigator, the dynamic document is known as a server-push document.

In a client-pull document, special HTML codes tell the client to periodically request and download another document from one or more servers on the network, dynamically updating the display.

Server-push documents also advance the way servers communicate with clients. Normally, over the Web, the client stays connected with a server for only as long as it takes to retrieve a single document. With server-push documents, the connection remains open and the server continues to send data periodically to the client, adding to or replacing the previous contents.

Netscape is currently the only browser able to handle server-push dynamic documents correctly; both Internet Explorer and Netscape support client-pull documents. With other browsers, you might see only part of the dynamic document at best. At worst, the browser will completely reject the document. Unfortunately, because dynamic documents are client-server processes, they don't work without an HTTP server. That means you can't develop and test your dynamic documents stored as local files unless you have a server running locally as well.

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