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13.5. Choosing Between CSS and XSL-FO

CSS is a very straightforward, easy-to-learn, easy-to-use language for formatting web pages. To the extent that CSS has gotten a reputation as buggy and difficult to use, that's mostly because of inconsistent, nonstandard browser implementations. Opera 4.0 and later, Netscape 6.0 and later, and Mozilla provide extensive support for most features of CSS Level 2 with only a few minor bugs. Internet Explorer's support is much weaker, but borders on usable.

It's hard to imagine any text-based web site you can't produce by using XSLT to transform a document into HTML and then applying a CSS stylesheet. Alternately, you can transform the XML document into another XML document and apply the CSS stylesheet to that. If the element content in the original XML document is in fact exactly what you want to display in the output document, in the correct order, you can even omit the XSLT transformation step, as we did in Examples Example 12-1 and Example 12-2 in the last chapter.

Perhaps most importantly, CSS is already well understood by web designers and well supported by current browsers. XSL-FO is not directly supported by any browsers. To view an XSL-FO document, you must first convert it into the inconvenient PDF format. PDF does not adjust as well as HTML to the wide variety of monitors and screen sizes in use today. Viewing it inside a web browser requires a special plug-in. The limited third party tools that support XSL-FO are beta quality at best. Personally, we see little reason to use anything other than CSS on the Web.

On the other hand, XSL-FO does go beyond CSS in some respects that are important for high-quality printing. For example, XSL-FO offers multiple column layouts; CSS doesn't. XSL-FO can condition formatting on what's actually in the document; CSS can't. XSL-FO allows you to place footnotes, running headers, and other information in the margins of a page; CSS doesn't. XSL-FO lets you insert page numbers and automatically cross-reference particular pages by number; CSS doesn't. And for printing, the requirement to render into PDF is much less limiting and annoying since the ultimate delivery mechanism is paper anyway. CSS Level 3 will add some of these features, but it will still focus on ease-of-use and web-based presentation rather than high-quality printing. Once the software is more reliable and complete, XSL-FO should be the clear choice for professionally typeset books, magazines, newspapers, and other printed matter that's rendered from XML documents. It should be very competitive with other solutions like Quark XPress, TEX, troff, and FrameMaker. CSS does not even attempt to compete in this area.

The bottom line is this: CSS is right for web pages; XSL-FO is right for printed matter. XSLT is a crucial step in getting an input document ready for eventual presentation with either CSS or XSL-FO.

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