The history of deprecated and changed HTML tags
This is a sequence to my article about the early days of Web and how Web technology was shaped, now focused on HTML only.
In the previous article mentioned, it is stated that HTML was initially crafted by Tim Berners-Lee as a medium for text (hypertext, for that matter) and little else. The layout powers of Web, in the beginning, were not a concern, as well as no big functionalities were expected from it.
It is worthy to mention, too, that the early days of Web browser wars (MS Internet Explorer vs. Netscape Navigator) were very wild, with lots of new features popping in frantically and little agreement between the two major competitors, which led to considerable variation on rendering across browsers and a very hard time for developers, that frequently had forked code on pages to be rendered on this or that browser. In this context, some HTML standards came up with a clumsy but somehow effective versioning system to accomplish rendering legacy HTML as well as “new” HTML in the same browsers.
All that, together with the very (in)famous backwards compatibility expected from the web, made for a very interesting situation in which old tags that were deprecated with good reasons can live together with newer ones and even be used on new projects (by accident, of course). Although this is obviously not recommended, HTML is not designed to be breakable like a programming language, so even if browsers may not fulfil the initial intention of a tag and even issue warnings for deprecated content, whatever may be inside a deprecated tag will most probably be displayed and several of them may even work as if it was 1999, it is all up to the browsers to decide.
Tags deprecated and changed for layout reasons
As said, presentation was a concern taken out of the HTML standard when pages began to demand too much on layout, and this part was handed to CSS. From that time many artefacts remained, in fact most of the tags considered deprecated by now are tags designed to be presentation tags:
font: as the name implies, the
fonttag carried font information for the text. The
basefonttag, in its turn, set the base font for the document (although its use was pretty rare, even when people didn’t use CSS yet).
small: those tags refer to the text size, making the text bigger or smaller. Interesting to note here that the tag small is not deprecated, but it was rather re-purposed to mean something semantic, like “small print” text as copyright and other legal details.
marquee: another legendary and not very useful “decorative” tag. It makes the text go in a slower animation from one edge to the other of the parent, and back, bouncing linearly either vertically or laterally. Perhaps because it is way less annoying than
blink, this tag is deprecated but still works in all major browsers as of 2021. Curiosity: this tag was not part of any of the 5 HTML standards published so far, created by Microsoft for some obscure reason and adopted by its rival back then, Netscape Navigator, for another reason that may be even more obscure.
u: those were created as pure font formatting tags for bold, italic, strike-through and underline, respectively. All of them are deprecated as presentation tags but they are still around and thrive as repurposed content tags:
bnow means “bring to attention”,
inow means “idiomatic text”,
umeans “unarticulated annotation” and, finally,
sis not given any new fancy/apologetic/semantic name but should indicate text that was crossed out, which is a content feature anyway (even though it slightly overlaps with the tags
center: a pretty obvious layout tag
listing: unlike the name may imply, not a list (since the beginning there was
uland, a little later,
ol) but something similar to what one can achieve today by using
multicol: another pretty obvious layout tag, that was never very popular.
plaintext: the confusing name is for a tag that could be used for escaped text, today being replaced by
pre. Never truly incorporated in most browsers, even when created — and soon deprecated.
spacer: non-standard tags for presentation purposes, the first one to avoid text breaks and the second one to insert a dummy space.
Tags that were replaced by another ones
For many reasons. Those are:
acronym: created to be an alias for the
abbrtag in HTML 4, deprecated shortly after in favour of that one.
image: non-standard alias for the famous
imgtag that never caught on despite having a definitely better name. It seems like it was never in HTML standards’ intentions to support aliases.
bgsound: replaced by the infinitely better tag
audio, much broader in scope.
strike: just an older, less consistent form of the tag
tt: means “teletype text”, which sounds very old, much older than it is (created in HTML 2) but in the end it was just meant to be monospaced text and little else. It was replaced by
content: more recently, in the first custom web components specs, this tag was set to be what
slotis today, an “inner point of entry” for those components.
Tags that supported old assumptions on how the web should work
As said, the web changed a lot and standards were not around for much of that time, so in the end some species perished in this “natural evolution”:
menu(not entirely): tag created to host basically context menus or other functionality menus (context menus are also known as right-click mouse menus). Deprecated after and sort of repurposed in a foggy way to serve as a generic “menu of commands”, whatever that may be. In practical terms, it can be considered half-dead now, as it is only implemented in Firefox.
menuitem: non-standard tag that was created to be used with
menufor context menus (the right-click menu).
hgroup: now put out of the specification in a weird move, this tag created in HTML5 was meant to group only header tags (
h6). Maybe it was deprecated because it wasn’t totally necessary or because it was too restrictive (no other tags could be used inside it other than header tags), I have the impression a lot of people actually used it — and continue to use.
xmp: this is a contender for the worst named tag ever, as it is supposed to mean “example” (reminds me of the character limitations of old languages like Fortran or file systems like the original FAT). This tag was created to bear examples of code, so the content inside it would be rendered without being escaped, in a similar fashion to
isindex: a very early tag (from HTML 1) that was supposed to insert a search field inside a page to allow for an internal search valid only for the current page.
rtc: both these tags were part of the system to allow for what is known as “ruby”, the text that may go alongside East Asian characters as explainers (used mostly on Japanese, but also on other languages from the region). These tags were deemed too much of a complication, especially since the “ruby system” already has the tags
noframes: in the early days of the web, because connections were too slow and there were no single-page apps, frames became the method of choice to divide a page into sub-pages that would remain mostly static (they were used a lot for the header-menu-content combination, to make the header and menu remain the same and the content change). Times changed, connections improved, AJAX came and we didn’t need those any more.
noembed: the first massively successful commercial browser, Netscape Navigator, introduced a couple tags on its own to bring new types of content to the web, one of those tags being
embed. It was meant to host content that was external to HTML and was used mostly for the ominous (in 1997) Flash clips. Later, for that use, the
objecttag was created (still valid, although much less used today) and
shadow: when custom web components were first specified the concept was a little different. This tag (which doesn’t find counterparts now) was supposed to be like an “external entry point” for those components and their content.
Tags that paired with deprecated functionalities
applet: the idea of having small programs written in Java running inside web pages may seem ludicrous to you, but this tag was created to host such little programs. Back to the days where the concepts of speed, privacy and security on the web had very different expectations, this worked, and I remember fondly of the little but very bloated Java applets I wrote to have access to code bar printers on small web applications.
nextid: this is a funny one. You may remember that NeXT was the company that Steve Jobs founded after being fired from Apple in 1990s that got bought by Apple once Jobs was back to it. The OS from that company had a web editor, and this editor inserted internal control tags that were totally useless to any web page outside of this editor. Obviously, they were only used for as long as NeXT computers were popular (not much, not for long) and deprecated as soon as it was possible.
That last one also reminds me of how Macromedia Dreamweaver (a very old visual HTML editor) also injected a lot of useless content on pages, and don’t get me started on the MS Word HTML pages, which were a total mess of horribly unoptimised and weird-looking code. Oh, by the way, during some time the most used standard in web was not only an HTML standard but also an XHTML one. This extra “X” means it has extra functionalities from XML and so, for example, one can create custom functionless tags, even with a custom namespace… which Word made full use, by the way.
Well, hope you have enjoyed our trip throughout some of the strange places of the web that wasn’t, as well of a glimpse into the web that was (but not any more). Our HTML series continues further on with some more useful trips, this time into actual current stuff. Check it out!