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Opera CTO: Kill the browser scroll bar

Joab Jackson | Oct. 31, 2011
The current CTO of Opera, wants to replace the browser scroll bar with page-based navigation.

For a relatively new medium, the World Wide Web still relies on a comparatively ancient method of presenting information to the reader, that of scrolling. Now, the creator of the widely used CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), and current CTO of Opera, wants to replace the browser scroll bar with page-based navigation.

"About 2,000 years ago, people used scrolls. That's how they recorded information. The Romans tore the scrolls apart, and binded the pages together as books," Opera CTO Håkon Wium Lie said in an interview. "Books are much easier to handle than scrolls."

Lie has authored a proposed extension for CSS, called CSS Generated Content For Paged Media (GCPM), which, if standardized and implemented in browsers, would give browsers the ability to do e-reader-like navigation.

This week, Lie met with publishers in New York, pitching the standard as an easier and lower-cost alternative to building and maintaining dedicated e-readers. Next week he'll meet with other CSS designers at the W3C Technical Plenary / Advisory Committee Meetings Week, taking place in Santa Clara, California, to discuss folding this set of specifications into the upcoming version 3 of CSS.

Opera itself has posted some sample pages, and a downloadable Opera Reader that mimics the functionality of a browser supporting this extension.

Today, many text-based Web pages, including probably this news story, are formatted as a single column of text. Lengthy texts may be divided across multiple Web pages, with a "next page" button at the bottom of each. If the text fills up more than a single browser screen, the browser provides a scroll bar to move up and down the page.

Browsers deployed scroll bars because they "allowed any screen to show any document," Lie said. But, he argued, the scroll bar--an idea borrowed from desktop applications such as word processors and photo editors--places limitations on how content is rendered and viewed.

One problem is that the material being displayed rarely fits neatly into the browser window. The reader may see half-lines, or bits of an image, at the top or at the bottom of the page. "You never hit the line exactly," Lie said. The approach also limits how pages are designed, with many sites defaulting to a single column of text per page, rarely taking advantage of how a browser can move its view horizontally as well as vertically. Also, printing Web pages can be problematic, with the browser not having any instructions how to break up the Web page across multiple printed pages.

"The page can have a much more beautiful presentation," Lie said. "The flipping of the page becomes an event. I think few people would sit and read 'Alice in Wonderland' with a scroll bar."


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