Tables are the backbone of current web design. Although originally intended as a simple spreadsheet-like grid for scientific, technical, or monetary data, tables have become the primary means of laying out complex, multi-column web pages. Today, every major website uses tables in some capacity for page layout. Although the introduction of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) technology allows designers to create absolutely-positioned elements on web pages, reducing the need for 100% table-based layout, the utility and backward-compatability of tables will ensure their continued importance in web design.

Tables are probably the most important single item in the contemporary Web toolbox. For a designer, a programmer, or a content-developer, tables will be a part of your bread-and-butter work, whether you're creating your own tables, reworking a design into a tables-suitable composition, or debugging someone else's lousy code (which usually entails rewriting the code from scratch). Most job interviews for web programmers involve sitting down with a text editor and creating a table by hand from scratch, so mastery of this subject is essential.

The principles governing table construction are fairly simple, and it is not difficult to learn the basics. Creating cross-browser, cross-platform compatible code, however, is a restrictive and occasionally frustrating experience. Most tables-based layout uses tables of mind-numbing complexity, which require special handling and careful commenting to make them functional as well as reasonable to edit and maintain. Some contemporary coding practices (including code generated by WYSIWYG editors such as Dreamweaver and GoLive) produce tables which are unstable across browsers and platforms.

In the next two modules, I will endeavor to steer you past the pitfalls lurking to trap the unwary, and tell you everything you need to know about creating successful, professional tables.

Note: New technologies, such as CSS and XML, may make tables used as multi-column layout devices obsolete within 5 to 7 years. In time, tables will, in all likelihood, revert to their original purpose, the construction of spreadsheet-like data grids. In the meantime, however, tables are the most stable mechanism for creating multi-column page layouts on the Web.

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