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SVG's Time had Come (Again)

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It's about that time again, time for a new wave of graphics standards for the web that promise a confrontation among different camps of proponents - arguments that will now deal with how best to render and display complex graphics on the web. 

The topic at hand is call Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) - a standard that uses XHTML syntax to display complex graphics on the web.

First, a primer for those whose lives involve something more than following the latest proceedings of the World Wide Web Consortium(*).

Other than text, web pages render images - pixels that represent captured samples of light as is the case with photographs, video - a stream image frames, and graphics - visuals consisting of pen strokes, colored areas, and shadings. 

Most often, graphics are currently added to a web page by artists who use drawing software to construct an illustration from graphic elements and then export the graphics as an image file to be included in a web page. This was necessary because aside from basic rectangles and lines, all major browsers did not have a common HTML-like language to describe graphic shapes and areas.

Some enhanced graphics capabilities could be added with specialised 'plug-ins', but the folks who design web applications dreamed of a day when browsers could render enhanced graphics without the need for vendor provided add-ons.

A standard XHTML language to express graphics, Scalable Vector Graphics, had been under development by the World Wide Web consortion since 1999  - but with only a couple of major browsers dominating the market, and with Adobe's Flash technology providing impressive graphics capabilities, SVG adoption languished.

SVG's rebirth may be attributed to two broad market trends.

First, a scaled-down SVG standard (SVG-Tiny) became widely used in mobile phones.

Mobile phones don't have the horsepower to use the same plug-in technology that computer-based browsers do - but mobile applications needed to draw maps and simple, eye-catching graphics. As a result, some manufacturers started embedding a simplified SVG rendering engine into the phone itself, allowing application developers to access modest graphics capabilities on relatively anemic hardware. As mobile phones became more powerful, mobile-browsers (Opera-Moble and iPhone Safari) started relying on the SVG family to render graphics in the mobile arena.

Also, there are now five major browsers in the deskop/laptop space - Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome, and Opera. All but Internet Explorer currently support a basic implementation of SVG. And now Microsoft has announced SVG support in their upcoming Internet Explorer 9

In terms of web-based content - SVG can have a major impact:
  • Web graphics will have more interactivity. SVG uses as XHTML syntax to display graphic elements. Web application developers know how to attach user interaction to parts of XHTML documents, meaning new designs will start to emerge that connect portions of illustrations to supporting documents, other web links, annotation tools, etc..
  • New tools will be available to technical illustrators. Anyone who has tried to use scanned images in online technical illustrations know how frustrating it is to try to get a 'better' view of a device or procedure. Most of the time zooming in on an image just gives you a bigger, more blurred version of what you couldn't see in the first place. Not much help there.  But designing tehcnical illustrations from SVG will allow users to see graphic representations of equipment - zooming into a sub-assembly can now provide more detailed graphic representations of the 'small things' that matter for everything from distance learning to field service to remote medicine.

So those of us who thought that 'now is the time' for SVG in 2003 had the right idea - just the wrong date.

Next month - we'll explore some of the specifics in terms of web content standards. In particular, we'll see how SVG will work with another evolving standard - HTML5 and its drawing canvas.

(*) The World Wide Web Consortium, or  W3C is the international standards body for the World-Wide-Web.