Wireless AND tableless

Via a post on css-discuss from the lead designer, Cingular Wireless launches the next big commercial site to adopt XHTML for markup and a heavy reliance on CSS for layout and presentation. Apart from my natural interest level in this arena, Cingular happens to be my wireless carrier, which adds to my own intrigue.

The Good: Looks pretty. Navigation is rendered as an unordered list, and uses JavaScript to pop-down transparent submenus, also created with unordered lists. In addition to the conversion and redesign, the Cingular team successfully abandoned the HTML table element on just about every page. Tables are appropriately pulled out of pocket only for pages which display tabular data, like Rate Plans for the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Bad: The site takes forever to load. Not typical of sites which make a conversion to lean XHTML+CSS. A friend had trouble accessing the site from his IE5/Mac browser. The front page also crashed my version of Netscape 4, possibly because of the large amount of JavaScript used. Crashing or choking browsers — no matter how old or obscure — is not something we like to see in sites which move toward standards-compliance. Despite Cingular’s ambitious use of the XHTML 1.0 Strict doctype for their pages, the front page is filled with multiple validation errors. Inside pages appeared to be a bit cleaner after a brief glance through the site. Speaking from experience, I know how difficult Vignette (the Content Management System used by both Wired News and Cingular) can be to wrangle in the errors that keep a site from validating. But there are many simple mistakes which should be easy to knock off the list. Hopefully the team is already seeking to do so, if not just for their own assurance that code will behave and display in browsers as intended.

Accessibility: Notwithstanding major improvements gained in the conversion, basic accessibility problems still plague the site. For instance, without stylesheets, multiple navigation links and header information fill the top of the page, yet no means of skipping over these elements to main content exists. Alt texts in <img> elements do not always match the visible text embedded within the image, and in certain places where it could be helpful, does not exist at all. Because of the simple, mostly tactile (and now, voice-activated) interfaces, mobile phones can easily be used by blind customers with little more than simple memorization of functions and button placement. Companies like Cingular can’t afford to have inaccessible web sites. They have a product and service which transcends visual impairment. Now that they’ve come this far with the site (and a good ways they’ve come), Cingular should spend the money, hire an Accessibility expert, (disclaimer: that’s not me) and go the full distance.