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What is CSS3?

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If you work in web development, you’re likely well-versed in CSS3, the latest and greatest standard that’s all the rage with modern websites and the browsers we use to view them. The rest of us may have heard the buzz about CSS3 — but do you know what it is, how it works and why it matters? Read on to find out.

Interesting facts and history CSS

What Does It Stand For?

“CSS” is an acronym for Cascading Style Sheets, a web-based markup language used to describe the look and formatting of a website to the browser, most commonly used in HTML or XHTML web pages but also applicable to XML documents, including plain XML, SVG and XUL. “CSS3” simply refers to the latest incarnation of CSS, with additional capabilities far beyond the scope of the first two generations.

What Does It Offer?

Because of its modular structure, CSS3 allows developers to build content-rich web pages with relatively lightweight code requirements. That means fancier visual effects, better user interfaces and most importantly, cleaner pages that load faster than ever before. Simply put, CSS3 is the presentation layer of a web page that leads the charge for all of the other technologies buried within.

CSS3 finally brings the promise of desktop-style layout to web pages, complete with graphic elements such as drop shadows, gradients, border effects, multi-column layouts and much more.

W3C website

Where Did It Come From?

All three CSS specifications fall under the jurisdiction of the World Wide Web Consortium (also known as W3C), one of many international standards organizations who keep things in check for the internet we all know and love. The W3C itself was founded in late 1994, which is actually when the precursor to CSS first reared its head.

Cascading HTML Style Sheets (CHSS) was the name of that earliest variation, which first introduced web developers to the concept of creating a consistent approach to how pages were styled that HTML alone was incapable of. By 1997, CSS had its own development board, the CSS Working Group, chaired by one of W3C’s own.

HTTP URL bar

CSS Through the Years

The first iteration of CSS was published in late 1996, offering support for font properties (including typeface and emphasis), colors for text and backgrounds as well as alignment of text, images, tables and other web elements. CSS2 was introduced in 1998, bringing additional capabilities such as absolute, relative and fixed positioning of elements before being usurped by CSS 2.1 in 2005.

First published in 1999, CSS3 takes the foundation laid by the first two generations and divides up feature set into separate documents known as modules, with each module capable of adding its own new functionality or features while generally maintaining backwards compatibility with CSS2.

CSS3 code

A Look at Modules

Part of the problem with the first two generations of CSS was that the specification became too large and complex to update frequently. Rather than continue down that path, the W3C created the module system for CSS3, so that individual components can be updated and refined in pieces over time.

There are currently over 40 CSS modules published through the CSS Working Group, including Selectors, Namespaces, Color and Media Queries, with Apple’s Safari and Google’s Chrome leading adoption of the standard in recent years.

CSS3 browser support chart

Who Supports CSS3?

To get a grasp of how much CSS3 has influenced web development, look no further than Microsoft’s own adoption of the markup language with the new Internet Explorer 9 released in March. Prior versions seemingly ignored most of what CSS3 brought to the table, but with IE9, all of the major browsers (not to mention the software used to design pages in the first place) finally embrace the technology — allowing designers to at last show off their best efforts, regardless of platform.

Of course, users on older computers and browsers won’t be able to take full advantage of this advance without upgrading — but as time goes on, we’ll all be using CSS3-compliant browsers and many of the old, complicated methods of developing websites will start to fade at long last.

Follow this article’s author, J.R. Bookwalter on Twitter

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