The Interview: Eric Meyer

March 12, 2003

Russell Dyer

One of the key players in the Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) world is Eric Meyer. Meyer, an employee of Netscape, is an Invited Expert member of the CSS working group for the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). He is also the author of several popular books on CSS: Cascading Style Sheets: The Definitive Guide (O'Reilly 2000), Cascading Style Sheets 2.0 Programmer's Reference (Osborne 2001), CSS Pocket Reference (O'Reilly 2001), and Eric Meyer on CSS (New Riders 2003). He has written over three dozen articles on CSS. Recently I had the opportunity to interview Eric Meyer and learn how he got involved with CSS in such an instrumental way.

Early Web Days

Meyer graduated from Case Western Reserve University with a degree in history in 1992. During his senior year he started working there as a computer hardware support person in what "at the time was called Library Information Technologies. Originally, I was just a hardware jockey," recounts Meyer. "When we would go through quiet periods, I would have to find things to do in order not to go crazy from boredom. During one of those lulls, I got interested in the web. I marked up my first document in December of '93," says Meyer. Like many, he thought of trying to make money on the web, but never pursued commercial ideas. "Coming from that environment, I was really more about, 'Let's share information. Let's take library resources and put them on-line where people can read them," he explains. "I still sort of retain that perception of the web at my core--as a means of sharing information and not primarily as a tool of commerce."

Discovering CSS

Meyer became Case's web master and had been web designing for a couple of years when he discovered CSS. "I never was happy with the whole font tag thing [or the] tables as layout idea. It seemed like we were going through an awful lot of effort to do very simple things." When CSS came along, however, his reaction was one of elation and relief. "I saw a brief demonstration at a conference. I thought, 'Perfect!' I went home and printed out the CSS specification. I started doing stuff that the specifications said were possible, but it didn't work." It turned out that the web browser he was using had not yet adopted the latest CSS standards. From there Meyer began learning about CSS and browser compatibility.

Meyer eventually decided to join W3C's mailing list, www-style. "What made me join the public mailing list was that what I did in CSS didn't work," says Meyer. He also set up what became WC3's test suite for testing browsers against CSS standards. Meyer says, "It was just me setting up some test pages so that I could figure out if it was the browser's fault or my own." Meyer shared his test pages with others in the public mailing list and eventually the chair of the CSS working group for W3C heard about them. "He asked if I would mind if he would share it with Microsoft." Originally, Meyer's test pages and the compatibility chart he generated from them were only for Macintosh. His chart, though, caught the attention of Web Review magazine. "The publisher said, 'We like the chart, but we would like to have it across platforms and we'd like to post it on our site.' I said, 'That sounds really good,' and, 'Do you need someone to write a CSS article?'" From there, Meyer began regularly writing articles on CSS.

CSS Working Group

In 1996, while participating in W3C's CSS mailing list, Meyer made a jab at the CSS working group that led to him becoming a member: "I made a joking comment in response to someone's question on the mailing list." He concluded a post by saying, "'That's how it works now--there are rumors of change, but I can't answer the question any more completely than that because those of us who aren't members of the working group don't get to know these things.' Most of the working groups have competing vendors. The conversations are private so that the representatives can feel comfortable discussing their company's plans." The CSS working group chairman read Meyer's comment. He knew of Meyer and his abilities. "Shortly after I made that comment, the CSS working group chair got in touch with me and said, 'We have this thing called Invited Experts. How'd you like to be one?' I said, 'Sure!'"

The CSS working group meets once a quarter; meetings alternate between North America and Europe. Additionally, there is a good bit of interaction among the members by e-mail between meetings. They decide on changes and additions to CSS standards. In the early days of web browsers, competition was based proprietary standards. Thanks in part to the W3C working groups, that has changed. "At Netscape, I promote the use of W3C standards," says Meyer. He goes on to say, that "the fight over the fundamentals is over. All of the browsers are attempting to support the same core presentation options. They compete instead on user interface features, as opposed to proprietary solutions."

Articles & Books

Meyer has been a prolific writer on CSS. While working for Case, he wrote a few tutorials on web design that have been extremely popular. However, he began his writing career with Web Review magazine in October 1997 with a monthly column called A Sense of Style. He wrote two dozen articles for them and about a half dozen for O'Reilly Network. However, popularity for the topic was slow going at first: "When I first started writing articles, we were deep in the era of really bad CSS support," says Meyer. "Over time, as CSS support improved...more people picked it up." Meyer's exposure grew as a result. "The articles got me noticed by the O'Reilly folks, who gave me the chance to write my first book, which led to more books and the chance to speak at several conferences," says Meyer.

Despite the fact that Meyer's first book, CSS: The Definitive Guide, is three years old now, "it's still very relevant, probably more so than when I wrote it," Meyer points out, since CSS properties aren't usually deprecated and since browsers have finally implemented all of the CSS standards covered. It has been a consistent seller; to date over 40,000 copies have been sold. Meyer says, "It's an in-depth guide, in the sense that it provides reference information and then talks about how the pieces go together," with an inordinate number of illustrations. "The goal is to get the reader up to speed on what CSS can do, and how they can use it effectively," says Meyer. Incidentally, O'Reilly has published a pocket reference companion to the book that's also very useful.

Regarding CSS Programmer's Reference, Meyer says, "the idea was to provide a verbose, yet compact, listing of all the properties and values found in CSS2." As for the longevity of its usefulness, Meyer says, "it covers all of CSS2, which is more than any browser can say," and as such it will be quite a while before it will be obsolete.

Meyer's most recent book, Eric Meyer on CSS has a totally different approach in teaching CSS. It contains thirteen projects in which he methodically goes through designing slick web pages using just CSS and HTML. Meyer says that he tries "to show readers how to use CSS in interesting and useful ways, and thereby show them its power. A lot of readers have told me that they didn't really understand the point of CSS before reading the book, and that reading it helped them realize what it was all about, and why it's important."

Future Plans

After having done so much in the CSS world, one has to wonder where Eric Meyer will go next. As for writing he says, "My article writing has been scaled back. I've been concentrating on books and my job at Netscape. I do write articles for DevEdge, though." Regarding new interests, he says, "I've played around with XSLT a bit. The ability to take XML and translate it into other data formats is very interesting to me. I've also done some DOM scripting, and that's an area where I may do some writing in the future." Meyer says he also may start teaching: "I've been talking with a community college in my area about teaching a seminar or two, and depending on how that goes, I may try to expand that sort of activity." Meyer is also working on a second edition to The Definitive Guide. It's expected to be out by the end of 2003.

Finally, I asked Meyer if he felt that he could top what he has already done in CSS. He responded by saying, "I don't see my career as a continual climb. My goal is to make sure that whatever I produce next is useful and interesting[, that] the work is solid and readers feel they've made a wise investment of their money and time in reading what I've written."