Re: Questionable implementation of IMG ALT attribute as tooltips

Green J M K (
Fri, 23 Jan 1998 13:06:02 +0000 (GMT)

Date: Fri, 23 Jan 1998 13:06:02 +0000 (GMT)
From: Green J M K <>
To: Jukka Korpela <>
In-Reply-To: <>
Message-Id: <>
Subject: Re: Questionable implementation of IMG ALT attribute as tooltips

On Fri, 23 Jan 1998, Jukka Korpela wrote:

> On Thu, 22 Jan 1998, James Green wrote:
> >  *Incorrect usage*:
> >    ALT="There would normally be a picture here..."
> >  *Correct usage*:
> >    ALT="Pic: Abraham Lincoln"
> > (IMO)
> Since people who _have_ read the specifications (I assume most people
> on the list have) have so different interpretations and applications
> of the use of ALT, no wonder authors in general are confused.
> See <URL:>.
> Is ALT="Pic: Abraham Lincoln" really correct? In which sense does
> the text there act as a _replacement_ for the image? Sometimes,

A replacement for the image is only required (IMHO) when the picture 
gives critical or at least useful information.

> as the last resort, one might write an ALT text which really is
> just a description of an image, but I'd recommend using the style
> ALT="[Picture of Abraham Lincoln]". But it really says roughly
> "sorry I tried to write a replacement text but couldn't".

Where in the heck do you get that impression?

> For instance, consider a biography of Lincoln. The role of a picture
> might be just decorative, or orientative; it's sort of normal to
> put a picture into a biography. In such a case, using ALT="" is best,

Try using a browser that has images switched off. Seeing "" might just 
raise curiosity.

> On the other hand, if it's a picture of Lincoln in some particular
> situation, carrying a specific _message_, then one should try to
> put the message into the ALT text. Perhaps it's a very awkward attempt
> to describe a good picture in just a few words, but it might be better
> than nothing; after all, it is _intended_ for situations where the
> picture is not displayed _at all_. And to take a last example, assume
> that one has an index page through which one can access biographies
> of famous men, such as <URL:
> john_remsburg/six_historic_americans/>. _If_ one decided to use
> _pictures_ on such an index page, then if pictures _only_ are used,
> ALT="Abraham Lincoln" would be correct. (Naturally, just the name,
> with no reference to something being an image.) In the probably
> more sensible choice of putting pictures there _alongside with names_,
> we are back in the case where ALT="" would be appropriate.

Actually, while researching for sites to be listed in a forthcoming 
educational directory last evening, I came across a page which had all 
graphics for the index, with images of text describing the contents. When 
loading, it showed the alt text which was exactly the same wording as the 
text in the image, which was helpful and indeed effective.

This raises the matter of position on ALT when the picture is a link. 
Under which circumstances I believe either that you extend the ALT 
contents to include brief details of the link's contents, e.g. ALT="To 
main page", or better still to include a normal text line/link adjacent 
to the picture (like under it).

> > An early (June 1993) draft 
for HTML, > <URL:>
> described ALT as follows:
>   ALT                    Optional alternative text as an alternative
>                          to the graphics for display in text-only
>                          environments.                         
> On the other hand, it gave the following example (typos corrected here):
>         Warning: <IMG SRC ="triangle.gif" ALT="Warning:"> This must be
>         done by a qualified technician.
> which suggests to me that they didn't really _mean_ what they wrote.

Seems perfectly obvious to me. Maybe I'm picking up the W3C 
interpretations better than some :-)

> But the description itself in that early working draft looks much
> clearer to me than e.g. HTML 4.0 wording which says "short description"
> in one place and "alternate" in another and tells us that the ALT text
> is to be used "For user agents that cannot display images, forms,
> or applets". (Notice the use of "cannot" instead of "do not".)

It's what you make of the interpretations that count. If you use sensible 
ALT text that takes account of both the image size and 
importance/purpose, I see no problems. If you get any problems with it, 
mount your page, and I'll take a look, see if I can suggest anything.

> The obvious way of solving the identity crisis of ALT is to use
> it for replacements _only_ and start using TITLE for a tooltip-like text
> when appropriate. (Actually we might also need a way of giving
> _technical_ information such as "200K GIF" separately but for the time
> being we have to append that to the TITLE information.)

Which does not help thingy who brought up the question in the first 
place. I know what you're getting at, but future implementations would 
need to be carefully considered. They may (heaven forbid) come a time 
when browsers do not ask you if t=you want to see images, they merely 
display them anyway; under which circumstance anyt further 'doing' of the 
implementation would be pointless, because the older browsers wouldn't 
understand the new attributes.

This may be a way off, but I think a general consensus on what should 
form the ALT and TITLE attributes would be best.

> This would require some textual clarifications to HTML specifications...


Provided they don't change what is required by the browsers. Remember, as 
newer browsers implement newer HTML, invariably they tend to get bigger 
and buggier. There are still some who use Netscape 2, many using Netscape 
3, a large number using IE 3, and, those who have the hardware, some are 
using IE 4 (fewer using NN 4?). As newer specifications come out, it 
becomes harder to get more of the world using them. I believe that wee 
need to enhance our *usage* of the current HTML standards before we 
decide on what is going to be in HTML 4.x/5.0.

> but am I correct in assuming that there is actually no work in progress
> to create a new HTML spec? When HTML 3.2 was approved, there was
> information around about Cougar being developed and a couple of working
> drafts on various special topics. But now the W3C activity page
> <URL:> seems to be just saying
> how good HTML 4.0 is, with some statements about "what we are doing"
> (with no links!), the texts of which presumable predate the approval
> of the HTML 4.0 specification.

From what has been said before, a meeting will take place in May(?) about it.

> What I'm asking is whether it makes sense to suggest or discuss
> the development of the HTML language, now that almost everyone seems
> to believe that XML+CSS is the solution.

I've grasped the basics of what I need out of CSS, I know nothing of XML 
though. I just don't need it, no-one is using XML that I know of. Some 
sites (including my site) are 
using CSS, but we are having to cater for non-CSS browsers too.