Saying Goodbye To The HTML Blink Tag

The latest version of Firefox has deprecated old markup that once powered the famous flashing "UNDER CONSTRUCTION" banner you'd see on everyone's website. Is this a milestone for the web?

This text is not blinking. Neither is this, or this. Those words are rendered on your screen in straightforward text with standard HTML embellishments like underline, bold, and italic. Once it was possible to make text on a website flash like the merriest of fairy lights (okay, like a simple binary on-off digital text string) but it looks like that effect is going away because the latest version of Firefox has done away with the simple "blink" tag. This is more interesting than you think.

The accompanying release notes for Firefox 23.0 from Mozilla include the following line:

Dropped blink effect from text-decoration: blink; and completely removed element.

"Blink" is credited to web browser programmer Lou Montulli, who's partly responsible for 1991's text-centric browser Lynx, which was one of the earliest browsers ever. Mountulli explains on his own blog that the idea came from an unlikely evening in a Mountain View bar that had, among other things, a 30-foot Wonder Woman statue inside. Chatting with fellow engineers about the future of the web and the HTML format, Montulli said he was sad Lynx wouldn't be able to display many of the more advanced ideas they'd had; it could barely manage a simple effect like, say, blinking text. This led to a lot of laughs, and the evening unfolded normally. Then:

Saturday morning rolled around and I headed into the office only to find what else but, blinking text. It was on the screen blinking in all its glory, and in the browser. How could this be, you might ask? It turns out that one of the engineers liked my idea so much that he left the bar sometime past midnight, returned to the office and implemented the blink tag overnight. He was still there in the morning and quite proud of it.

Blinking text was something that was common on the early web, along with the all-too-popular "This site is under construction" sign, written in large text or embedded as a graphic in a form of excuse for the incomplete and perhaps even broken functionality on the rest of the page. Blinking text was neat, it was visually arresting--a way of drawing a reader's eye to something important: "Read this bit!" it seemed to say. It was fun.

But "blink" never became a standardized HTML tag, and instead it remained a proprietary tag in Netscape that was copied in some other browsers. It was actually reviled by many, particularly those concerned with the accessibility features of the web due to the fact it made it hard to read text. There were even concerns that the tag could be a trigger for website visitors who had photosensitive epilepsy. Montulli himself eventually came to say the blink tag was "the worst thing I've ever done for the Internet."

Internet Explorer doesn't support the tag, nor does Apple's Safari owing to the design of its WebKit core. The removal of support for it inside Firefox--a browser born from the ashes of Netscape Navigator itself--seems to indicate the final demise of HTML blinking. You can, of course, achieve the same effect with a handful of lines of JavaScript. But you probably won't.

Sad though you may be to see it go, the demise of "blink" is actually a good sign. In much the same way that the early text web gave way to the graphically intensive web and now the interactive web, and the way that you no longer see "This site is under construction" signs too often, the end of blink could be seen as a sign that the web really has grown up from its juvenile youth. Blink is an enemy of good, friendly website design. It behaved unpredictably and it's non-standard HTML. Considering the importance of being able to view online data in a variety of browsers on the desktop or on your smartphone, and the critical value of the Net to people's lives and commerce around the world, the end of non-standard elements like this may be a good thing. Now we only hope we can get rid of that damn Microsoft "marquee" tag.

Just don't anybody think of taking away our beloved ani-GIFs.

[Image: Flickr user Graeme Paterson]