Fixing Dreamweaver encoding

UTF-8 vs. ISO 8859-1

If you are a standards compliant, accessibility minded web developer, then one of your main priorities is making sure that your pages work with the widest variety of browsers and operating systems. You care about this, because you want to communicate to the widest possible audience.

If you are anything like me, you own a variety of Macromedia software products, including Studio MX or version 8. Something that has always bothered me about Dreamweaver, which is one of the reasons I rarely use it for hand-coding, is that it is very Western, particularly American - centric.

What I am referring to of course is the encoding that is selected by default. When you fire up Dreamweaver, and select a new XHTML page, it starts you out with a default document template, including this line of code for content-type in the head:

<meta http-equiv="Content-Type" content="text/html; charset=iso-8859-1" />

In short, technically that line should read like this:

<meta http-equiv="content-type" content="application/xhtml+xml; charset=utf-8" />

For purposes of this article, let's lay aside the argument of text/html verses application/xhtml+xml for usage in XHTML documents. There is enough argument on either side that I don't want to get into that now. I will simply attempt to explain and persuade you why the content-type is a necessary change. First of all, if you go to Wikipedia and read their article on ISO 8859-1, you will see:

In June 2004, the ISO/IEC working group responsible for maintaining eight-bit coded character sets disbanded and ceased all maintenance of ISO 8859, including ISO 8859-1, in order to concentrate on the Universal Character Set and Unicode.

Now, I don't know about you, but if an auto manufacturer did a recall on a car I drive, I would quit driving that thing and get the newer model. This is analygous to what has been done with ISO 8859-1, in favor of Unicode. The most common and universally compatible form of Unicode is UTF-8, which stands for: 8-bit Unicode Transformation Format.

Without going overboard with geeky details, suffice it to say that Unicode is the preferred standard by which to encode accessible websites. In fact, if you fail to specify a Content-Type in your web pages, the W3C validator will use UTF-8 as the fallback, not ISO 8859-1. Again, quoting Wikipedia:

In computing applications, encodings that provide full UCS support (such as UTF-8 and UTF-16) are finding increasing favor over encodings based on ISO 8859-1.

Big Deal?

I know you're probably thinking, "Well, my pages display correctly, so who cares?" To some extent, that's true. If your target audience is located in the United States, and you don't do much business outside of that country, then you're probably fine. However, one of the bigger drawbacks cited with ISO 8859-1 is the lack of the Euro character: €. Imagine trying to do an e-commerce site in the UK without that character. That would be like having all prices lack the dollar sign $ in the United States.

This is one of many examples, in which countries and languages are alienated by our (lack of) choices made regarding content-type encoding. I think that this sort of explains my feelings on foreign web developers as opposed to American ones. We as US citizens tend to be comfortable and self-satisfied.

To us, America = the world. I would use this analogy: We have the baseball World Series but we really only include one other country: Canada. Whereas, other countries tend to be a bit more adaptive, and realize the need for more open communication. Think of how many countries love soccer!

So, if I you take away anything from this article, let is be this: You need to start encoding your pages in an accessible manner. It's called Unicode for a good reason: "Universal Code" UTF-8 is more accessible than the more specifically outdated ISO 8859-1. So, next time you decide to fire up Dreamweaver to make a web page, be sure to change that one line of code in your head as a common courtesy to our world-neighbors. It will also help you look less like a WYSIWYG newbie.

Note: For more in-depth info, go here: