Question: What are web page frames?

Answer: The use of frames is a relatively new web page programming feature that allows a viewer's screen to be divided into two or more simultaneously viewed web pages. Each web page displayed on the screen has full web page functionality, including the ability to hyperlink to other pages. If a hyperlink to another web page is executed from a framed web page, the new page can be loaded into the same framed area of the screen or in one of the other framed areas. This option of changing one section of the screen by executing a hyperlink in another section of the screen can be very useful for indices and other navigational tools. A frame may also be used to position a static web page configured without hyperlinks. Such a configuration is sometimes used for logos or advertisements that remain in position notwithstanding changes to other sections of the screen.

The display of frames when using Netscape Navigator browser software, version 2.0 or higher (thus far, the only final release browser software capable of viewing frames), includes borders between the frames which create the appearance of distinct sections of the screen. These borders can be configured to allow each frame to be resized (by dragging the border of the frame with the mouse cursor) or to allow vertical or horizontal scrolling of a web page that is larger than the frame display area. The current beta version of the new Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0 browser software goes one step further and allows frames to be viewed without borders. This can create seamless positioning of multiple web pages on the screen at the same time. The look is very clean, and can even lead a user to believe that they are looking at only one web page.

The ability of frames to present a seamless or near-seamless compilation of web pages, however, is not without a potential danger. If any of the individual web pages included in a set of framed web pages were to include a hyperlink to a third party's web page, the combination of pages displayed from time to time could present an unintended result. For example, if a framed web page with an athletic shoe manufacturer's logo across the top of the screen had hyperlinks to a third party's web page, the framed web page could potentially display an unaffiliated sports web page with photographs of famous sports figures who are sponsored by competing shoe manufacturers across the bottom of the screen. Such a page could prompt complaints from the shoe manufacturers, the sports web page owner, the pictured athletes or, perhaps, consumers.

An additional complication may arise because the display area for a web page in a frame is smaller than a standard full page display. As a result, the framed web page may not display all of its information. For example, a disclaimer or an advertisement located near the bottom of a web page may be missing when the web page is viewed in a frame. A web page developer's complex and careful positioning of graphics and text within the confines of a single page display may lose its effectiveness when viewed in an area that is 70% of that size.

Unlike a standard web page hyperlink, in which the primary web page is completely removed from the user's screen prior to the display of the hyperlinked web page, the use of frames can cause a third party's web page to display simultaneously with other pages, arguably creating a derivative work from the third party's web page. Particular combinations of web pages also could create the false impression of an affiliation, endorsement or sponsorship.

The situations mentioned above are only likely to occur in the event that a framed web page includes an "external" hyperlink to a third party's web page. The contents of a third party's web page, including its hyperlinks, are subject to change at any time without notice; thus, the potential combinations of pages that may be displayed in a framed web page with an external hyperlink cannot be controlled or predicted.

Frames are a very useful tool and can fill many important roles in web page development. The use of frames may be one of the easiest ways to create a simple, clean approach to navigating through a complex web site. Nonetheless, when creating a web page using frames caution should be exercised to avoid creating external hyperlinks.

Jim Black can be reached at

© James R. Black 1997
applet by New Media Marketing Lab at Sun Microsystems, Inc.