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Spinning the Web Part 7: FrontPage, Fusion, and Final Thoughts

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Have you ever encountered a Sesame Street book about Grover? The story concerns Grover (a blue-furred monster) who doesn't want you to turn the page, because there is a "monster at the end of the book." Well, we've almost reached the end of this series, and though there's no monster, there are two programs remaining - including one of woolly mammoth proportions.

First, a correction. Gordon Meyer <grmeyer@ricochet.net>, wrote about CyberStudio (reviewed in TidBITS-387 and TidBITS-390) and noted: "Checking external links is available, and it works well. A nice feature is that when you add a new external link, CyberStudio can automatically verify it. If it's bad, you get a green bug icon in the Project window."

This article looks at Microsoft FrontPage 1.0 and NetObjects Fusion 2.0. Feature-wise, FrontPage is most appropriately compared to Adobe PageMill/SiteMill, and at its $149 list price (with a $40 rebate to owners of various Microsoft or Adobe products), it's in the same price category. Fusion (the woolly mammoth program) is more costly at $495.

<http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage/>
<http://www.netobjects.com/>

Installing FrontPage -- FrontPage is allergic to my Mac. After my first installation, I couldn't access the online help; for sites published locally, all body text was stripped out or garbage text appeared in the file; and I couldn't connect to my FTP server (this seems to be a common problem with NetPresenz, despite its position as probably the most common Macintosh FTP server).

A call to Microsoft technical support revealed that my experience is atypical and yielded a series of steps for removing and re-installing the software (about fifteen items had to be plucked from the System Folder). After re-installing, my Mac and FrontPage still have serious differences, though the problems have changed slightly. Given my deadline, I've decided to patch together a review, but I'm hobbled by FrontPage not working correctly.

Beyond my personal negative experience, FrontPage suffers two general problems that limit its utility. First, on my 604-based Power Mac 7600, it plods along, with delays bordering on the unacceptable. Microsoft's FrontPage press release says it is "optimized for" any PowerPC-based Macintosh running System 7.5.3 or later with 16 MB free RAM (but 24 recommended), 30 MB disk space, and a CD-ROM drive.

Second, for best results, a server running FrontPage server extensions must host your site. These features are much of what might make FrontPage attractive. They center around live editing like that offered by AOLpress (see TidBITS-386); flexible uploads that only upload the changed portion of a site; the ability for a group to work on a Web site, complete with permissions for different pages and a shared To Do list; and the use of some of FrontPage's WebBots (also called "bots"), which handle backend processing for features like forms as well as page elements that only appear for a scheduled time period. (Not all bots require FrontPage server extensions: important goodies like automatically generated tables of contents and includes [where repeating site elements need only be changed once instead of in multiple locations] work locally.)

Unfortunately, Microsoft has not released FrontPage server extensions for any Mac servers, and, if your ISP runs Windows or Unix boxes, you'll want to confirm that it has installed the FrontPage server extensions. I asked Microsoft to set me up with a temporary account on a server running FrontPage extensions, but they were unable to do so in time.

Exploring FrontPage -- Like Adobe's PageMill/SiteMill combo, FrontPage includes two applications: Editor and Explorer. Explorer controls sites and offers a Folder view with similar features to the site outline view in SiteMill. A Hyperlink view lets you click a file in a site outline at the left and then - at the right - see a visual representation of what files link to and from that file (though my Mac only shows links from the file as does the screenshot in the printed manual). GoLive's CyberStudio has a similar view, but in CyberStudio you can click any file showing in the visual representation to make it the focus and in this way move through a site. FrontPage can check and repair relative and external links, and its external link checker works nicely in the background.

Explorer also has a multi-file spelling checker and basic multi-file Find. (Editor has a Replace command.) Both work by running through the entire site (or portion) and then - from a list of pages with a typo or found text - let you add pages to the To Do list or correct them individually. The file-by-file technique for making corrections goes terribly slowly.

A Plain Jane Editor -- Editor most closely compares to popular visual editors such as Home Page, PageMill, and Visual Page (see TidBITS-386). However, these three programs are much more like one another than like FrontPage. FrontPage does most formatting in modal dialog boxes instead of via palettes or "Inspector" windoids. This annoyance is increased by FrontPage's tortoise-like pace. FrontPage also lacks drag & drop features: table elements can't be sized by dragging and it cannot accept files dropped in from the Finder (it can accept files from Explorer, but slowly). FrontPage lacks an internal preview, and its HTML view is the most mediocre of the lot.

Given Microsoft's years of experience with Word, I was disappointed that the Editor lacks many common keyboard shortcuts for moving the insertion point and cannot intelligently insert an extra space if you drop a word between two other words. (Visual Page and PageMill share the drag & drop problem.) On the plus side, Editor has multiple undos

Microsoft's experience with tables does come through, however. It's easy to add and delete any number of rows or columns from any portion of the table, and it takes just a flick of the wrist to select a row or column quickly. It's possible to apply text formats like strong (the Bold command automatically applies a strong HTML tag!) and cell formats (like background color) to some (but not any imaginable) contiguous groups of cells. (This key feature is available in Visual Page and to some degree in PageMill, but only slightly in CyberStudio and not at all in Home Page.) Working with tables would be nearly perfect if you could use drag & drop to size table elements and the table-related dialog boxes were modeless. FrontPage also supports image maps and frames. You add a frameset through a flexible wizard, though I can't determine if you can view pages within their frames in a frameset.

Forge Ahead with Fusion -- Like FrontPage, Fusion requires a PowerPC-based Mac. It requires at least System 7.1.2, 16 MB free RAM, 20 MB free disk space (80 MB recommended), an 8-bit color monitor with 800 by 600 pixels, and a CD-ROM drive. Fusion is also available for Windows, which shows in some interface aspects, though the program's interface is fairly unique. Of the programs I've looked at so far, with the possible exception of Frontier, Fusion was the hardest to learn.

Fusion has several modules that you switch among by way of buttons in a common toolbar. Site creation happens in Fusion's Site module. As you might expect, it has an outline view that works like those in SiteMill and FrontPage. It also offers an organization-chart like view. You use these views to create dummy pages for an entire site rapidly. There's also a separate Publish module for uploading a completed site.

The Page module has page creation features ranging from mediocre to average but for a few unique and awesome capabilities. In particular, Fusion's killer feature is its pixel-perfect layout. Using the pixel-perfect layout, you can drag page elements about to any page location, much as you would in a desktop publishing program. Oddly, you cannot drag items in from the Finder. Some designers will see pixel-perfect layout as the coolest thing since sliced bread (in flying toasters); others will find it a show-stopper, since it's not optional (as it is in CyberStudio) and it turns Web pages into masses of table tags.

The Master Border is another unique feature. When you begin a Web site, each page has one Master Border encompassing its entire outside edge. If you change anything in the border on any page, that change appears in all pages. Or, you can create a new Master Border, associate it with only some pages, and only those pages will change in tandem. You can easily insert navigation bars into Master Borders. These bars are a wonderful timesaver, but are difficult to create if links don't follow the logical hierarchy set in the Site module or make unexpected jumps within a site.

Combine Master Borders and the automatic navigation bars with the AutoFrames feature and you reach webmaster nirvana - AutoFrames instantly converts the site (or site portion) into a frameset with the central layout areas (the parts inside the borders) and the page sides (optionally) becoming separate framed pages.

Fusion lacks features for combining the efforts of multiple webmasters, but has important features like a remote link checker, a spelling checker, and extras like JavaScripts that insert buttons that highlight when a mouse waves over them.

If you must whip up a large site in just a few days and lack time to learn HTML, Fusion is worth consideration. It also looks like a good tool for quickly experimenting with site layouts (you can rapidly switch among some 50 provided site styles, modify an existing style, or create your own). I see it as a wonderful program for a design firm that must pitch mocked up sites to clients and then quickly make changes as requested.

DealBITS Discount -- Cyberian Outpost is selling FrontPage to TidBITS readers at $134.95, a $5 discount from Cyberian's regular price of $139.95, and Fusion for $469.95, an $8 discount from Cyberian's regular price of $477.95.

<http://www.tidbits.com/products/front-page.html>
<http://www.tidbits.com/products/fusion.html>

Recommendations and Favorites -- I particularly like PageSpinner, BBEdit, Visual Page, and CyberStudio. Frontier represents a key choice for those who require sophistication and flexibility, though it's worth noting that - for those with the right technical knowledge - similarly powerful systems can be set up using software like HyperCard and SuperCard. PageSpinner and Home Page stand out as winners for novices, and PageMill is looking increasingly good, particularly for those who use Adobe products or for anyone looking for site management at a low price. FrontPage is unreasonably slow, but, should a faster version come out, I'd recommend it to those who enjoy using Microsoft products. Fusion costs a bundle but serves a unique audience that - for the most part - will gladly pay for the feature set.

What to Make of It -- No one Web publishing program suits everyone. Sites like TidBITS that keep some pages around for years require radically different software from sites whose pages are discarded after a few months. Further, as sites expand, they often require automation or database interactions, and this may require that your Web publishing software be scriptable.

The best solutions often remain those cobbled together from a combination of text and visual editors, plus a few utilities and converters. I believe an opportunity exists for the first company to ship a scriptable site management program that works well with most HTML editors, only messes with text when it runs a spell check or updates links, and has oodles of carefully conceived features for uploading, downloading, multiple authors, and site synchronization.

We've seen desktop applications expand into feature-laden dinosaurs. I believe this happens because the bulk of the profits comes from site licenses made to large organizations. A large organization will often sacrifice excellence for a feature list that tries to accommodate different types of users. This encourages mediocre programs because there's no time to both make them great and add lots of features. Whether all Web publishing software will go that way remains to be seen, but the idea that one program could accommodate most sites is ridiculous. I hope the future will bring us carefully designed applications that - though they may try to solve every Web publishing problem for some market segment - will also play nicely with other programs so that we can mix and match software as needed.

 

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