iWeb was never intended to be a high-powered Web design environment. When Apple introduced iWeb as part of the iLife suite in 2006, the high-end Web-design market was already served by Adobe’s GoLive and by Dreamweaver, which Adobe bought in 2005. Adobe took GoLive out of commission in 2009; iWeb has been missing from Apple’s updates to iLife since 2011, although in characteristic fashion, Apple never announced that iWeb was discontinued, but simply stopped talking about it, presumably in the hope that nobody would notice. But many people have noticed, and iWeb’s users, in particular those users who found the combination of iWeb and Apple’s now-discontinued MobileMe platform a convenient and easy way to maintain a Web presence, are left looking for an alternative.
At its simplest, iWeb combined two elements: design and publishing. You would write and lay out pages, which were then uploaded to a Web server, something that was most easily done using the built-in support for MobileMe. Distilling matters down even further, building a Web page in iWeb involved choosing a theme, adding text and images, and possibly incorporating functionality including Google Maps or countdown timers through widgets. A replacement for iWeb, then, would need to handle these tasks, and although there are a variety of contenders to iWeb’s position, such as Karelia’s Sandvox, Softpress’s Freeway Express, Realmac Software’s RapidWeaver, and Flux from The Escapers, I have found that WordPress, although approaching the challenge from a different angle, is largely equal to the task, and offers a number of advantages to boot.
Getting Started With WordPress -- The simplest way to get started with WordPress is via a blog hosted at WordPress.com. A basic presence is free; upgraded storage and the removal of advertisements from your blog will cost extra, as will custom domains, which are surprisingly uncompetitively priced — a .com domain costs $18 per year, although, to be fair, this does include hosting of the site. Following a straightforward signup process, you’ll have a WordPress blog up and running; assuming you’ve not paid for a custom domain, your blog’s URL will be [blogname].wordpress.com. After configuring a few settings, you’ll make your way to the blog’s dashboard, and here you’ll see the main difference between WordPress and iWeb.
In WordPress, content is kept separate from design. You enter text in an edit region in the blog’s dashboard; you can add media such as photos and video in the same way. The dashboard allows a certain degree of styling, but only to the extent that the styling applied conforms to HTML and CSS standards — italicising text, for example, in fact adds an
em tag to the underlying HTML code, while bolding text, in reality, adds a
strong tag; how those styles end up appearing depends upon the site’s CSS styles.
The content of the site’s pages and blog posts is then stored in a MySQL database, and is accessed through PHP code embedded in the HTML code that makes up a WordPress theme, about which more shortly. The underlying behaviour of the PHP code is beyond the scope of this article, but it is worth mentioning in terms of the difference between pages and posts. A typical blog, such as my Moving To New Zealand blog, is simply made up of a series of blog posts; WordPress displays them in chronological order, with the most recent appearing at the top of the list. Each post includes the usual metadata suspects, such as tags, categories and author, and commenting can be enabled.
Pages are a special case of posts. Designed to be viewed individually rather than as part of a list, as are posts, pages lack the metadata of posts but support templates, if the site’s active theme includes multiple templates. While posts are more likely to be used for blog updates, pages are ideal for static content — if it would work well on a static HTML page, then a WordPress page would make a good replacement.
Hosting Your Own -- Given the popularity of WordPress — it has grown from a simple blogging tool into a full-blown content management system used by, for example, the Web sites for The University of Arkansas at Little Rock, Tom Jones, and Benchmark Capital — it is now supported by many popular Web-hosting services. Typically, services that use the cPanel hosting control panel system allow automated installations of WordPress through the Fantastico scripting suite; manual installation is also possible, but does require direct access to MySQL databases on the server, and, while entirely doable, might be intimidating.
A self-hosted WordPress installation, as opposed to a blog hosted at WordPress.com, has a number of advantages that make it a more viable alternative to iWeb. The first, and most obvious, bonus is cost — as an open-source project, WordPress is free to download and install. Once installed, it operates in almost exactly the same way as its WordPress.com counterpart. A small number of features, such as Writing Helper, are missing; otherwise, the user experience is the same.
A second, and more substantial, benefit is extensibility, and here is where WordPress begins to flex its muscles. Just as is the case with WordPress.com-hosted blogs, a self-hosted WordPress site’s appearance is managed via themes — packages of HTML pages that reside on the server and which talk to the site’s underlying MySQL database and generate the code for the page that eventually shows up in a browser window. New themes can be browsed, previewed and even installed from the dashboard, and options, if the theme’s developer has enabled any, can be changed. A self-hosted WordPress site also offers the possibility of developing custom themes, which can then be uploaded via FTP to the appropriate directory of the site’s server.
In addition to themes, a WordPress site can also be extended quite extensively using plug-ins, which can add the functionality of an iWeb site’s widgets, and much more. For example, my tech blog uses WP-Polls to generate the quiz in the right-hand sidebar, while star ratings for my reviews appear courtesy of Star Rating for Reviews.
Plug-ins and themes are generally available free of charge, since the developers of WordPress take a strict reading of the GNU Public License and consider plug-ins and themes to be derivative works covered by the same license as the basic WordPress install.
Unfortunately, quality control is inconsistent. Some themes, such as Mandigo, have an almost bewildering array of options; others, including the Desk Mess theme I use for Steve’s Tech Blog, offer no customisation options at all. Plus, this combination of ready availability and varying quality can make it difficult to find what you need. I’ve spent many afternoons auditioning plug-ins, trying to find the ideal product to provide the functionality I need. For instance, there are many calendar and event-manager plug-ins, but some don’t offer reservations, while others can’t handle recurring events. Similarly, I have spent many long hours ripping out what little of my hair remains trying to find a reliable lightbox plug-in. A wander through the WordPress plug-ins directory gives a sense of the range of plug-ins available; certainly the functionality provided by iWeb’s widgets is more than covered.
WordPress for Content Management -- As I mentioned earlier, WordPress is found behind a large and growing number of sites, thanks to its strengths as a content-management system. Key to this growth is its capability to assign roles to users.
On initial setup, WordPress requires that you set up an admin account. The admin user can then establish further accounts, with different roles — editor, author and so forth — having varying levels of access. An admin user, for example, can edit other users’ posts, but a contributor cannot. Plug-ins can further regulate the behaviour of different users, providing greater granularity to specific permissions, or adding new roles with new privilege sets.
This capability is key for a larger site with multiple users, though perhaps of less relevance to someone bent on replacing the single-user iWeb. Certainly, anyone who has tried to enable multiple users to work on an iWeb-based site will appreciate WordPress’s multi-user features.
Working without the Web -- Remember how I said that WordPress separates content from design? The WordPress dashboard is intended to be the primary editing environment for a WordPress site, but other tools are available, enabling you to post from within a standalone Mac app rather than through a Web page.
Red Sweater Software’s $39.99 MarsEdit stands out for its capability to send both pages and posts to a WordPress site, and it even enables offline work for times when an Internet connection isn’t available. Conversely, myWPEdit costs only $9.99, but you can’t write and edit posts offline. MarsEdit also works with Tumblr and other popular Web-based services, while myWPEdit is a WordPress-only solution.
An official WordPress for iOS app is also available, but it’s not something that I find terribly useful. While the ability to update a blog from my iPhone is a convenience, writing more than a sentence or two on the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard is painful at best. More useful is its capability to post photos and videos directly from the iPhone; if you do a lot of photo- or video-only posts, or want to moderate, edit, and reply to comments while you’re out and about, give the free WordPress for iOS app a look.
Maintaining a WordPress Site -- One of the biggest potential drawbacks to a WordPress site, unless you host it on your own in-house hardware, is the inherent vulnerability of remote data. I have no doubt that, this being TidBITS, everyone reading this article religiously backs up their data to multiple locations across the hemispheres and time zones, but such a backup scheme is difficult to set up in WordPress. You can easily back up a self-hosted site’s themes and plug-ins from the site’s server, but the database that contains the site’s content is less easily backed up. WordPress includes an export function that can be used as a rudimentary backup, but it contains data only from the core WordPress functions, such as pages, posts and user data; any information used for plug-ins, such as events in an events manager, or any theme settings, will not be exported. Plug-ins to add this functionality are available, but re-read my earlier comments regarding the reliability of plug-ins at this point.
Early in my WordPress career, I made the classic beginner mistake of granting a client full and unfettered access to the backend of a site I had built. The very next morning, he called me in a panic to complain that, instead of a beautiful and functional site, all he could see on his screen were the words “Unable to establish database connection” in large, bold letters. I couldn’t prove, despite strong suspicions, that his nephew — “He knows all about computers; he’ll be helping me run the site” should have rung warning bells a lot earlier — had broken the site, but broken it remained. Fortunately, before I turned the site over to the client, I had backed up the site’s MySQL database so reinstalling it was more a chore than a catastrophe. Most hosting services that use cPanel will include MySQL tools such as phpMyAdmin; anyone planning to use WordPress to any great extent would be well advised to become familiar with them, at least to the extent that they can pull a compromised WordPress user’s intimate parts out of the fire in the event of a server glitch.
Making the Move -- If you’re still reading, you are likely seriously considering adopting WordPress as an alternative to the iWeb/MobileMe combo. The good news is that making the move need not be difficult. Maciverse has clear instructions on both installing WordPress and also extracting data from an iWeb file and importing it into WordPress.
With MobileMe no longer an option for easy Web publishing, many Mac users will find themselves with orphaned content in need of hosting. While it might involve learning a new way of doing things, WordPress offers a flexible, extensible, and easy-to-use platform. At the very least, it never gave Steve Jobs apoplexy.
[Steve McCabe is a British-born Mac consultant, tech writer, and teacher who now, for reasons that have but the most tangential connection to technology, lives in New Zealand. He writes about his adventures in New Zealand and blogs about tech. Steve’s first novel, “Crash Landing,” based loosely on his experiences learning to fly — when he’s not teaching or computing, Steve is also a multi-engine instrument-rated commercial pilot — is now available in paperback.]