Watching the Web authoring field change is like watching a volcano-studded island. Sure, you get a few months of calm, but then a spurt of new product releases wreaks havoc on the landscape. TidBITS hasn't reviewed many Web authoring programs lately, and it's time to correct that lapse. In this multi-part series, I plan to discuss much of the Web authoring software that has come out recently, with a focus on products that I think are most notable.
Choose Your Poison -- In choosing software for making Web pages, you generally trade easy layout for precise control, and most products fit neatly in a range between those two ideals. When choosing software, it's important to match your requirements to that range.
Our Web site is a great example of one that leans toward precise control. Because our pages stick around for so long, we avoid newfangled techniques that look great in modern browsers but have a greater potential to break in the future. A Web authoring tool that creates HTML behind the scenes make us nervous, because we can't control what it's doing. Also, in our seven-year history, we've undergone two major conversions of back issues: HyperCard to setext, and then setext to HTML. This has taught us the value of uniform formatting - it's easier to run macros on uniformly formatted documents. We also don't have bosses breathing down our necks, so our site can evolve slowly.
In contrast, webmasters creating sites that must go up overnight or that will have short lives have neither time nor incentive to worry about perfect, uniform HTML. These people require quick, easy layout.
For instance, programs like NetObjects Fusion offers easy layout - page layout always occurs on a grid, and you can drag page elements to any location. The grid converts to an HTML table behind the scenes. You cannot edit HTML within Fusion, and you would not wish to - the table tags are extremely complex. (Although Fusion 2.0 ships with the free BBEdit Lite, BBEdit Lite is for use with "external pages," which cannot be edited in Fusion.) However, Fusion makes it easy to prototype and assemble a site rapidly.
Next come tools like Adobe PageMill. PageMill expects you to work in a view that works like a word processor - you can't drag stuff around willy-nilly as you can in Fusion. There is an HTML view for editing HTML directly, but you get the impression Adobe doesn't understand why you'd want to. The HTML from the likes of PageMill is usually human readable, though it tends to lack the uniformity required for automation.
Finally, the spectrum ends with HTML editors like PageSpinner, where you work with HTML directly and see the visual results secondarily in a Web browser. Such an application makes it easy to create uniform, precise HTML, but you may have trouble visualizing what you are doing, and experimenting with layouts will be time consuming.
A program that spans the divide between easy layout and precise control is GoLive's CyberStudio Pro. CyberStudio Pro gives you an optional grid for drag-it-anywhere layouts, and it also provides quick access to the underlying HTML of any page.
Of course, there are other criteria for choosing Web authoring software, like whether you want to learn HTML, whether you tend to include a lot of plug-ins, whether you require site management features, and so on. Whatever your requirements, the rest of this installment will fill you in on PageSpinner 2.0.1 from Optima Systems and glance at cascading style sheets, a cool HTML specification.
A Great Value -- At $25, PageSpinner represents one of the best shareware values I've seen. At first glance, PageSpinner is deceptively simple. After launching, it displays a new document, populated by the HTML skeleton of a Web page. A simple toolbar holds basic options for tagging for the likes of bold text and horizontal rules, and a quick tour of the menus shows commands for styling text, setting up a table, and so on. A new user might read the fairly good Apple Guide-based description of how HTML works, and then plunge in using these immediately obvious options. Alert users will quickly identify modern features like an FTP upload (via a link to Fetch or Anarchie, though no download or integrated on-server editing), forms, and frames.
Options Galore -- PageSpinner's preferences offer a startling level of flexibility. For instance, if you don't want to see a new document when you start up, you can instead show an Open dialog, show a New dialog (which has extensive page setup features), or do nothing. Another notable setting is whether the bold and italic toolbar buttons set bold and italic tags, or strong and emphasis tags. In PageSpinner you can set whether Return or Command-Return automatically inserts a paragraph tag (you can use paragraph end-tags also, if you like). PageSpinner also has sensible keyboard shortcuts for inserting line breaks and horizontal rules.
Those who frequently work with upper-ASCII characters will love how PageSpinner treats these characters. One option keeps them in the document as they are typed on the Mac. Another converts them to the ISO 8859-1 character set, often used internationally. Save a file in either of these two formats, and the characters will look the same after the save. Finally, upper-ASCII characters can be converted to HTML entities, which, though correct, are awkward to read within an HTML document.
Another option that speaks to PageSpinner's flexibility is the User Tags feature, which enables users to create up to 18 tags of their own.
Just Kitting -- What makes PageSpinner a great value isn't its basic feature set, or even its flexibility. PageSpinner is less a program and more an HTML Assembly Kit - much like a Young Scientists' Chemistry Kit, with helpful instructions and easy projects for creating your very own quivering goo. It also has advanced projects, and those require exploration to find.
PageSpinner uses extensions (these work like plug-in modules, not system extensions) to add new features, and those who want to venture past the basic feature set will note an extension (plus help) for creating cascading style sheets (technically known as Cascading Style Sheets, Level 1, or CSS1). In its full implementation, CSS1 can flexibly specify fonts, sizes, position, blank space, colors, and more. Most measurements can be set specifically or generally (for instance, a font size could be 18 point or "extra large"). CSS1 is partially supported by Microsoft Internet Explorer and - in theory - will be robustly supported in Internet Explorer 4 and Netscape Communicator 4.
Style sheets have two compelling features. First, they work much like style sheets in a word processor - to change the look of every heading in a document, you change it once in the style sheet, not 50 times in the document. Style sheets can apply to a page section, an entire page, or even an entire site. Second, they separate structure from style, so pages can have simple HTML but still display in visually oriented glory in CSS1-savvy browsers (and, yes, at least in current examples and the spec, you can turn off style sheets in CSS1-savvy browsers, if you wish).
PageSpinner unfolds further if you examine the files that come with it. I found directions for setting up "include" files (these are not server-side includes). An include file acts as a container for information referenced from within an HTML file. For example, if a group of Web pages all end with the same content, you could put that content in an include file. Then, on the Web pages, you'd simply add a pointer to the include file. Should you wish to change the content, you change only the include file and then update the entire group of pages, a much faster process than modifying each page by hand. Includes can also quickly update the time or date.
Team Player -- As icing on the cake of PageSpinner's you-can-do-it attitude, PageSpinner is a team player. For example, PageSpinner doesn't come with a spelling checker, but you can link its Check Spelling command to any clipboard-based spelling checker. More impressively, PageSpinner comes with a hierarchical Web Tools menu, loaded with commands that you configure to match popular non-commercial utilities that ably supplement PageSpinner's feature set.
But What About...? PageSpinner has a few problems that need fixing: drag & drop for words isn't smart about inserting an extra space to accommodate a dropped-in word, the Find and Replace feature can't search on "whole word only," (so a search for "test" also finds "testing"), and there are a few references to an Alt key in the dialog boxes. Perhaps my main criticism of PageSpinner is that its documentation is scattered among numerous documents - there's no uniform way to access the information.
In terms of price, PageSpinner's closest competitor is the shareware HTML Web Weaver Lite, from Miracle Software, which costs $25 ($15 educational). HTML Web Weaver Lite feels rougher than PageSpinner in overall use and lacks key features like tables, frames, and forms. You might also compare PageSpinner to the freeware BBEdit Lite 4.0.1 from Bare Bones Software, which - when supplemented with appropriate BBEdit extensions - is a serviceable HTML editor with a price that can't be beat.
Feature-wise, PageSpinner compares most directly to BBEdit 4.0.4 and Miracle Software's commercial World Wide Web Weaver 2.1 (W4). Next week, we'll check out W4 in more detail (especially its cool auto-preview feature) and note some of BBEdit's key HTML features. (For a full review of BBEdit, see TidBITS-365.)