Last week, in TidBITS-384, I wrote about PageSpinner, a $25 shareware HTML editor from Optima Systems. I portrayed PageSpinner as offering a robust range of tagging options in an uncommonly open, helpful setting. This week, I'll round out my discussion by comparing it to not only World Wide Web Weaver and BBEdit as promised, but also to Alpha.
W4 -- World Wide Web Weaver 2.1, also known as W4, comes from Miracle Software and costs between $39 and $89 depending on how you buy it. It requires a 68020-based Mac, System 7.0, and 5.5 MB application RAM (8 MB recommended). In contrast, PageSpinner wants a 68020-based Mac, System 7.0.1, a grayscale monitor, and 2-4 MB application RAM. W4 has matured past its shareware origins, but lacks the polish I expect in a top-notch commercial product. Even so, if PageSpinner's roll-your-own attitude feels overwhelming, W4 may fit the bill.
W4 doesn't have the range of esoteric tags found in PageSpinner, but it includes all the basics, plus frames, forms, and tables. W4 comes with a built-in spelling checker and an HTML validation checker, features that PageSpinner users must add by downloading and configuring additional software. Although PageSpinner takes the prize for flexibility in configuration, W4 is not entirely rigid. For instance, it lets you add new tags to the interface, and you can freely configure the style of tags and text as they appear in a W4 document.
An HTML document in W4 looks much like a document in any text-based editor, but a few of W4's dialog boxes take a visual approach. For example, W4 contains a visual image map editor, where you indicate which areas of a graphic should act as buttons linking to other parts of the Internet. The editor lacks the bells and whistles (such as a zoom) in visually oriented HTML editors like Adobe PageMill, but gets the job done. By comparison, PageSpinner expects you to set up image maps elsewhere.
More differences between the programs appear when comparing their Table features. When you set up a new table in W4's Table Editor, you see a rough mock-up of the table. From the mock-up, you can select any cell and then add text or apply cell-based formats (like background color). The formats won't show in the mock-up, but the text will. After exiting the Table Editor, you can modify the table by hand or select the entire table, choose the Re-Edit Tag command, and you'll be back in the Table Editor with the mock-up intact and ready for modification.
In contrast, making a table in PageSpinner is a one-time, text-only affair. You select or import tab-delimited text and then use the HTML Assistant to apply table tags to it quickly (though you cannot format individual cells in HTML Assistant). You can also insert table-related tags one by one. There's no Re-Edit Tag option, so changes take more time to implement.
W4's Re-Edit Tag feature also comes in handy when working with lists - lists can be re-edited and thus quickly converted between various types, and there's even a sorting feature inside the List Editor.
W4 has one hot feature that you won't find elsewhere - an auto-preview. When working in W4, I keep a Netscape Navigator/Communicator window open, and anything I do in W4 shows in the browser window a second or two later. What's so important about this feature is that I need not do anything to see the preview; most programs make you at least press a keyboard shortcut. This feature only works with Navigator/Communicator, and it worked fine for me in Navigator 3.01 and Communicator 4.0 PR 5.
In summary, W4 is a capable, text-based HTML editor. It lacks high-end features found in BBEdit and Alpha, but represents a finite environment worth considering for new computer users and those who occasionally work with HTML. Given its price and competition, W4 is in a tight spot - it just doesn't have the features to make it compelling to a large audience. W4's ace in the hole, however, may be its special relationship with Site Weaver, a site management tool from Miracle Software. I plan to look at Site Weaver later in this article series.
If PageSpinner's high-end features like scriptability and includes attract you, check out BBEdit and Alpha, two mature text editors that have HTML features.
BBEdit -- BBEdit, from Bare Bones Software, became a popular HTML editing tool before it had HTML features, in part because it is an excellent text editor, and in part because Carles Bellver and Lindsay Davies both released reasonably complete sets of BBEdit extensions for HTML (these extensions extend BBEdit only, and are not system extensions). Carles is no longer updating his extensions, though they are still available, but Lindsay's BBEdit HTML Tools now ship with BBEdit, and Bare Bones Software has added HTML features like an HTML-savvy spelling checker, an FTP feature that can open from and save directly to a remote server, and tag-styling options so tags look different from body text.
To apply HTML to text in BBEdit, you use a long drop down menu, keyboard shortcuts, or a palette. Using the triangle menu at the palette's upper left, you can adjust its size and set what commands appear on it. The palette would benefit from additional customization, especially the ability to add colors or graphics, since it's hard to pick out the right command quickly among the many black-text-on-gray buttons. BBEdit offers a reasonable amount of flexibility for customizing the interface, tag appearance, and so on, but is not as flexible as PageSpinner. (For example, PageSpinner can lock tags so others can edit a document without accidently changing the tags.)
BBEdit HTML Tools enables users to create not only new tags, but also macros that automate applying tag sequences. For instance, one of my macros places selected text inside an anchor tag, and fills in the anchor tag's URL from the clipboard.
What's compelling about BBEdit is the mix of a professional, serviceable interface with raw power. One key feature, grep-based, multi-file Find and Replace, enables sophisticated searches that leave PageSpinner gasping in the dust. Another major feature is synergy with UserLand Frontier's Web publishing options.
As I explained last week, PageSpinner has includes, and it is possible to update the date and time when updating includes. BBEdit HTML Tools one-ups PageSpinner with a handier way to update includes (just click a button), plus more options for updating the date, time, and other bits of information. You can also employ "variables" that let individual documents dictate how information flows in from an include (for instance, an include might contain a tag for a graphic, but the variable on the page would specify the graphic's location).
With its mix of high-end features, HTML-specific features, and simple system requirements (a Mac Plus or better, 1 MB RAM, and System 7.0), it's not surprising that BBEdit has become a mainstream HTML editor for professionals and even some hobbyists. BBEdit costs $119 ($79 crossgrade). To learn more about BBEdit, see the review in TidBITS-365.
Alpha -- A few readers wrote in last week to note that I should look at Alpha 6.5.2, a $30 shareware program by Pete Keleher. In particular, Chris Ruebeck <firstname.lastname@example.org> commented:
"A BBEdit-like program is Alpha, used by many programmers and TeX/LaTeX writers. It has an HTML mode in addition to the various programming languages and environments. What's nice about Alpha is that the pull-down menus function much like an assistant by pasting in templates, although not with the context-help that PageSpinner provides. But there is a good set of HTML documentation. Alpha integrates well into the Web environment, too, with Web links in its Help pages, and drag & drop editing."
Previously, I'd thought that Alpha was too much of a programmers' text editor for the likes of me, but I decided it wouldn't hurt to try it. After being initially flummoxed by the fact that the HTML commands don't show unless you are in HTML mode, I discovered a capable, likeable HTML editing environment. The HTML commands in Alpha (which can convert into a palette) come courtesy of an Alpha extension called HTML mode, which is postcardware written by Johan Linde.
Still to Come -- Text-based HTML editors pack many great features and give authors a great deal of control, but they are lousy environments for trying different layouts and navigation systems. For these tasks, most people use software that hides the HTML and shows a WYSIWYG approximation of how a browser will interpret the page. Next week, we'll look at some of those programs.