As a Mac-based Web designer, I was livid when Symantec froze Macintosh development on its WYSIWYG Web editor, Visual Page. To me, Visual Page is more important than my Web browser or word processor - only my email program outranks it. I manage three Web sites, plus pages on my employer's corporate Intranet, so I spend much of my time designing and editing Web pages. I must be able to work quickly and efficiently, without bogging down in HTML markup except to troubleshoot or use special tags. Although I am proficient with HTML, I work much faster with a visual Web editor, especially when creating and tweaking tables. Visual Page has been my preferred Web editor because of its superior interface, remarkable ease of use, and powerful layout functionality.
Visual Page started as a Mac program and was followed quickly by a PC version. Today, Visual Page 2.0 is available for PCs with support for new bells and whistles (such as cascading style sheets, site management, and link checking), while the Mac version languishes at version 1.1.1. Lately, I've been searching for a replacement visual Web editor, and after trying almost every visual Web editor on the Mac (except NetObjects Fusion), I realized that Visual Page has a unique combination of crucial features that others lack.
For this article, I compare Visual Page to Macromedia Dreamweaver 2.0, Adobe PageMill 3.0, FileMaker's Home Page 3, and Adobe (formerly GoLive) CyberStudio 3.1 Professional Edition. For direct HTML markup, Bare Bones Software's BBEdit is hard to beat, but I exclude it here (except for its functionality with Dreamweaver) since it's not a visual editor.
The main thing I look for in a Web editor are fundamental page creation tools, and I compare and contrast Visual Page to other products only on this basis. I'd love a good Web editor that also provided high-end authoring features, site management, and link checking, but for now I prefer to solve those problems independently. If you need fancy features like cascading style sheets or Dynamic HTML, you're out of luck with Visual Page on the Mac.
Here, then, are the features of Visual Page I cannot live without.
Accurate WYSIWYG -- When Symantec released Visual Page, its claim to fame was accurate HTML rendering. In other words, what you see in Visual Page as you design is virtually identical to what you see using Netscape Navigator and close to what you see with Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Visual Page's competitors have caught up in this area, but some are better than others. The worst offender is Home Page, which doesn't recognize horizontal and vertical space around an image, and often renders tables such that they bear little resemblance to a Web browser's view of the same table. PageMill 3.0's rendering is improved over previous versions but still is not as accurate as it could be, especially with tables. Conversely, CyberStudio and Dreamweaver have good rendering engines. Some authoring applications (CyberStudio and PageMill) render HTML pages very slowly; I often wait several minutes for pages to open in the programs. In Visual Page, pages always render instantaneously.
Elegant Toolbar -- Visual Page displays a well-designed toolbar at the top of each page, which enables quick access to commonly used features. The buttons, which appear in two rows, are relatively large and sensibly labeled. Each button's function is clear from its appearance; there's no guessing or squinting involved. The toolbar is useful enough that I rarely visit the pull-down menus.
Only Home Page has a similarly intuitive toolbar, every bit Visual Page's equal. CyberStudio and Dreamweaver have complicated and confusing interfaces with steep learning curves; while they're the most powerful applications in this roundup, you pay for that power in ease of use.
Side-by-Side Editing Windows -- Another killer feature, originally innovated by Visual Page, is the capability to present simultaneous, live views of both the visual window and HTML window. Changes in the visual window immediately appear in the HTML window when you switch to it, and the process works in reverse: adding code in the HTML window results in changes in the visual window. This feature makes Visual Page particularly useful for training people in basic HTML.
Home Page, PageMill, and CyberStudio display only the HTML window or visual window at any given time. Dreamweaver, on the other hand, is Visual Page's equal or superior: it displays HTML markup in a floating palette, and changes to the HTML are dynamically reflected in the visual window (and vice versa). Alternately, you can edit HTML with BBEdit (which is bundled with Dreamweaver and fully integrated with it) to obtain similar functionality.
Table Cell Selection -- A feature I use every day that's nearly impossible to find in other editors is the ability to select multiple table cells simultaneously. With the cells selected, you can perform actions on all of them (such as applying text formatting, assigning a background color, or using copy and paste to move the cells to a new location) in one fell swoop. In most other editors, including Home Page, CyberStudio, and PageMill, you must format or cut and paste cells one at a time, which is extremely tedious. Only Dreamweaver also lets you select and work with multiple table cells.
Dynamic Tables -- You can modify tables in Visual Page either by typing values into a floating Settings palette or by manipulating table lines or borders with your mouse. Visual Page's competitors offer similar functionality, but Visual Page stands out by transforming a table instantaneously as you drag it around. Home Page, CyberStudio, Dreamweaver, and PageMill all let you drag the borders and grid lines of a table, but you have little idea what your changes look like until you release the mouse button.
Table & Cell Color -- Visual Page lets you assign a default color for an entire table, plus additional colors for individual cells. This capability enables elaborate color schemes; for instance, my Virtual Prime Time site uses tables within tables within tables, all set against a black page background (assigned in Visual Page's document settings). These nested tables have different default colors, and cells within each table contain yet more colors. The pages display properly in most browsers (except Netscape 2.x, which doesn't recognize cell color attributes).
Home Page, Dreamweaver, and CyberStudio display correct background page color and table colors. PageMill, by contrast, is a fiasco: it doesn't show the table colors of the Virtual Prime Time site at all, instead displaying everything against the black page background, making the page impossible to edit.
Footprint -- Visual Page is a small application in terms of RAM and hard drive requirements; Symantec recommends a 68030 or better Mac with System 7.1 or later, 1.2 MB free hard disk space (sans templates and clip art), and 2 to 3 MB of RAM. My Power Mac has 72 MB of RAM, and I allocate 4 to 6 MB of RAM to Visual Page, leaving plenty of memory for other applications. I run Visual Page, Netscape Communicator, Photoshop, and Illustrator simultaneously without virtual memory or RAM Doubler - this would be difficult with CyberStudio or Dreamweaver.
Home Page's requirements are also fairly modest: a 68020 processor or better, System 7.1 or better, 8 MB of RAM, and 5 MB minimum disk space (10 MB during installation). PageMill requires a PowerPC-based Mac, System 7.5.5 or greater, 8 MB of RAM, 23 MB of disk space, and a display capable of displaying at least 256 colors. CyberStudio and Dreamweaver, conversely, are impractical with less than 32 MB of RAM. Dreamweaver requires a PowerPC-based Mac, System 7.5.5 or later, 24 MB of RAM, 20 MB of available disk space, and a color monitor capable of 800 by 600 resolution. CyberStudio requires a PowerPC processor, at least 6 MB of RAM, Mac OS 8.0 or later, and 30 MB of hard disk space. Adobe offers a Personal Edition of CyberStudio (without some advanced features) with more reasonable requirements: a PowerPC-based Mac, 8 MB of free RAM, System 7.5.5 or later, and 8 MB of hard disk space.
Cost -- Symantec prices Visual Page at $79.95, but one could easily argue that an abandoned program with known bugs isn't worth any price.
Home Page, PageMill, and CyberStudio Personal Edition all share a $99 suggested retail price. Dreamweaver and CyberStudio Professional Edition are $299 - that's pricey for a basic Web layout program, but probably worth the extra money if you plan to use their high-end authoring features.
Final Word -- The day is coming when I'll have to switch to another HTML editor. I could use Visual Page 2.0 on a PC, or run it under Connectix's Virtual PC. Although the interface is slightly different and the toolbar is not as intuitive, the PC version of Visual Page is an excellent Web editor. However, I have too much Macintosh expertise, software, and loyalty to switch platforms.
So, after sampling the other Macintosh editors, Dreamweaver looks to be my best choice for the future. The program compares favorably to Visual Page on almost all levels; in particular, its formatting, layout, and table tools are well-implemented and relatively easy to use. Unfortunately, Dreamweaver is overkill for my needs: although site management tools might be handy, I don't need advanced features supporting Dynamic HTML and cascading style sheets. These features help give the program hefty memory requirements, which may mean buying more RAM or using virtual memory. So, in effect, I will be paying (in dollars and in memory requirements) for features I may never use. Perhaps Macromedia should consider a "light" version of Dreamweaver (similar to the Personal Edition of CyberStudio) for users primarily interested in basic Web page creation.
[Randy Parker is the CEO and webmaster for VPT Productions in San Francisco, creators of Virtual Prime Time: The Game of TV Rotisserie.]