The field of Web page editors continues to be an odd collection of top-heavy applications. Dreamweaver and GoLive are the professional giants on the Mac, though BBEdit and other text editors are still used extensively to hand-code HTML. But the middle ground has always been sparse: what tool is best for an average person who doesn't want the complication posed by most Web design applications?
Apple, which prides itself on making products for the rest of us, is attempting to cover that ground with iWeb, part of the iLife '06 suite. When it was introduced at the 2006 Macworld Expo, I hit the show floor and gave this new Web design program a cursory test drive. Even with just a few minutes of use, I quickly realized that it was going to make Web site development simple.
That exposure spurred me to dive into the program, which led to me writing the just-released "Take Control of iWeb: iLife '06 Edition," during which I found a lot of power in iWeb - as well as a few shortcomings for which I figured out workarounds.
The May release of iWeb 1.1 addressed some of these deficiencies, particularly in the area of adding comments and searches to blogs and podcasts that are published on .Mac. A second update in May fixed the bugs introduced in iWeb 1.1 and the new 1.1.1 version seems to have resolved some publishing issues.
Of course, Apple isn't the only player here, so in this article I'll also provide an overview of the basic features, functionality, and audiences of Realmac Software's RapidWeaver and Karelia Software's recently released Sandvox. All three applications are universal binaries, so owners of Intel-based Macs can enjoy the benefit of speed. Regardless of which tool you use, you'll be able to publish a Web site quickly and with relatively little pain.
iWeb 1.1.1 -- iWeb's primary audience is .Mac users who have never published a Web site before. As such, it builds upon 18 professionally designed templates; each template includes seven page types to provide a variety of customizable pages. Some of the templates leave much to be desired (Doodle, for example), while others such as Gazette are beautiful and functional. Once you've picked a template, you can add Welcome, About Me, Blog, Podcast (both audio and video), Photo, Movies, or Blank pages that use the design elements of the template. Several third-party companies are now creating and selling templates for iWeb, so expect this to become a new cottage industry.
When you're putting together a Web page in iWeb, you're working with page elements in a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) environment. You'll see little difference between the appearance of your page when creating it in iWeb and when it has been published to .Mac or other Web server. One complaint from professional Web designers is that iWeb produces fairly dirty and non-standard HTML and CSS code, but I haven't found too many cases where pages designed in iWeb aren't portrayed accurately in multiple browsers on different platforms.
In terms of flexibility of placing page elements such as text, photos, and shapes onto Web pages, iWeb has no peer. Adding and moving elements is a breeze, and you can layer them to achieve unique effects that are impossible in the other programs discussed in this article.
Capitalizing on the seamless integration with the rest of iLife '06, iWeb makes it simple to build a page. Want to add a photo? Just drag one from your iPhoto library and drop it onto an iWeb placeholder. Perhaps you want your friends to see your favorite iTunes playlist on the site: drag the playlist icon from the iWeb Media Browser to the location where you want to have the list, and iWeb creates a list of the song titles along with links to the appropriate song snippets in the iTunes Music Store.
When the time comes to share the page with the rest of the world, members of Apple's .Mac service can publish their newly created Web sites with a single click and get some server-side features (page hit counter, Java-based slideshows, blog comments) that aren't available to those who publish their sites to other Web servers. iWeb users who wish to publish to their own Web servers must first publish to a local folder, then copy the site files to the Web server manually; there's no way to publish directly to a non-.Mac server.
Commercial enterprises should also note that the .Mac terms and conditions forbid e-commerce, so they'll need to find a hosting alternative.
These caveats aside, iWeb is an easy tool for Mac users who wish to create an attractive and functional Web site. As part of the $80 iLife '06 suite, it's a bargain, and iWeb doesn't have the steep learning curve and high cost of professional Web design tools like Dreamweaver or GoLive.
RapidWeaver 3.5 -- Realmac Software's RapidWeaver is aimed at the same audience as iWeb: people who want to design and publish full-featured Web sites quickly and easily. Prior to the release of iWeb, I used RapidWeaver 3.2.1 for a personal Web site and found it extremely easy to use. Version 3.5 is currently in beta - you can download a trial version of the software or the latest production version (3.2.1) from Realmac's site.
Like iWeb, RapidWeaver uses pre-designed templates as a starting point, with a number of page types to choose from (Blog, Contact Form, File Sharing, HTML Code, iFrame, Movie Album, Offsite Page, Photo Album, QuickTime, and Styled Text). If I have one complaint about the way RapidWeaver works, it's that you enter your content in one page view, then click a Preview button to see what the page will actually look like. On the other hand, RapidWeaver gives you the flexibility to see (but not edit, alas) the HTML tags generated by the package, which is a powerful troubleshooting tool for more advanced users.
The templates also show less imaginative design than you find in iWeb or Sandvox. With few exceptions, I found that the RapidWeaver sites are similar in layout and navigation, with the main differences being the color, width, and typeface used. RapidWeaver 3.5 adds a feature called Theme Variations that enables designers to mix and match theme styles, eliminating the sameness of RapidWeaver sites. Third-party templates are also available.
Although many design elements can be dragged and dropped from iLife applications, RapidWeaver does not have the tight integration with the suite that iWeb provides. If you plan to use a lot of content from iPhoto or iMovie HD, iWeb may work better for you.
RapidWeaver works equally well when publishing sites on .Mac or to other Web servers. The built-in FTP client quickly moves content to your server and retains your login information for future updates. The 3.5 beta supports SFTP (Secure FTP), so if you're concerned about security you'll feel comfortable with RapidWeaver.
Unlike iWeb, RapidWeaver provides both a way to enter raw HTML code into a page and iframes, a technology used to embed a Web page into a frame on another page. An iframe can be useful if, for instance, you want to embed a Zen Cart or similar e-commerce site into your Web site.
In my experience, Realmac Software is good about updating RapidWeaver with both new features and bug fixes, and an active community of RapidWeaver users participate on the Realmac forums.
RapidWeaver is for Mac users who want a relatively easy Web design tool and aren't as fussy about good-looking templates. It costs $40 for a single user license.
Sandvox 1.0.1 -- The newcomer to the world of easy Web design tools for the Mac is Karelia Software's Sandvox. I've had the pleasure of using the different beta releases of Sandvox for the last few months, and it's great to see the finished product.
Like iWeb and RapidWeaver, Sandvox is a template-based application. Sandvox 1.0.1 ships with 27 well-designed and interesting templates; if you sign up for email updates from Karelia, you receive an additional five templates for free. Page types include Text, Photo, Contact Form, External Link, File Download, Movie Page, Site Map, and (for Pro users only) Raw HTML.
Sandvox is unique in its inclusion of pagelets, small plug-ins that add functionality to the site. Want to drop a picture into a sidebar or an article? Use a photo pagelet. Think that a del.icio.us list would enhance your site? Add a pagelet to do that. The Inspector tool is then used to change settings for both the pages and pagelets. Although pagelets add a lot of cool features, Sandvox limits where they can be placed on a page.
Sandvox provides the most flexibility of the three applications in terms of site publishing, with .Mac, FTP, SFTP, and WebDAV options. It also does the best job of creating standards-compliant pages, with most being generated as XHTML 1.0 Strict. Pro users can even have their HTML validated using the World Wide Web Consortium's validators before publishing.
Unfortunately, while I was testing Sandvox for this review, I encountered numerous errors. None of them actually crashed the program, but I was asked to fill out a bug report form each time and submit it to Karelia.
Karelia has made a Developer's Kit available to programmers who wish to create new data sources, page or pagelet types, or elements. In addition, they've published a Designer's Guide for those who wish to create their own page designs. By being open with this information, Karelia is opening the door to new features and designs.
Sandvox is for users who want high-quality HTML and standards compliance, as well as easy access to common blog features such as del.icio.us lists or Flickr galleries. It's available at the introductory price of $40 for the regular version or $70 for the Pro version (prices will increase after 16-Jun-06).
Conclusion While all three of these programs are excellent for beginning Web site designers or lazy webmasters like me, I encourage you to download and test-drive the free trial versions of RapidWeaver and Sandvox to see if their extra features outweigh the ease of use and flexibility of Apple's iWeb, and if you do choose iWeb, I hope you'll give my ebook a look as well.