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PageMill: Adventures in WYSIWYG Land

PageMill 1.0, Adobe’s much-anticipated WYSIWYG Web page creation tool, shipped a few weeks ago, and I wasted little time in trying it out. PageMill runs under any version of System 7, and Adobe recommends using it on a 68040- or PowerPC-based Mac with 6 MB of free application RAM, although you can scrape by with a minimum of 3 MB of application RAM. PageMill requires at least a 4-bit (16-color) monitor, so it will not run on a monochrome display.

PageMill works like an early version of PageMaker without paragraph styles. It also offers modern drag & drop features, provides plenty of optional keyboard shortcuts, and enables you to rapidly assemble a page from pre-existing parts. PageMill works well as a prototyping tool or as a way to quickly set up the overall look and feel of a new Web page or site.

PageMill’s interface is easy and elegant, with the exception of the toolbar, which should have bigger buttons with more blank space between them. The hardest thing to figure out from the interface is how to create links, but if you take the time to skim the short manual, you should easily master all that PageMill can do. The manual, though professional and understandable, is written somewhat breathlessly, as though the writer tried to explain everything in ten minutes or less.

PageMill supports HTML 2.0 (basic options for a Web page that will reliably work in all Web browsers), and a smattering of Netscape extensions and proposed HTML 3.0 tags. PageMill shows high-ASCII characters as characters rather than named entities, making it usable for creating a Web page in European languages.

PageMill does not support tables, and this has disappointed some people enormously, perhaps because tables are difficult and tedious to hand code. It supports colored and tiled backgrounds, and can create the onscreen front end to a form. It also has a Raw HTML style which you can use for unsupported tags; unfortunately it has no macro or glossary features to speed up entering unsupported tags.

PageMill can directly use GIF and JPEG images or it can convert PICTs to GIFs. It can change a GIF’s background color to transparent or add interlacing. PageMill offers a nice set of tools for making image maps, and makes it easy to associate different areas in a graphic with different URLs.

Still Raw in Places — PageMill 1.0 may have been pushed out too fast. For instance, its font for body text is too small. The font looks like Times 12-point, and there’s no way to change it, making PageMill inexplicably difficult to write in (though you can paste or drop text in from another source). PageMill has no text editing tools, not even a Find/Replace feature or a spelling checker. I’ve also heard too many reports about problems with PageMill crashing, though these reports usually end with a comment to the nature of "but PageMill is still my favorite program ever." PageMill suffers from a number of technical problems that have disappointed many serious HTML coders, and I’ll talk a little more about those problems in a bit.

Mac users are sophisticated in their expectations of word processing and text editing programs, and we often transfer those expectations to HTML tools. These expectations are much of what brought on programs like Word 6, so I’m not too upset at PageMill for its lack of text formatting and manipulation tools. I am disappointed at PageMill’s inability to act as an FTP client. It’s easy to download, set up, and use an FTP client, but PageMill should hold new users’ hands through this often traumatic step. At the very least, PageMill could interact with Anarchie or Fetch to ease the process.

First Date — To find out if I could integrate PageMill into my HTML authoring tool set (I use Nisus Writer 4.1, which ships with excellent HTML macros), I tried using PageMill to make minor changes to the TidBITS home page, called default.html. The TidBITS site lives on King, a Power Macintosh 6150. The URL, in case you were wondering, is:

Maddeningly, US West hasn’t yet set up a direct Internet connection to TidBITS’s new location (in fact, after eight weeks they haven’t even hooked up a second phone line), so I work remotely and use Anarchie to upload completed Web pages to King. I have a complete copy of the TidBITS Web site on my hard disk, so when I change a file on the site, I first change it locally and then upload it to King. The TidBITS Web site currently has 100 or so files, perhaps 15 on the main level, with the rest nested more deeply.

I worked on a copy of default.html, and I was glad I did because I set my PageMill Local Root Folder preference after opening default.html, and PageMill incorrectly changed all the relative link paths in the document. Apparently, I should have set that preference before opening default.html. After solving that problem, I revelled in what PageMill does well by quickly making a few wording changes, adding an item to the bulleted list, and adding a few links.

No matter what the benefits of coding in HTML may be, HTML is an uptight, rigid system where every typo matters. PageMill is HTML in a t-shirt with her hair down. PageMill enables you quickly and visually play with ideas, and it helps you answer questions like: "what part of this paragraph should be emphasized?" and "should I stick a horizontal rule here?"

I experienced one oddity where linking information disappeared after a save, but I put the link back, saved again, and the link stuck around.

The Importance of MacWeb — I checked my PageMill page in MacWeb, and found two instances of a space missing between two words. PageMill showed spaces (as did Netscape), so I hadn’t noticed the problem. One missing space came directly after a <STRONG> tag; the other before an Anchor tag. I used Nisus Writer to look directly at the HTML, and – sure enough – the spaces were missing. It’s always good to check Web pages in the less-error-tolerant MacWeb – you never know who might read your pages, or what browser they might use.

The Double-<BR> Problem — Using PageMill was faster and more fun than using any HTML authoring system I have tried – and I’ve tried a great number of them. Before merrily posting my revised page to King, I took a close look at the HTML created by PageMill. This seemed prudent, because the PageMill-Talk list has had a flurry of complaints about PageMill altering existing HTML code without asking.

As I expected from paying attention to PageMill-Talk, PageMill removed all my <P> tags (tags for a new paragraph) and replaced each one with two <BR> tags (tags that start a new line). Apparently, the reasoning for this underhanded removal is that Netscape displays additional blank lines for each contiguous <BR> tag, but ignores extra contiguous <P> tags.

I can’t say for sure about the wide world of Web browsers at large, but MacWeb and NCSA Mosaic both ignore extra contiguous <BR> tags. Besides the technical problems with PageMill’s decision to replace <P> tags with <BR> tags, inexperienced Web authors my run afoul of this "feature" by unrealistically expecting that what they see in PageMill (white space created by pressing Return) will appear the same way in lots of different Web browsers.

Tag Confusion — This leads to a problem that appears with increasing regularity on HTML-centric mailing lists. In their rush to learn HTML, many HTML authors haven’t learned what tags go with HTML 2.0, and – as a result – have a murky understanding of how to make their pages look good everywhere. PageMill won’t help Web authors sort out these issues; if anything, it makes them worse because knowing that a certain tag is a Netscape extension doesn’t help you figure out how to implement (or avoid implementing) that tag in PageMill.

Can HTML be WYSIWYG? Although some people still prefer tags, the word processing industry made a fairly smooth transition to WYSIWYG word processors. PageMill, an early WYSIWYG HTML editor, makes an important step toward WYSIWYG, but HTML and the Web pose more complexities than the word processing transition to WYSIWYG did.

By and large, if you create a layout onscreen in a word processor, your printout will match that layout. If a word processor doesn’t have a format (like columns), there’s little or nothing you can do about it, no matter what printer you use. An experienced word processor user knows all the formats the program offers; an experienced (or even capable) user of a WYSIWYG Web authoring tool must know how the formats offered by the program interact with the larger feature set made available by various flavors of HTML.

This new wrinkle makes creating a useful and usable WYSIWYG Web authoring tool rather difficult. Some have suggested that PageMill’s catering to Netscape users in its use of <BR> tags and certain supported extensions is fine, because Netscape is the most popular browser. I find this a tired argument, perhaps as tired as the argument that catering to Netscape users is a short-term effort to gain market share.

Without several layers of additional sophistication, a WYSIWYG authoring tool cannot keep up with all the available HTML browsers and tags, nor can it make everyone happy. For example, by implementing the <BR> tags as it does, PageMill helps naive Web authors create white space. Of course, PageMill’s big, still-untapped, market is naive Web authors who have neither time nor interest in using anything but Netscape.

In the long-term, it’s possible that every double-<BR> put out by PageMill will have to be fixed (most likely with starting and ending <P> tags that surround each paragraph). Perhaps PageMill’s designers figure they’ll either ship PageMill 3.0 with an automatic converter or that future browsers will work okay when they encounter the incorrect but functional double-<BR> coding technique.

Will I Use It? I will use PageMill to prototype new pages and to experiment with design changes before implementing the HTML in Nisus Writer. Until PageMill leaves my <P> tags alone and give me more control over the underlying HTML, I cannot use it for final Web pages. What worries me is that SiteMill (due out soon), is based on PageMill but lets you manage the links and placement of files in a site. SiteMill’s planned features sound wonderful, but if it forces me to put all my HTML documents into PageMill format, I won’t use it. I don’t want double-<BR> tags, and (based on comments written to PageMill-Talk) I’m concerned that PageMill will make other unwanted changes.

Professional typesetters were driven up the wall by people who used early versions of MacWrite to print newsletters to PostScript printers using Geneva for body text and New York for headlines, without anything resembling ligatures or kerning; experienced HTML authors may now be driven equally crazy by enthusiastic PageMill users. PageMill’s energy and simplicity stand to make it enormously popular and influential.

PageMill-Talk — In case you were wondering, you can chat about PageMill on the PageMill-Talk mailing list, and you can search back postings to the list.

You can also read about PageMill or order PageMill on Adobe’s Web site: orderform.html

Adobe — 800/411-8657 — 206/628-2749

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