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Getting Warmer: HoTMetaL PRO 2.0

SoftQuad’s HoTMetaL PRO 1.0 for Macintosh came out in early 1995 amid some fanfare, since it was one of the first commercial Web authoring tools for the Mac.

The Macintosh world gave HoTMetaL PRO 1.0 a poor reception, and – based on my half-hour trial – I wasn’t surprised. In particular, I didn’t like HoTMetaL PRO’s DOS-style preferences (in which you edited text files to set preferences). I wouldn’t write about HoTMetaL PRO 2.0 if it hadn’t improved, but the 2.0 version rates a lukewarm nod of welcome.

Questionable Heritage — To give you a better idea of HoTMetaL PRO 1.0’s problems, here’s a list that Roz Ault <[email protected]> posted in the Apple Internet Authoring mailing list some time ago:

  • Don’t buy this program unless you have lots of RAM to spare. The program itself wants 8 MB (minimum is 6 MB) and you must run a browser alongside it.
  • It feels like a Windows program ported to a Mac, rather than something written to Mac standards and guidelines.
  • Although it’s not bad for adding codes, it doesn’t have the full-featured set of editing tools I want in a word processor.
  • On a IIci, it took a two minutes or more to load. The program is not PowerPC native, and on a Power Mac 6100/66 it took well over a minute to load.
  • The documentation is poor, and the accompanying HTML files (basically the manual) aren’t well presented.
  • Entering HTML is easy, but making changes is not. You can’t just delete a tag – you must follow certain procedures in the right order because of the way the program validates HTML.
  • The spell checker window usually hides the misspelled word in context, so you have to keep moving it around the screen. When you try to add a word to the dictionary, you get a file dialog box with no instructions (it apparently wants you to find the user dictionary).

The programmers at SoftQuad have been hard at work, and 2.0 requires just over half the memory, launches twice as fast, looks like a Mac program, and has numerous improvements to its overall operation. The program requires System 7 and runs on a 68030 or above, though SoftQuad recommends at least a 68040. The program prefers 4.5 MB of application RAM, and you’ll want additional RAM for launching a Web browser.

This review is based on version 2.0, release 3.69, which has a number of improvements over previous 2.0 releases. Although I did not test this, release 3.69 can import word processing documents and automatically apply HTML tags. Formats supported include WordPerfect for the Mac, Word 5.x, text, and RTF. This release also comes as a fat binary (the previous releases were 68K only), improves table editing, and fixes a number of minor bugs (including several I encountered in an earlier 2.0 release).

HoTMetaL PRO shows most tags onscreen as you work. To see a document sans tags, you use the preview, which loads the document into a Web browser. HoTMetaL PRO is rule oriented – it won’t let you insert tags willy-nilly, and it won’t let you edit, delete, or paste anything that breaks a rule. If HoTMetaL PRO were a person, it wouldn’t have even considered inhaling. The program supports HTML 2.0 (tags most Web browsers understand), some HTML 3.0, and a smattering of Netscape extensions. SoftQuad plans to release an updated rules file shortly (perhaps by mid-February), which will enable HoTMetaL PRO to support additional Netscape extensions (such as frames) and some Internet Explorer extensions. The rules file will be available on SoftQuad’s Web site.

The interface is Mac-like, though not particularly elegant. Until you learn the cogs and wheels of the program, you’ll use its three Microsoft-like toolbars a lot. I’d like to see more white space in the toolbars, but the images on the buttons work well, especially on the <DT>, <DD>, and <DL> buttons, which use gray and black greeking to indicate which part of a glossary list each button controls.

Several important preferences now live in a Preferences dialog box, including the font and size of displayed tags and an autosave feature. You still must edit a text file to change a number of other preferences.

Writing Tools — HoTMetaL PRO includes a spelling checker and thesaurus; unfortunately, both are mediocre. The spelling checker window still tends to cover the document so you can’t see misspelled words and it lacks an Ignore All option [which, as far as I know, is properly implemented only in Nisus Writer 4.1.x, where it ignores a word for the life of that document – Adam]. When it finds a mistake, it offers a hard-to-read, vertical list of fourteen suggestions for a replacement in what looks like 12-point Courier. The Thesaurus’s features for browsing among different words are limited.

HoTMetaL PRO offers an outline view which has nothing to do with outlining ideas, but does vaguely show the nested structure of your tags. You can’t re-arrange anything, the indentations of the levels are too small, you can’t tell if a level is fully displayed, and you cannot enter text.

The Find and Replace is sophisticated and complex (that’s a nice way of saying that I couldn’t figure out how to make all of it work!). It can do pattern matching, and it can "replace with found," though many users will find the syntax confusing.

As you set up a Find that involves pattern matching, you may have to try more than once before it works correctly. As you use trial and error, you must always remember to click out of the Find and Replace dialog box and to click back in. If you accidently close the box, or if you accidently press Command-F to bring the box to the front, the text in the Find and Replace fields disappears. SoftQuad is aware of this problem. Fortunately, the 3.69 release does permit you to paste into the dialog box, making the problem slightly less annoying.

Of course, if your text doesn’t require this level of massaging, you can turn off pattern matching and use the Find and Replace options much as you would in a word processor. Finding and replacing becomes more complicated (or impossible) if you want to look for text that includes a tag. The manual explains the rules, and – overall – the basic Find and Replace feature is usable.

Styles — HoTMetaL PRO’s styles help you see what’s happening as you compose a document. They do not change the appearance of the document when it displays in a Web browser; that is, even though you can set all your <H1> headers to 24-point purple with 20 points of Space Above, that setting does not translate into the final HTML document. This is as it should be, because it’s up to Web browsers to determine what a <H1> header should look like. Of course, given time, HTML will support optional style sheets, and – once that becomes reality – I’ll expect more of HoTMetaL PRO.

The Style dialog is easy to use, and the styles work acceptably. You must set each style from scratch – there’s no hierarchical style feature that enables you to indicate quickly that <H2>-tagged text should appear like <H1>-tagged text, only smaller. Styles are automatically saved in a separate file (and HoTMetaL PRO shows its non-Mac roots by naming the file hmpro2.stl). If you wish, you can save styles yourself in a file you name. You can load any style file into any HoTMetaL PRO document.

Support for European Languages — Recently, I received a message from Jean-Pierre Queille <[email protected]>. Jean-Pierre wrote about difficulties in composing HTML in languages that use lots of upper ASCII, such as French: "The problem for me in looking at the plain text version of an HTML document is not with the HTML tags, which I can read and understand. But I really can’t edit text with tags like "&eacute;" scattered all over the place." The good news is that HoTMetaL PRO would work fine for Jean-Pierre. Characters display as themselves, not as entities.

Tables — When you create a table, HoTMetaL PRO shows a rough grid; this pseudo-WYSIWYG approach is much easier to work with than a display of raw table tags. Some of the table tools are quite good, such as a palette for adding and deleting rows and columns, as well as for joining and splitting cells. Other tools are surprisingly lacking – you cannot select multiple cells, so there is no way to make a row of text bold quickly, or to change an entire row of <TD>-tagged cells (regular cells for table data) into <TH>-tagged cells (cells for table headers). You cannot press Tab to move between cells. Although you can align text in different ways and make borders of different thicknesses, these formats don’t display in HoTMetaL PRO.

Macros, Links, and Images — HoTMetaL PRO’s macro-making abilities are far from elaborate, but they do let you create keyboard shortcuts for inserting tags (for example, I made a macro that changes a <TD>-type cell to a <TH>-type cell). They also let you quickly insert pre-typed chunks of text. Macros must be recorded (you can’t write them using a scripting language). HoTMetaL PRO does not support AppleScript.

Like most HTML authoring tools, HoTMetaL PRO has a dialog box that helps you set up links. The Links dialog also offers a hotlist feature for storing frequently linked URLs. HoTMetaL PRO users can also import Bookmark files from Netscape or Mosaic into the hotlist.

HoTMetaL PRO supports inline graphics and offers a nice dialog box for setting up <IMG> tags. The dialog has a field for ALT text, and a checkbox for indicating if a graphic is an image map (though HoTMetaL PRO does not help you set up the image map file that makes the image map work behind the scenes). The IMG tag does not display with its attributes, and you must open a dialog box in order to change them.

In Conclusion— HoTMetaL PRO is worth consideration by experienced HTML authors who want a tool that shows HTML tags and enforces HTML rules. However, at its current list price of $195, HoTMetaL PRO 2.0 stands little chance of luring customers from more affordable options such as BBEdit. Even so (and although it’s too early to work up a sweat over it), I’m looking forward to HoTMetaL Pro 3.0, which SoftQuad plans to ship in the first half of this year. Given the rate at which SoftQuad has been improving HoTMetaL PRO, the 3.0 version may map out noteworthy territory in the HTML authoring landscape.

HoTMetaL Free 2.0 is available for free on SoftQuad’s Web site. According to SoftQuad, HoTMetaL Free works much like HoTMetaL PRO, except it lacks the spelling checker, thesaurus, conversions, macros, and printing.

SoftQuad — 800/387-2777 — 416/239-4801 — 416/239-7105 (fax)
<[email protected]>

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