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Excel, HTML Tables, and You

One of the basic tools most HTML authors look for is a simple table editor to spare them the annoying task of constructing HTML tables by hand. Since I generally handle the data I use for HTML tables in Excel spreadsheets, I find an Excel add-in to be a great solution, and this article looks at two commonly available tools that work with any version of Microsoft Excel 5.0 (or Excel 7.0 for Windows 95). The first is the shareware eXcel Table Markup Language (XTML) 1.3 by Ken Sayward; the second is Internet Assistant for Microsoft Excel, a free add-in wizard from Microsoft.



Neither of these add-ins does everything, but both work with a minimum of fuss. You get what you pay for: Microsoft’s free solution provides some interesting options, but the $7 shareware fee for XTML provides a fast-evolving product that’s more compatible with non-Microsoft Web browsers. I looked at an older version of XTML some time ago and discarded it, but now that I have taken a second look I’ll be registering my copy.

Both add-ins work the same way: you select a range of cells and then use the Tools menu to access the add-in. The add-in then uses the range to create an HTML table. I won’t go into a blow-by-blow comparison of every feature, but here’s an overview of some key differences:

  • Internet Assistant can write the results to a new file or combine the results with an existing HTML file by using a special HTML tag. XTML only creates a new file.

  • XTML has a Preferences submenu that the user can invoke in advance to set up some basic preferences. Internet Assistant, like typical Excel wizards, requires you to verify the preferences within a series of dialog boxes each time it’s used. XTML’s preferences dialog box lets you enable and disable features as you like; with Internet Assistant, it’s basically all or nothing.

  • Because you can define basic preferences, XTML is faster to use and more suited to exporting multiple tables quickly.

  • Internet Assistant adds typeface and font color tags to your output, but they (currently) only work with Microsoft Internet Explorer.

  • Both add-ins try to preserve basic formatting like horizontal alignment, boldface and italicized text, but XTML’s preferences enable you to choose which HTML tags are used in each case (or if they are used at all). Internet Assistant decides for you and uses only the most basic <B> and <I> tags. XTML also offers additional features such as settings for table and column width, and border thickness.

  • Both add-ins let you define titles and headings for exported documents; Internet Assistant can also insert the author’s name and email address at the bottom of exported HTML documents.

I started this article as a review of Internet Assistant for Microsoft Excel and only later looked at the most recent release of XTML. Microsoft released Internet Assistant with almost no fanfare; I found out about it when I saw a brief mention of it in MacWEEK. It looked like (and is) a good way to generate HTML tables without buying an expensive special purpose application.

What I wanted was a simple way to keep table data in Excel, create HTML from that on demand, and then copy and paste it into existing HTML files in BBEdit. This means I don’t care if I can define custom titles, headers and footers. Internet Assistant can combine the exported table with an existing HTML file by using a special HTML tag, which seems like a great feature, but I found it of no particular value in my work.

In my opinion, XTML does the job best because it exports cleaner HTML. Not only does it avoid proprietary HTML tags, but the preferences let me make the exported HTML look like the stuff I write myself. I spend little or no time altering its exported HTML.

If you use Excel and need to generate HTML tables once in a while, get Internet Assistant for free from Microsoft’s Web site and you’ll be all set. But if you need a tool you can use regularly, the $7 for XTML is money well spent. The products happily coexist, so don’t hesitate to make your own comparison.

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