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Adobe Grinds Out PageMill 2.0

Adobe PageMill 1.0 took the HTML world by storm when it shipped in late 1995. At the time, unlike anything else available, PageMill was able to generate HTML quietly while users set up Web pages in an environment resembling a simple word processor. Despite the ease PageMill 1.0 lent to Web authoring, PageMill users immediately began clamoring for more features and flexibility. PageMill 2.0 satisfies many of those requests, with a special focus on layout and other visual concerns.

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Adobe’s minimum requirements for PageMill 2.0 call for any Macintosh with 8 MB total RAM (with at least 4 MB allocated to PageMill), System 7.1, and a color monitor. The program lists for $149, Adobe’s estimated street price is $99, and the company offers a $49 upgrade from 1.0, a $69 deal to owners of other Adobe products, and a $79 crossgrade for owners of some competing products.

Exploring the Territory — After launching PageMill, you see an empty document window in Edit mode, topped with a crowded, non-customizable toolbar. There’s also a special field for entering the title of the page you’ll create in the document window. All the toolbar buttons are decidedly small, except for the Preview button, which toggles into Preview mode, where you see how a document will likely appear on the Web. In Preview mode, you can also follow links to other pages stored locally.

Although Adobe added an HTML Source view, the HTML Source command doesn’t have a nice big button on the toolbar; instead it’s relegated to half-way down the Edit menu, fortunately with a logical keyboard shortcut. In HTML Source view, you can view the HTML behind a document, and edit it by hand. Adobe has almost completely crippled HTML Source view for those wish to work directly with HTML – almost all the menus and buttons for creating a Web page are disabled.

There’s an undocumented (except in the installed ReadMe file) hierarchical menu on the Window menu called Switch to, which opens the current PageMill document in another program (most likely a text editor or Web browser). If you switch out to a text editor and modify the file, you can most quickly view the changes in PageMill by choosing Revert to Saved from the Edit menu; unfortunately Revert to Saved lacks a built-in shortcut. (Generally speaking, PageMill has good keyboard shortcuts.)

A new Download Statistics dialog box shows how long a given Web page, selected object (such as a graphic or table), or frameset should take to download over a variety of connection speeds.

No tour of the territory would be complete without a look at the Inspector, a floating, tabbed palette that displays panels for modifying what’s selected in the document. I like the idea of the Inspector: it provides quick access to many frequently-used controls. People using PowerBooks and monitors set at 640 by 480 resolution will appreciate Adobe’s respect for their screen real estate, but I wish there were an option for bumping up the size of the Inspector (and the toolbar buttons). For instance, each Inspector panel is topped with a tab which is just large enough to display a tiny icon. The currently selected tab icon has a blue circle around it; other icons usually show with a purple circle. On my monitor, the icons appear to mutate into different shapes as I select them, making them difficult to recognize quickly. The Inspector also has a number of tiny pop-up menus which require precision mousing.

I promise to stop complaining about the interface and look at some of what PageMill does well, but first we need to explore the "color panel," a floating palette that looks much like a box of watercolors, with 16 tantalizingly clickable colors. Double-clicking a color opens a color picker for changing the color, though there’s no help for using a specific palette, such as the Netscape 216 palette, which contains colors that generally look good in Web browsers regardless of monitor or platform.

Oddly, to apply a color you must drag it from its palette to a selection. With the exception of this bizarre take on drag & drop, the palette is truly useful, since it holds a customizable group of colors, which can be quickly applied. Unexpectedly, you can even drag colors from the color panel to Inspector pop-up menus in order to set overall text and background colors for a page.

Charting the Features — PageMill 2.0 adds more features than I have fingers and toes. PageMill is unique in supporting some (and perhaps most) Netscape plug-ins. This means Preview mode can show the likes of QuickTime movies and Shockwave presentations. I suspect more importantly from Adobe’s perspective, this means PageMill can also show PDF documents through Adobe’s Acrobat plug-in.

Tabling your Data — PageMill has terrific tables by today’s standards for an HTML editor, although they’re not bad by any standard. A freshly inserted PageMill table stretches the full width of the PageMill window, with each column consuming an equal share of the width. I prefer this approach that taken by Netscape Navigator Gold and AOLpress, which present new tables as skinny grids with cells only wide enough for a few characters. If you use the grid to arrange elements on a page, you’ll probably prefer PageMill’s full-width approach.

Don’t like the width or height of a cell? Want the table to change overall size? PageMill handles these concerns with panache through drag & drop options for adjusting column width, cell height, and overall table size. For more precise control, you select an element of interest and then format it via the Inspector, though casual tourists in PageMill land will need to check their manuals in order to become proficient at selecting table parts.

It’s easy to select multiple contiguous cells and apply table formats to them, like converting them to table-header cells or changing alignment. Unfortunately, there’s no way to batch select and format text within cells, so if you want all cells in a given row to have red text or to be unordered lists, you must select and format each cell individually.

The table buttons on the toolbar provide one-click access for setting up cells to span more than one row or column and for adding or deleting selected rows or columns. You can even add and delete multiple rows or columns at once.

Tables need content, and PageMill only takes baby steps in that direction. Data entry aficionados will be pleased to note that pressing Tab within a table cell advances the insertion point to the next cell. Although you can’t paste an Excel spreadsheet into an existing PageMill table, you can (according to the manual, I didn’t test this personally) paste a spreadsheet into PageMill, and PageMill will convert it into a table (apparently, however, much of any formatting is lost). Although you can paste in tab-delimited text, PageMill does nothing special to help you incorporate it into a table.

Divide and Conquer — PageMill brings a great deal of ammunition to the HTML editor feature war, and Adobe perceives frames to be an important part of PageMill’s arsenal. An Option-drag on the edge of a normal document in Edit mode turns the page into a "frameset" containing two frames. There’s also a pair of menu commands for dividing page areas into frames, and you can create multiple and nested frames using the menus or Option and Command-Option-drag routines. To delete a frame, you drag one edge a tiny bit over the other edge. Once a frame is set up, you configure it with the Inspector, and then add content just as you would to any normal Web page. You may also insert a previously-created Web page, and though PageMill isn’t perfect, it does a reasonably good job at importing HTML documents created from other sources.

If you create a link within a framed page, it’s important to indicate in which frame the link destination should appear, or to have the destination appear in a new window. PageMill helps you accomplish this through a mechanism wherein you triple-click an established link, and then bring up a menu (it can either pop up directly from the link, or from the red target icon at the lower right of the document window). This menu shows a thumbnail view of the frameset, and you can quickly choose any frame, or choose textual options, such as "new window" or "same frame."

In Preview mode, you can follow links you’ve set up and display different pages in the frameset. When you switch back to Edit mode, the pages that were displaying in Preview mode can be edited.

Graphical Gyrations — As was the case with version 1.0, PageMill 2.0 can import a PICT image and automatically convert it into a GIF, though in this version you can optionally name the converted images yourself. As you would expect, PageMill also imports GIF and JPEG images. Images may be resized visually by dragging their selection handles, or you can use the Inspector to enter precise measurements, complete with options for changing the size proportionally. You also use the Inspector to enter alternate text (text displayed in place of the image for those browsing the Web sans graphics) and to set a border.

You take a trip to the toolbar in order to align an image within its line of text, or to wrap text left and right of an image. Wrapped text displays properly, a feature lacking in several PageMill competitors.

A background image (an image that tiles on the background of a Web page) is easy to set up, and displays in Edit and Preview mode.

Double-clicking an inserted graphic doesn’t open it in PageMill’s Image window, but alert PageMillers will realize that it changes the table buttons on the toolbar into buttons for making client-side image maps. To make a server-side map you must Command-click the graphic, which opens it in the Image window. In either case, hot spots can be round, rectangular, or irregularly shaped, and it’s easy to create links and shuffle layers. The Image window has options for zooming and creating a transparency or adding interlacing, along with tools for creating server-side maps.

Red Tape — PageMill still makes no effort to help with creating CGIs, programs that can receive and process form data, and the 2.0 version still only permits one form per page. PageMill does help with creating a form interface, complete with more exotic elements like hidden fields and graphics that act as Submit buttons. To alter an element’s basic attributes, you click it once and then use the Inspector. To type into an element (for instance, to change the wording of a Submit button), you must first double-click the element.

Content Anyone? PageMill, with its tables, frames, graphics, and support for form interfaces, makes it easy to lay out a page. You can’t drag & drop items anywhere you like, as you would in a desktop publishing program, but you can arrange them within a table grid. Those interested in placing lengthy or sophisticated text-based content on the Web, though, will need to create content elsewhere.

PageMill has no macros and supports only core Apple Events, so there’s little opportunity for using PageMill in a situation where pages must be mass-produced with data from other applications, such as a database.

The find and replace feature is too simplistic for even a light wildcard search, though it does implement whole word searching and wrapping, features that are surprisingly rare among PageMill’s competition. The find and replace has one unusual feature: it can be restricted to act solely within tables and forms.

PageMill’s spelling checker is only for final checks. The checker’s Ignore button would be more aptly labeled "Skip," though there is an Ignore All button which at least skips all instances of a word through one spelling check. The documentation for the spelling checker is so vague as to be useless to all but the most uninitiated of users. The manual makes no mention of how to use user dictionaries from other programs or how one might create a dictionary from a text file.

PageMill has middling support for standard editing conventions. The program doesn’t intelligently insert and delete spaces if you drag & drop a word to a new location in the document, and it lacks keyboard shortcuts for moving the cursor from word to word or to the end of a line. Still, PageMill knows that a double-click selects a word, and that if you double-click and drag to extend the selection, the selection should advance by word.

Evaluation — When examining the wheat of PageMill’s many excellent layout features, it’s easy to forget the chaff of its interface, which I find rather cumbersome. The interface elements are too small, and I don’t use PageMill often enough to memorize all the special Command- and Option-clicks necessary to make it hum along nicely. Although I wish PageMill had more adequate writing tools, I can live with Adobe’s decision to focus on layout. Given Adobe’s visual emphasis, I am disappointed that they did not implement style sheets. Adobe may have been waiting for HTML standards for style sheets to shake out a bit more, but in the meantime, simple styling options would help PageMill stand out from its competition, and make it a must for some Web designers

If you design Web pages professionally, PageMill 2.0 is an excellent choice, particularly for heavy-duty functionality in tables and frames. For occasional Web authors, PageMill is still a good choice, particularly if you aren’t much interested in learning HTML. The Jan-97 issue of MacUser has an article I wrote (in September) comparing PageMill and its then-shipping competition.

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PageMill faces competition from two fronts. For casual Web authors, Claris Home Page 2.0 (scheduled to ship in December) stands out as a program to watch. On the professional front, programs like NetObjects Fusion will certainly turn some heads. Fusion has been shipping for Windows 3.1, 95, and NT for several months now, and a Power Macintosh version is currently in public beta (a 14 MB download).

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Cyberian Outpost is offering a $4 discount to TidBITS readers who purchase PageMill through this URL:


Adobe Systems — 800/411-8657 — 408/536-6000

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