Spinning the Web Part 3: Basic Visual HTML Editing
The first two parts of this series looked at text-based HTML editors, programs that offer a great deal of control over the final product. Such editors force you to deal with HTML tags, a process that bores some, intimidates others, and generally falls outside the Macintosh tradition – most Mac users who monkey with HTML tags take about ten minutes to ask for a program that handles HTML behind the scenes. The first of this type of program was Adobe PageMill (most recently reviewed in TidBITS-356), and PageMill has currently has two direct competitors: Home Page 2.0 from Claris, and Visual Page 1.0 from Symantec. This article contrasts these three programs, and notes a few free alternatives.
All of these programs function like low-end word processors: they lack sophisticated text editing options, and you can’t drag & drop objects freely on the page as you could in a desktop publishing program (or a high-end HTML editor like Golive CyberStudio Pro or NetObjects Fusion). Further, they take a page-oriented perspective that frustrates people creating large sites. Each program has an Edit view that attempts to offer a WYSIWYG display (though perhaps WYSIWYS – "what you see is what you see" – would be a more appropriate term), plus an HTML view for working with HTML tags and a Preview that tries to approximate how a browser will display the page, with operational internal links. Annoyingly, the programs’ HTML views can’t access the styling commands available in the Edit views, so everything must be hand tagged in the HTML views.
All three programs work well for experimenting with layouts and creating some Web pages. However, in many real-life instances these programs are awkward to work with in some important way that ultimately means that – in a perfect world – their HTML needs final tweaking in a text environment. Still, not all pages need perfect HTML to serve their purposes or their creators’ time constraints. Recent experiences in helping new computer users have reminded me that creating a Web page using graphical software would be a worthy accomplishment for some, one not to be marred by tagging issues.
You won’t go seriously wrong with PageMill, Home Page, or Visual Page, but differences do exist.
Tut, Tut, It Looks Like Text — For serious composition, these three programs are uniformly mediocre and lack sophisticated options available in a modern word processor. Even so, they all have a basic Find and Replace option and support basic Macintosh editing conventions, though Visual Page and PageMill both fail to insert an extra space if you drag & drop text between two words. PageMill and Home Page both also have spelling checkers, though PageMill’s is nothing to write home about. Home Page uses the standard Claris spelling engine and dictionaries and has a more mature look and feel. Home Page also takes honors as the only program where you can change the default font and size – an important feature for folks who cannot compose in the annoyingly tiny Times 12 point default font that all three programs share. For all these reasons, Home Page gets the nod as a writing tool. Still, this category of software works best for poster- or brochure-like pages.
For placing large documents on the Web, you’d be better off using an HTML converter such as Myrmidon 1.2 by Terry Morse Software, which deserves more space than I’m giving it here; RTFtoHTML 3.6 ($29 shareware from Chris Hector); Microsoft’s Internet Assistant 2.0 for Word 6.0.1; or Astrobyte’s BeyondPress 3.0, a QuarkXPress XTension with zillions of hot features, including support for cascading style sheets (Extensis sells a light version called CyberPress).
Or, you’d be better off using a word processor such as Nisus Writer 5.0.4 that comes with decent HTML conversion options (I’m not impressed with WordPerfect’s HTML features). Another possibility would be Akimbo’s Globetrotter (reviewed in TidBITS-374).
Tables and Frames — Tables and frames are particularly tedious to build from scratch in HTML, so Web publishers are likely to turn to these programs for help with them. In the frames arena, Home Page isn’t as good a choice, because it cannot display pages within a frameset. PageMill and Visual Page both offer this feature.
When it comes to tables, all three programs use toolbars and palettes for applying table formats, so you need not repeatedly open and close dialog boxes as you set up a table. Even so, Home Page takes low ratings in this area, primarily because you must apply cell and text formats one cell at a time, making mass formatting tedious.
PageMill is slightly better – you can apply some cell formats to multiple cells, but you cannot apply text-oriented formats, such as the strong tag. I dislike working with tables in PageMill because I have trouble remembering the techniques for selecting within a table (you might want to select the entire table, a cell, or text within a cell). If you use PageMill frequently, you’ll have no problem, but occasional users may share my frustration. Also, PageMill’s toolbar has minuscule buttons, and I have trouble identifying them quickly. Working with PageMill tables doesn’t feel fluid to me.
Visual Page does the best job with HTML tables that I’ve seen in this software category. The table feature is easy to learn and offers more options than Home Page or PageMill (for example, in PageMill you can only size cells vertically by dragging them; in Visual Page, you can type a measurement, and that measurement can apply to any selection of cells). Most importantly, Visual Page can format text within multiple table cells all at once, plus apply a full range of cell formats to multiple cells.
Graphics & Image Maps — Given Adobe’s emphasis on graphics, it’s not surprising that PageMill’s graphics handling features stand out. It’s not so much that PageMill has more features, but it puts more care into their implementation. For example, Visual Page can resize graphics (either visually by way of dragging or numerically by way of typing measurements), but it can’t resize them proportionally. Home Page can resize proportionally, but only when you drag, not when you type. PageMill can resize proportionally whether you type or drag, though it lacks snazzy options like resizing proportionally to fit inside a box. If your interest in graphics can be satisfied by placing images that have been modified in other applications, any of these programs will work, but if you are big on graphics, PageMill will suit you best. A big minus for Home Page is that it cannot display graphics aligned left or right of text (though they’ll display that way in a Web browser).
The Media Drag Bag — These three programs accept a grab bag of file formats. For instance, they all handle PICT, GIF, and JPEG images. In most cases, you just drag a file onto the document window, and the file joins the page, usually as a graphic or embedded object which can then be configured in a dialog box. Sometimes, though, the program simply creates a link to the file in question. For example, Visual Page treats sounds as embedded objects, but Home Page creates clickable links leading to the sound files. These programs display dragged-in objects differently, and the differences are particularly apparent in Preview mode. Adobe made sure that PDFs (Portable Document Format files) work well, and Symantec paid special attention to Java applets.
Personally, I find Preview modes bogus, because I preview pages in a browser, but I can imagine scenarios where Preview mode becomes important – users might not have enough RAM to also launch a browser, or be so inexperienced that switching applications posed an unreasonable challenge. The table below summarizes how these programs display different types of dragged-in files. ("Object" means a generic embedded object; "link" means the program linked to the dragged-in file instead of incorporating it on the page.)
File Format & Home Page PageMill Visual Page
Mode displays: displays: displays:
Edit Mode first frame first frame first frame
Preview Mode first frame plays first frame
Edit Mode first frame first frame plays
Preview Mode first frame plays plays
Edit Mode link object object
Display Mode link object object
Edit Mode link link object
Display Mode link link object
Edit Mode Java object Java object Java object
Display Mode Java object Java object plays
Edit Mode link first page object
Preview Mode link first page object
Killer Features — Each of the programs has at least one killer feature that differentiates it. PageMill has a color palette that stores any set of colors, making it easy to apply a consistent palette. Visual Page enables you to work with HTML and Edit mode showing at once. Home Page is the easiest to learn.
Who Should Use What? I tend to recommend PageMill to design professionals, particularly those who use other Adobe products. Now that PageMill ships with SiteMill, it may well be the best value of the lot, and we’ll look at SiteMill later in this series. Visual Page wraps a lot of features into a reasonably good interface, and I think it’s best for somewhat experienced Macintosh users or for serious Web publishers and those who don’t like PageMill or are outside the Adobe milieu. Home Page feels more like a hobbyist or home business tool: it’s the easiest to learn, especially if you’ve used other Claris software and you realize that Control-clicking things brings up a handy menu.
Price? Visual Page and Home Page have official estimated street prices of $99.95 and $99 respectively; PageMill’s suggested retail price is $149, but you should be able to find it for under $100. If you’re buying, look for the new version that includes SiteMill 2.0. Also, check for deals – for instance, there’s a $20 discount on Visual Page for owners of other Symantec development tools and owners of Home Page 1.0 can upgrade for free.
For those who like their software free, possibilities include AOLpress 2.0 and the Composer module in the newly released Communicator 4.01 from Netscape Communications (though Communicator isn’t free to business and government users after a 90-day trial period). In my opinion, neither of these programs are in the same ballpark as their fully commercial counterparts.
AOLpress — On first glance, AOLpress has an impressive feature set: tables, frames, and forms; a customizable toolbar; a nifty, online workbook tutorial; and a site-oriented perspective that includes external link checking, multi-file find and replace, and multi-file spell checking. It is primarily intended for AOL customers, and can open and save files directly from a server running AOLserver or the Web hosting area on AOL. All this sounds great, but the software needs a serious makeover.
There’s no drag & drop from the Finder, no Balloon Help, and the program shuns the Mac Help menu in favor of its own. AOLpress uses paths in the Open and Save dialogs, and doesn’t resize properly on a second monitor. Besides these obvious issues for Mac users, the program has numerous disappointments: a Form palette that disappears behind document windows, the multi-file Find and Replace cannot replace single items in multiple documents (instead it can only replace all), and table edges cannot be resized by dragging. The menus and dialog boxes are arranged so you spend lots of time mousing around in hierarchical menus, and dialog boxes lack Apply buttons that would hasten experimentation with different formats. The worst flaws, at least for me, are that AOLpress crashes frequently and runs sluggishly on my Power Mac 7600.
Composer — To be honest, I haven’t spent much time in this newly shipping version of Composer, and – in fact – was so unimpressed with its predecessor, the HTML editor in Netscape Navigator Gold, that I ignored it until just now, when I decided that this article wouldn’t be complete without noting it. A brief tour of the program reveals a more attractive, Mac-like version than its predecessor. I actually like the toolbar, which consists of two rows of colorful icons, with no button edges showing. If you mouse over a particular icon, it pops up inside a beveled square.
Netscape has honed Composer into a simple tool for making basic pages. If Composer has support for forms or frames, I can’t locate it. Table editing has improved enormously, and you can apply text formats to multiple cells, though you can’t resize cells by dragging their borders. I implied earlier in this article that all programs noted here have HTML views; Composer does not, but it does supply a command for quickly viewing HTML in the text editor of your choice. For making basic pages with a cheap tool, I recommend trying Composer. Composer performed well on my 7600, but there may be configuration issues that I’m not yet aware of, and – as with any product these days – Communicator’s recommended hardware requirements (16 MB RAM and a 68030-based Mac, plus System 7.5) may need to be taken with a grain of salt.
Summing Up — Although I may have left out your pet peeve or favorite feature, I hope you have a good idea of the major software options available for visual HTML editing. Next week we’ll look at Golive’s CyberStudio Pro, which offers optional drag & drop placement of objects (like a desktop publishing program) and a rich collection of high-end features.
DealBITS — Cyberian Outpost is selling Home Page and Visual Page for $84.95 each to TidBITS readers who purchase through these URLs. This price represents an $8 discount off Cyberian’s regular price. Unfortunately, we were unable to get a deal for the SiteMill-enhanced version of PageMill before this issue went to press (see the MailBIT in TidBITS-385 for more information).
Adobe Systems — 800/411-8657 — 408/536-6000
America Online — 800/879-6882 — 703/448-8700
Claris Corporation — 800/544-8554 — 408/727-8227
800/800-8954 (fax) — <[email protected]>
Netscape Communications — 800/638-7483 — 415/937-3777
415/528-4124 (fax) — <[email protected]>
Symantec Corporation — 800/441-7234 — 541/334-6054
541/334-7474 (fax) — <[email protected]>