I'm one of those who lands squarely in the hands-on HTML coding camp. I subscribe to the hands-on approach for a number of good, solid reasons, not the least of which is building portable, understandable, and editable code. Surprisingly, these are the same reasons why Dreamweaver, a new WYSIWYG authoring tool, is about to make a convert out of me. Or at least partially so.
This is not to say I didn't try to convert in the past. Always in search of better, easier ways to create web pages, I tried out a number of WYSIWYG editors, like Netscape Gold, NetObjects Fusion 2, and FrontPage 97 to name a few. The results often bordered on shameful. One nasty quirk they all had in common was that they took my carefully crafted code and thoroughly mangled it on import. The obvious solution was, don't import. Create the pages from scratch within those environments.
Now, this may sound like an obvious solution and perhaps it is, for the novice or hobby-level coder. Professional developers will always have the need to get at the code and make manual modifications. The HTML generated by the above three products however, crushed any hope of that.
Fusion 2 was notorious for generating bloated files that were almost impossible to decipher, much less modify by hand. FrontPage 97 would take any manual tweaks, and change them back again! Netscape Gold did the same. It was untenable, and if it weren't for HomeSite, I might very well be tapping out websites on my little text-editor to this day.
Enter Dreamweaver. It's new, it's version 1.0, it's WYSIWYG. So what's to like? As we'll discover, there's plenty to crow about.
It starts with what Macromedia calls Roundtrip HTML. As Macromedia puts it, "Roundtrip HTML lets you move your documents between Dreamweaver and a text-based HTML editor with little or no impact on the content and structure of the document's HTML source code." This means that HTML can come in to the editor, and go back out completely unmodified if so desired (impossible in the other three monstrosities mentioned previously). But it goes a step further than that. If you do make simple changes, only those changes will be applied to the code, and nothing else.
I can't tell you how thrilling this was the first time I saw it in action. I imported a very complex set of nested tables. Nothing changed. I WYSIWYG-edly changed the widths of some small, deeply nested tables, and saved. When compared to the original code, only the widths of those tables had changed. Nothing else. Zero. Now that's impressive by any measure.
It gets better. Dreamweaver generates good, clean, first-generation code. This means that if you decide to change something manually later, it won't be a chore, because Dreamweaver generates very readable and editable code. Better still, it's browser compliant. That means if you tell Dreamweaver to restrict the code to 3.0 level browsers, that's what you'll get. You'll have a lot more options coding for 4.0, but the code may not work very well in the older browsers. In Dreamweaver, you're given those choices.
That covers most of the really good stuff. Now, here are some of the less exciting aspects of the program. First, it doesn't have a very intuitive interface. In fact, the interface is downright ugly. You've got to memorize the Launcher icons because they don't communicate their purpose at all. Fortunately, there aren't many of them. Second, the program has a very noticeable learning curve. It's not as bad as others I've encountered, but be prepared for it.
Dreamweaver has a couple of minor quirks. Sometimes the WYSIWYG window doesn't display layouts correctly. This happens mostly with imported pages. It's a small trade-off for leaving your hand-written code unchanged. Another is that when manipulating text, Dreamweaver sometimes sticks Font tags into weird places. I've occasionally found a Font tag wrapped around a single word in the middle of a sentence. Again, very minor considering all of its good points. The fact is, although it's a first release it has admirably few obvious bugs for its age.
Once you get the hang of the interface, things start to move fast. Using the WYSIWYG editor to build pages is pretty straightforward. Laying out complex tables is painless, and creating framesets is a breeze. You can also create Libraries of common elements or code. For example a common navbar saved as a library item can be dropped into documents, and when you change the original library source, it can change in all the documents containing that item. There are a number of such power tools available in Dreamweaver.
For simple manual edits, like tweaking a tag here and there, Dreamweaver's built-in HTML Inspector is adequate for the task. For power-editing needs, Dreamweaver comes bundled with Allaire's HomeSite 3 (or BBEdit for the Mac), and is fully integrated with these fine editors.
This is the first WYSIWYG authoring tool I've had good things to say about. It's also the first WYSIWYG tool that puts so much emphasis on the quality and handling of the code. I guess you could call it the first true crossover application, bridging the gap between the Hands-on and WYSIWYG authoring camps. It's a great starting point. Taken alone, and especially combined with the bundled text-based editors, Dreamweaver provides a top-flight authoring solution.
Dreamweaver currently retails for US$299, and is available direct from the manufacturer. You can download a fully functional 30-day demo from the Macromedia Site (note, the demo doesn't include HomeSite or BBEdit, but you can download those demos separately).
Copyright Robinson 1998 firstname.lastname@example.org reprinted from "Robinson's Brain on the Web"
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