NetObjects Web authoring system is peerless,but not perfect

Earlier versions were underpowered and overpriced. NetObjects Fusion 2.0 is still
overpriced at $500, but it has matured significantly and its documentation is better.


You receive information about your Web site in five views, each representing a logical
stage of Web development. The views contain editing tools to design and manage site
resources.


The Site View's structural editing tools are one of the things that distinguish
NetObjects Fusion from more page-centric Web authoring programs. Page-centric programs
make you work on one page at a time, inserting and linking graphics and references as you
go.


Experienced Web designers accustomed to this hand-wiring may at first feel disoriented
until they develop the macro vision for NetObjects Fusion.


I'm still not sure that I like NetObjects Fusion as a whole, but some of its individual
features are outstanding. The Site Editor has no competitors in the market. The visual
Site Designer creates pages with design elements, including hyperlinked navigation
controls.


One of the tricks to tailoring a good Web site is to lay out the proposed design on the
floor with pieces of paper to represent each page, then experiment by rearranging the
paper. NetObjects Fusion does the same thing using page icons. When you add a new icon,
NetObjects Fusion makes a new page.


The names you assign to these page icons become the names of the Web pages. NetObjects
Fusion also inserts custom navigation bars and buttons, page nameplates, graphical
elements and hyperlinks that tie pages and navigation controls together.


As a site grows and changes, it's challenging to keep track of the hundreds or
thousands of elements. But to move a page or directory in NetObjects Fusion, you just
click and drag its icon in Site View. The hyperlinks and navigation controls update
automatically. When you drag a page icon to a new tree, the Site Editor changes the links
and references to images, navigation bars and script calls.


A second feature that distinguishes NetObjects Fusion from the rest of the pack is its
graphical layout editor, Page Draw. Similar to frame-based desktop publishing, all objects
including text and images are in frames, which you can draw to any size.


Page Draw's drag-and-drop control lets you position objects precisely-not just left,
right or centered as with other authoring programs. Behind the scenes, Hypertext Markup
Language tables preserve the exact positions.


This clever application of HTML works fine as long as your visitors have table-capable
browsers such as Netscape Navigator 2.01 and Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.1 or later
versions.


Experienced Web designers always test their work with different browsers at different
resolutions. This practice becomes even more important for a NetObjects Fusion site,
because the table presentation can differ drastically from browser to browser. Some
browsers let you set background colors for individual cells, others don't. Reversed-out
text might be unreadable with older browsers.


MasterBorders are another NetObjects Fusion innovation. These margin containers appear
on the top, bottom, left and right sides of your layout area. You insert header and footer
information, as well as navigation controls, logos, buttons or just about any other
object. You can resize borders, or NetObjects Fusion will size them to fit the elements.


MasterBorders are inserted automatically in all pages, helping to maintain a consistent
look and feel. At first glance, this looked to me like a dressed-up server-side include.
However, NetObjects Fusion actually makes the border before publication, and no special
extensions or Common Gateway Interface programs are required.


In most instances, you'll use borders to place repeating elements such as page titles,
navigation control bars and graphics that appear on more than one page.


The default MasterBorder has a banner with the page name in the top margin, a graphical
navigation button bar in the left margin and a text navigation bar at the bottom. The text
navigation controls help visitors who browse with images turned off or who have text
browsers.


The graphical banner titles, button names and other elements carry the page names you
set in Site View. Likewise, the button hyperlink properties depend on site structure. If
you change the structure or rename a page, the elements update, including any hyperlinks.


Although MasterBorders usually contain navigation controls, you can put text and
pictures in them just as you do in the Layout area.


When it's time to overhaul your pages, NetObjects Fusion can almost instantly replace
every banner, button, line and color. Full-sized previews appear in the Style Gallery.


The package includes a gallery of 50 style groups for matching banners, buttons, lines,
backgrounds, font colors and hyperlink colors. The problem with stock styles is that they
soon become pervasive. To keep a fresh look, edit the style groups or make others with
your agency logos and colors.


Hands-on control freaks won't like NetObjects Fusion's asset management. On the other
hand, if you don't want to spend hours worrying about filenames and link integrity, you'll
love it.


The few tasks left to the webmaster are done in Site Assets View. Look over your
assets, verify locations, and delete or replace unused assets. Forget about renaming or
moving files around.


The advantages of this site asset management system outweigh the drawbacks. You can
globally replace a graphic, applet, external link or data object by replacing it just
once. After you edit a variable value, it will change in every instance throughout your
site.


My biggest gripe with earlier versions of NetObjects Fusion was primitive publishing
features. I'm happy to report this package not only has caught up with competitors but has
left many in its dust.


With one click, Site Publish can publish changed pages and assets, or it can publish
the entire site. Earlier versions only published the whole site. That lack of flexibility
kept NetObjects Fusion from being a serious site management product. Now built-in File
Transfer Protocol publishes selected files.


During publishing, the program makes a folder that contains a home page, a folder with
all other HTML pages, and a folder containing assets such as pictures, applets, multimedia
files and auto-generated images.


A Web site created in this way needs no special extensions and can run on any server.


With this package, you could easily publish several versions of your site: text-only,
for Unix users; grayscale; and low-bandwidth, with Graphics Interchange Format files in
four-bit color and Joint Photographic Experts Group-compressed files.


Data publishing is fast becoming the benchmark against which to measure all Web
authoring programs, and NetObjects Fusion takes an interesting approach.


I wouldn't call it easy, but users of Internet Database Connector technology will
appreciate the simplicity of publishing data in a Structured Query Language-free
environment.


This built-in, standalone environment lets you publish listings such as directories,
catalogs and schedules. You enter, manage and store records either in an external database
or spreadsheet or in a NetObjects Fusion file.


You specify a data source and make a master template to format the data pages.
NetObjects Fusion then creates a separate page for each record and inserts navigation
buttons.


This kind of data publishing is not without limits. It's strictly one way-there's no
provision for remote database administration or user updates. On the other hand, there are
two big pluses: Even casual database and spreadsheet users can figure it out, and the
system is platform-independent.


NetObjects' customer support policies are generous. There's toll-free support during
business hours, with waits generally in the 10- to 20-minute range. The Web site contains
full documentation.


Documentation includes a quick-start guide, reference manual and decent index. But some
features are over-documented, some under-documented, and some not covered at all. Even so,
NetObjects Fusion documentation is much better than the industry average.


After spending weeks with this program, I'm not sure it's viable for high-volume
environments. Although the basic editing functions are easy to learn, mastering their
subtleties takes a long time.


The simple interface, though attractive, isn't intuitive. Many features must be
accessed through drop-downs and property dialog boxes. I often had to resort to the user
manual or online help.


NetObjects Fusion handles legacy documents better than it used to, but pages with
tables tend to get scrambled. And there are no conversion engines to import data from
leading word processors or other desktop programs. Such documents must be tediously
converted to Rich Text Format or simple text files, or cut and pasted into text frames.


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