Learn some new Web tricks with spiffed-up Front Page

Over a two-week span, I used FrontPage 98 to convert a database-driven, 26M Web site
containing 4,500 pages into a static site. FrontPage is stable, and most of the new tools
are intuitive and well-designed.


The FrontPage 98 client has two closely coupled programs. The FrontPage Editor suite
has tools for creating, designing and editing single pages. You add text, images, tables,
form fields and other elements much as you would in Microsoft Word.


The FrontPage Explorer is the control center for administering and publishing Web
sites. You lay out the structure, arrange files and folders, import and export files, test
and repair hyperlinks, and administer access privileges in Explorer.


Two of the best new layout features are shared borders and themes.


Shared borders resemble the Master Borders in a competing package, NetObjects Fusion
from NetObjects Inc. of Redwood City, Calif. You can insert common headers, footers and
vertical borders across a Web site. Or you can disable or add borders on a page-by-page
basis.


Shared borders exact an editing performance penalty, though. FrontPage can parse and
write shared borders at about 200 pages per minute. When I applied four borders, it took
FrontPage more than 90 minutes to save the changes.


Shared borders work in conjunction with another new feature, navigation bars. By
specifying directory levels and hyperlink styles, you can build a consistent navigational
structure for visitors. FrontPage regenerates the bars if you change the structure.


As for the themes, FrontPage 98 has 50 professionally designed themes to apply to
entire Web sites or selected pages. Similar to the style feature in NetObjects Fusion, the
themes give you background images, bullets, banners, hyperlinks and navigation bars.


The development kit does allow professional developers to create new themes, but
there's no easy route for casual users.


Table creation and editing are a snap. You draw Hypertext Markup Language tables using
a pencil and eraser metaphor. If there's an easier way, I haven't seen it.


I never liked the frame tools in previous versions of FrontPage. Now frame creation and
editing are what-you-see-is-what-you-get. This is the first frame design tool I've used
that's easier than writing HTML code.


Graphics handling is improved, too. Image tools built into the Editor can bevel, crop,
rotate and resample images. Native support for TWAIN scanning and digital cameras lets you
add photographs to pages in a single step.


FrontPage 98 will automatically estimate download time as you edit pages. This little
feature eliminates the need to bring up the calculator.


If you want to make images from scratch or substantially edit an existing image,
FrontPage 98 has Image Composer 1.5 with an integrated Graphics Interface Format Animator,
both optimized for on-screen delivery. The results rival Adobe Photoshop images, and
FrontPage is easier to use than Photoshop.


I was gratified to find another improvement for creating lists. You can now make
bulleted lists with custom images in lieu of plain text bullets, even specifying a
different graphic for each item if you wish.


FrontPage 98's most showy new features rely on Microsoft Dynamic HTML, a proposed
object model standard not yet accepted by the World Wide Web Consortium. The features show
visual page transitions such as dissolves and fades as users navigate through a site. I
found them annoying, but other designers might like them.


I did enjoy the text animation effect made possible by Dynamic HTML. Text or Web
objects appear to fly or slide into place from the top, bottom, right or left of the
screen or drop down letter by letter. The effects are nonrepeating and great design
accents. Browsers that don't support Dynamic HTML display normal text.


No package is perfect. The biggest goof I found was the Banner Ad Manager, a Java
application. At first glance it looks great. You can rotate banners, specify transitional
effects and control time between rotations. But you expect basic reporting functions such
as number of impressions or click-throughs with software called a banner or ad manager.


OK, I can forgive the lack of reporting in a package that costs less than $150. But I
was floored when I realized the banner manager accepts only a single uniform resource
locator for all rotated images. That's like a spell-checker that checks only one word.


Also conspicuously missing from FrontPage 98 is support for the Internet Database
Connector technology that created database-driven Web applications in FrontPage 97.
Microsoft has effectively abandoned users who developed applications with IDC.


Instead, FrontPage 98 has the new Active Server Page (ASP) Database Region Wizard. It's
more robust than IDC but far more complex. Even professional developers will find ASP
challenging. Fortunately, IDC developers can work around problems by keeping the FrontPage
97 client on their hard drives and installing FrontPage 98 in a separate directory.


FrontPage server extensions are backward-compatible. Maintain your IDC files with
FrontPage 97 while building and maintaining the rest of your site with FrontPage 98.


FrontPage 98 has blemishes here and there, but it's a beauty. Plus, you get excellent
documentation and free technical support.


One caution: If you're a first-time Web designer, make sure you have the FrontPage
server extensions installed.


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