Web site authoring tools

You can run, but you can’t hide—the Internet is everywhere.


Now that a federal mandate requires agencies to make information more freely available
to the public, government interest in gaining an Internet presence is on the rise.


As many managers have found, giving the public access to agency information by putting
it on the Web isn’t a good idea just for democracy’s sake. It also can free
workers from answering routine telephone calls and conventional mail, freeing them to
pursue mission-critical agency goals.


For example, the IRS has a model Web site with lots of information and downloadable tax
forms available. It takes time and money to set up such a site, but an information-packed
Web site will pay dividends in worker time savings.


The IRS site will help cut printing and mailing costs and, because people often find it
easier to deal with a computer for routine matters, perhaps even improve tax compliance.


Because agencies do not have to attract paying customers, they may think they have
little need for advanced development software, transaction processing, animation and 3-D
graphics. But the needs of an agency designing a Web site differ little from those of a
business building a corporate Web site.


Advanced Web software speeds site development and simplifies maintenance. Graphics and
search engines can lure more users into transacting business on the site. And more site
use reduces telephone calls and mail inquiries, saving resources.


Agencies selling information in print form may need to develop Web sites that can
accept payments; those whose main function is to provide information to the public may
find that sophisticated 3-D and virtual reality tools are appropriate.


Besides providing public access to various departments, government Web sites are the
perfect interface for road warriors and workers in branch offices. Design requirements for
such environments are often unique, but agencies can use common Web software for setup.


Web pages are not difficult to create, but the right match of hardware and software is
key to improving both a site’s performance and the ease with which it can be built
and maintained.


The World Wide Web—hence the www part of Internet addresses—is based on the
simple text document format known as Hypertext Markup Language.


Hypertext Transfer Protocol—the http in Web addresses—is the method by which
HTML page codes transmit between sites and users. The HTML code is what Web browsers such
as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer interpret and use to display the
information found on Web pages.


If you have access to a Web server connected to the Internet, publishing or authoring
Web pages can be as simple as creating an HTML document and uploading it to your server.


Many office suites, such as Corel WordPerfect 8, include HTML formatting and help you
upload the pages you create. You build the page in WordPerfect, then let the software
automatically convert the word processor’s formatting codes into HTML codes.


This method, the most basic way to create Web pages, may be all you need. Most sites,
however, are easier to create and maintain with dedicated Web authoring tools.


Some specialized Web editors are WYSIWYG, or what-you-see-is-what-you-get. They let you
build just what you want to display and require no HTML coding.


Drumbeat from Elemental Software Inc. and NetObjects Fusion from NetObjects Inc. are
good examples of this sort of Web authoring tool. Their interfaces resemble those of
desktop publishing programs, which they essentially are. But the important difference is
that they build pages using HTML and other Web codes in place of PostScript printer codes.


At the other end of the editor spectrum are pure HTML editors, in which you enter
formatting code. Examples of such editors are HomeSite from Allaire LLC, WebberActive from
ExperTelligence Inc. and WebEdit Pro from Luckman Interactive Inc.


You can use these versatile authoring tools to do almost anything with a Web page, but
their big drawback is that they require considerable experience. HTML is as complex as any
other programming language. But most Web authoring packages include a combination of
WYSIWYG and code-editing features.


If you think it all sounds suspiciously simple, you’re right. Although some Web
pages use plain HTML coding, the desire to enhance the Web experience led to an expansion
of HTML features. Dynamic HTML is gaining popularity now, and Extensible Markup Language
(XML) is an up-and-comer.


DHTML expands on tools found in the latest HTML 3.2 specification and supports
animation, Java applets, Netscape plug-ins and ActiveX controls.


As usual, there’s a fly in the ointment. Because Microsoft’s version of DHTML
isn’t the same as Netscape’s, some Web pages written in DHTML work correctly
with one browser but not others. Have you ever been surfing the Web and pulled up a page
with a background and text so close in color that the text was illegible? The pages
didn’t look that way to the author because the author worked with a browser different
than yours.


You can edit DHTML in a code editor or any ASCII editor such as Windows Notepad. But
you’ll quickly find it impractical if you use its advanced features—especially
with Java components.


Even advanced programmers may use WYSIWYG editing tools to rough out a page and then
use a code editor to modify it. Some Web authoring packages provide both.


XML is a not-yet-arrived document format for converting plain text for Web use.


It is based on the old Standard Generalized Markup Language, SGML. Lotus Development
Corp. and Microsoft Corp. will include XML in the next versions of their office suites.


XML’s most important feature for office Web publishers will be how easily it
integrates databases and spreadsheets with Web documents. Now, if you needed to copy table
information from a Web page into a spreadsheet, your best bet would be to place your
browser and spreadsheet side by side on-screen and rekey the information.


XML will change all that by letting Web designers import HTML charts into PC
spreadsheets. If you encounter a Web database tagged with XML code, you could do a data
search from your computer instead of relying on the database’s search engine.


Enough about XML for now. The due date for the major Microsoft Office 99 suite, which
will bring XML to the masses, is likely to slip from early 1999 to perhaps become Office
00. Many of XML’s touted features have not yet been proven, but file it in the back
of your mind for the future.


Some developing tools do their own thing. NetObjects’ Fusion doesn’t generate
HTML code directly the way other combination and WYSIWYG page editors do. Instead, it uses
its own page-generation language to convert the page you design visually into HTML code.


Several powerful freeware and shareware Web authoring products are available over the
Internet. Freeware AOLpress 2.0 works like a commercial page editor, and, despite its
name, it isn’t just for building America Online member home pages.


It provides drag-and-drop editing and lets you move easily between its WYSIWYG and
code-editing functions.


The included site manager helps maintain hot links to other sites or pages.


You can download AOLpress from http://www.aolpress.com.


For code editing and up-to-the-minute support for JavaScript and styles, look at
freeware HTMLtool 1.6.


The high-end HTML code editor comes with wizards to help build pages. Download HTMLtool
1.6 from http://inetw.com/home/HTMLtool.


Various locations on the Web offer JMK HTML Author 4.01, but your best bet is to go to
a search engine such as the one at http://www.yahoo.com
and enter “JMK HTML Author” in the search box to locate a current link.


The free code editor JMK HTML Author 4.01 uses wizards and tool bars to build Rich Text
Format files.


Go to http://www.arachnoid.com for more Web page
design freeware, help and to download Arachnophilia, a powerful HTML editor.


Check the table accompanying this Buyers Guide for Web publishing tools suited to
anyone from a beginner to an advanced programmer. This is only a sample of the many
products available and doesn’t include the Web authoring tools that are built into
word processors or other programs.


Confused about what to choose? Here are the basics:


Web authoring tools develop rapidly. If a program doesn’t offer the features you
want, wait a minute and it may.


John McCormick, a free-lance writer and computer consultant, has been
working with computers since the early 1960s.

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