Web pages for do-it-yourselfers

by Alan Zisman (c) 1996. First published in Computer Player, August 15, 1996

reviews of HTML Assistant Pro, Microsoft Front Page, and Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML 3.2

Estimates vary widely both for how many people are surfing the Internet, and how many Web pages have been placed on the Net, but some estimates suggest that there are currently about 50 million of each. And the two phenomena are linked?the more information available on the Web, the more people are going to want to access it, and as more people check out the Net, more people and businesses are going to want to put a piece of themselves on-line.

Part of the reason for the explosion of Web pages is that they can actually be created quite simply by people with little background in programming or even traditional page layout. For instance, you can create the following real Web page, using as simple a piece of software as Windows Notepad (or the Mac?s SimpleText or any other basic text editor? but if you insist on using a real word processor, be sure to save as a plain text file).

Simply type the following, and save it with a name like FIRSTWEB.HTM:

<title>My first Web page</title>

<h1>Look Ma! I?m on the Web!</h1>

I never thought it would be this easy to have a page on the Web<p>

Hello, World!<p>

Open that as a local file in Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer or the Web browser of your choice? and it should appear just like another of those 50 million Web pages. Add a line like this:

<IMG SRC="c:/temp/alan-3.gif">

somewhere in the body of your code, and (assuming there?s a graphics file by that name), your picture will appear on the page.

Certainly much simpler than writing one of those classic ?Hello World? programs in C++.

But if you?ve been paying attention so far, you may have noticed that your Web code consists of your content, along with style tags? those letters inside the angle brackets, telling your browser how to treat that bunch of text. It?s those style tags that change your plain text into a file formatted as HTML, the HyperText Markup Language that?s used throughout the Web.

And while it?s (relatively) easy to get started, HTML, like other programming languages, can be fussy.  Type <H1> instead of </H1> at the end of your heading, and your next paragraph.? in fact, all your text could end up looking like an extended headline.

So while you can create sophisticated Web pages using primitive tools like Windows Notepad, hardly anybody wants to. Instead, a growing market has evolved for HTML editors? programs to help would-be Web-writers deal with those HTML tags, letting them concentrate instead on their page?s content.

Many of these programs are available as shareware, and so can be tried for free? but to have access to technical support and updates (and of course, to get that warm and fuzzy feeling), users who really expect to use a shareware program should pay the author?s registration fee.

HTML Assistant Pro?made-in-Canada editor

The first category of Web creation programs are HTML editors? these programs show you your HTML code on screen, but include menu items, toolbar icons, and other aids to make it easier to create properly formatted HTML code. A good example of such a program is HTML Assistant Pro, from Halifax?s Brooklyn North Software (Suite 1703, Box 55, 1969 Upper Water Street, Halifax, NS, B3J 3R7; 1-800-349-1422; www.brooknorth.com).

It?s a powerful, but modest program, shipping on a single floppy disk, and running under your choice of Windows 3.1 or Win 95.

Start with a basic outline of a standard HTML page:



Type or insert your desired text within the pairs of tags? to add other HTML features, click on the appropriate toolbar icon. Dialogue boxes make it easy to insert graphics, or links to other Web pages, both your own, or sites halfway across the world. Even complex features like tables and forms are relatively simply created, with the aid of the program?s Assistants. (There?s also a Page Creator Assistant if you want hand-holding to get started from scratch, and a Background Assistant to help with those fancy tiles and coloured backgrounds that are all the rage).

Just as when you?re working in a plain text editor like Notepad, however, what you get to see on screen is your HTML text; like working in WordPerfect?s Reveal Codes mode, you don?t directly get to see how your page will look on the Web. For that, you can click on a toolbar button that loads your page into the browser of your choice.

HTML is changing daily, as new versions of browsers from Netscape and Microsoft continue to add features. HTML Assistant allows you to add in your own custom tools? if you see a feature on the Net that you like, download the page, and view the HTML code? once you?ve seen the tags that create that effect, it?s no big deal to add them to HTML?s tool box.

The program can also work in reverse?stripping out HTML tags to produce readable text from downloaded pages. The multple-document interface makes it easy to cut and paste between multiple files, or work on all the files on your site at once.

The program comes with a reasonable user?s guide and a tutorial, both of which introduce the user to both the program and to the HTML language. Users also get the promise of email help, and the ability to subscribe to an email newsletter. The company has released a freeware version that?s widely available on the Net, and offers enough features for many users, but leaves out support for forms, tables, and other advanced features.

The Pro version, costing $99 US, adds a spell checker, the wider range of tools and Assistants, along with support and documentation.

Microsoft Front Page?Word for Web?

Software giant Microsoft was a latecomer to the role of Internet evangelist, but like many latecomers, it?s taken up the role with a passion. They?ve busily created their own browser, Internet Explorer, and writing add-ons allowing their Microsoft Office programs to work with HTML files?all available for free. For creating HTML files, and managing simple Web sites, they bought an existing program, FrontPage from Vermeer. FrontPage works in an opposite manner from traditional HTML editors like HTML Assistant Pro.

Assistant Pro shows your raw HTML code, and runs your browser to allow you to see how your code will look. FrontPage, by contrast, lets you work with your page the way it will look in a browser. In fact, if you do want to see your actual HTML code, FrontPage will load it into Windows Notepad for you. Working with FrontPage feels more like working with a desktop publishing program?when you make a headline, it looks like a headline; when you insert a graphic, you see the graphic. In fact, you can import graphics in a wide variety of formats? FrontPage Editor will automatically convert them to the GIF or JPEG formats supported by most browsers.

As a result, FrontPage is a bigger program, requiring more computer resources. It ships on 5 floppies, which expand to take up over 10 megs on your drive. As a 32-bit program, it requires Windows 95 or NT.

In addition to the WYSIWYG FrontPage Editor, the program also installs FrontPage Explorer? this tool graphically shows the connections between Web pages, and allows users to test links, and rebuild connections. It also includes a series of templates, allowing users to build collections of Web pages for discussion groups, customer support, establishing a business presence, or for personal use.

Opening FrontPage Explorer automatically loads FrontPage?s simple Web Server. Together, they make it easy to create a set of Web pages that work together as a Web, and simplify the task of uploading them to an Internet Service Provider or to a corporate Internet. The server presumably could be used for a basic intranet for a small number of users.

The program includes a series of ?Web-bots?, tools to automate basic tasks, such as creating a dynamic Table of Contents. Unfortunately, these are not compatible with the more common CGI tools, and may not work on many Web servers. Equally disappointing to me is the lack of printed documentation. The program installs an on-disk tutorial, which will walk the beginning user through the process of getting started, but there is literally nothing in print?nothing that a user can refer to away from their workstation.

Web designers who have become comfortable with HTML code may find this program making them uneasy? it keeps them too far from the actual code. But new would-be page designers will find the program?s WYSIWYG interface more familiar, and easier to get started with. I just wish it were better documented. (If, like me, you wish there was printed documentation, you may be interersted in McGraw Hill-Osborne?s Web Publishing with Microsoft FrontPage, by Martin S. Matthews. $27.95 (US$)? fills in the gaps).

Beta-versions of this program were freely available on the Net, and you may still be able to find Vermeer?s free demo version, but the current release version of this program is on sale for about $200 (CDN) from most places that distribute Microsoft software.

Microsoft is rumoured to have big plans in store for FrontPage? it is expected to show up as part of the next version of Microsoft Office, and integrated into NT Server version 4.0. Look for other WYSIWYG Web page creation programs from other companies, in the near future, including Claris Home Page, expected this Fall in both Mac and Windows versions. A beta of that program can be downloaded now from www.claris.com.

Teach Yourself Web Publishing

HTML Assistant comes with a modest, but useful printed manual? Microsoft Front Page comes with no printed documentation at all. Those of us who are comfortable with the printed page, even in the age of the electronic document, may want to take a look at Sams.net Publishing?s Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML 3.2 in 14 Day, by Laura Lemay.

At over 1000 pages, it is carefully designed as a tutorial, and could teach an awful lot about Web publishing in two weeks, to readers prepared to work through two chapters of text and exercises each day. Topics start basic, with discussions of links and text formatting. Soon, readers are adding images, then external multimedia files, and learning to judge between good and bad design. Tables and forms lead to CGI scripting, and to moving files online and setting up a Web server. Finally, the tutorial works with JavaScript and Java itself, and will issues of server security and access control. There?s even a chapter looking at popular HTML creation programs for PCs, Macs, and Unix, including both HTML Assistant and FrontPage.

Appendices include references for HTML, JavaScript, Java, and Microsoft?s new ActiveX and Visual Basic Script. An enclosed CD-ROM disc includes examples from the book, along with images, icons, and utility programs, for both Windows and Mac enviroments. As well, the book is supported by a web site, www.lne.com/Web/ aiming to keep it up to date. (A former edition, dealing with last year?s HTML?2.0, claimed to only take seven days? another indication of the growth in complexity of the Web and its tools).

At a list price of $81.95 (CDN), it seems expensive, but it provides a valuable resource for anyone wanting to work with Web pages. There are lots of free guides to HTML on the Web itself, but this volume provides a depth and clarity that they lack?as well as the portability that printed text still has over even the best computer equivalents.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan