Building powerful, attractive Web sites

by Alan Zisman (c) 1998. First published in Toronto Computes, May 1998

At last count, there were umpteen million Web pages posted, along with countless more on local Intranets. Where do they all come from?

Despite appearances, Web pages are not like pet gerbils or coat hangers, that simply multiply overnight when no one is looking. Instead, people have to write them.

And that means dealing with HTML code.

HTML is not as peculiar as, say, Morse code or 8086 assembly language. Some people create Web pages using nothing fancier than, say, Windows Notepad or Macintosh Simple Text? anything that can create a plain text file. Because that?s all that HTML is?plain text, with tags embedded like this: <B>Type this in boldface</B>, which you can verify in most browsers by choosing a menu option like Internet Explorer?s View/Source.

Still, many of us would like to be able to create Web pages without fussing with actual HTML code. As a result, a number of programs exist, aiming at a sort of Holy Grail of Web Page Creation?to allow users to create Web pages just like they create word processor or (better yet) desktop publisher documents?graphically. Two of them have released new and improved versions.

HomePage 3.0

Up until January, this was Claris HomePage, from Apple?s software division. But Apple reorganized the company, taking back most of the Claris product line, leaving HomePage and the FileMaker Pro database software to the new FileMaker company. So it?s now FileMaker HomePage 3.0.

No matter whose name is on the box, HomePage is available in virtually identical Mac and Windows 95/NT versions? in fact, while the outside packaging claims that you?re buying a Mac or Windows version, inside it?s identical?there?s only one version of the documentation, and the CD has both Mac and Windows versions.

HomePage is among the easiest graphical Web page editors around? if you?ve used a word processor, you can learn to use it quickly. The new version offers tie-ins with the FileMaker database, making it easier to make online forms that are linked to database content. (FileMaker Pro not included).

A collection of Assistants make it possible to almost automatically create Web sites for school, personal use, newsletters, presentations, reports, and more. 18 styles make it easier to keep a consistent look across pages in your site. A Frame Assistant simplifies the sometimes complex task of creating a frame-based page (something that was possible in the previous version, but poorly documented).

There?s a new Site Editor, outlining your site?s contents and links. It can be used to verify and repair broken links and anchors, and to neatly package all your graphics and other files, ensuring that everything you need gets properly uploaded to your Web site.

Other features now allow better preview of frames, and the use of multiple browsers, making it easier to check how your pages will appear in, for example, both Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer. Ironically, this doesn?t seem to have been used in creating the Home Page web site, where many pages simply failed to appear when I used Internet Explorer.

Text wrap around pictures and tables has been enhanced, and tables can now include coloured cells and backgrounds.

The product comes with 2,000 clipart images and templates for 45 sites and sells for US$99. A 10 meg free downloadable beta version is available on the Web at:

Microsoft Front Page 98

Front Page 98 is more ambitious than the Claris product. If you?re prepared to do it the FrontPage way, you can quickly produce a multi-page web site with graphics and animations, search tools, discussion forums, site navigation tools, and more.

It supports most of the new high-end HTML tools?from Java to frames to dynamic HTML to Microsoft?s Channel Definition Format for instant push content (though Netscape?s equivalent is, not surprisingly, unsupported).

However, to make the best use of this product, you have to work its way. You shouldn?t try to start by editing a page, then creating another, then linking them together? instead, start with the FrontPage Explorer site manager, and map out your prospective site. That will let you enter the Front Page Editor, to start building the individual pages. Dragging pages around the Explorer tree diagram automatically changes the links on the actual pages. Any of 50 graphic themes can be applied to all the pages in your site with the click of a button.

A particularly nice feature appears when working with a frameset?a click on a tab switches you to the view that will appear to a user with an older, browser, incapable of viewing frames. I?m also a fan of the automatically generated navigation bars.

It?s easy to create a form in HTML?virtually all software supports that. The problem, however, is how to do something with the information from the form. In most cases, this is handled through custom CGI (Common Gateway Interface) programs, installed on your Web server. FrontPage provides a range of server-side extensions, now in two formats: native FrontPage extensions and the slower but more commonly used CGI scripts. As well, a new Form-Save Results in E-mail feature automatically can send a form?s contents as an e-mail message.

Frames and tables are both better supported than in previous versions; the pencil tool to draw tables will be familiar to users of Microsoft Office 97. Graphics tools make it possible to flip and rotate, crop, or washout images right in the program. By resizing or resampling graphics, you can significantly improve the time it will take to download your pages.

For now at least, FrontPage 98 is only available in a Windows 95/NT version (for US$149). There is a Mac version, but it?s now two generations behind the Windows product.

The verdict

Both products are significant improvements over their earlier incarnations. HomePage 3.0 remains easier to use and quicker to get up and running and is recommended if you?re already working with FileMaker Pro databases. FrontPage 98 offers more power?especially if you want to manage a relatively large site, or deal with input from forms or setting up discussion groups.

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