Web-page design programs grow in tandem

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

Adobe PageMill 3.0. $149
Adobe Systems Inc., San Jose, CA, 800-411-8657, 408-536-6000; www.adobe.com

Symantec Visual Page, $129
Symantec Corp., Cupertino, CA, 800-441-7234; 541-334-6054; www.cafe.symantec.com

There are a lot of people out there working with HTML, the language of the Web. Some would suggest that real Web page designers don?t need specialized tools?they?re happy working with the code directly, using Windows Notepad or the Mac?s SimpleText or something. Maybe a somewhat more comprehensive programmer?s editor, like BBEdit on the Mac.

But there?s a large market for tools that cover up the bare bones, and give designers something more akin to a desktop publisher?software that lets you create a Web page while looking at something that resembles the final output. Some of these tools are free?Netscape Composer is part of that company?s Communicator Suite. And not to be left behind, Microsoft includes Front Page Express as an optional component of Internet Explorer 4.0 and Windows 98.

These free tools are not bad?they let a wannabe Web designer graphically work with pages, adding images and links, and creating tables. But frames? Java? Image maps? Not with the freebies, thanks.

Other beginning users work with a program they?re already comfortable with, such as their word processor or desktop publisher, but again, find themselves either severely limited, or in the case of DTP software, too often creating slow-loading pages featuring out-and-out weird HTML code.

Last year, we took a look at two programs, Adobe PageMill and Symantec Visual Page which had a lot in common. Both were graphical Web page creation programs. Both started out on the Mac, and now are available for Windows as well. Both offered similar feature sets, and sold for similar prices (about CDN$120-150).

They have somewhat different interfaces, and when push came to shove, last year, we found Symantec?s product offered a bit more than Adobe?s, and awarded it the prize.

But now, continuing in synch, each has offered an updated version, so we?re taking another look, this time at Adobe PageMill 3.0 vs Symantec Visual Page 2.0. We looked at the Windows versions; again in synch, both companies released those prior to the Mac version. We?ve previously looked at another similar product, HomePage 3.0, from Apple?s FileMaker (formerly Claris) division.

Staying in synch, the biggest additions to both (along with HomePage), are site management features (previously included by Adobe in a separate, Mac-only product, SiteMill). These make it easier to maintain a collection of interlinked pages, to find broken links, and more.  Drag a page to a different location on the outline, and links throughout the site automatically update to reflect the changes. Correct an e-mail address, and it is fixed throughout the site.

Both allow users to preview pages, either in the editing program, or in the browser(s) of their choice. Both allow live Java applets in the editing window (PageMill also allows ActiveX applets). Such features help narrow the gap between these programs and heavy-weights such as Microsoft Front Page.

At the same time, both lack support for some advanced features like Dynamic HTML. Visual Page still doesn?t allow for borderless frames, though that?s now included in PageMill. However, to keep things even, only Visual Page lets users create pages with frames that include a frame-less version for older browsers.

I liked PageMill?s Property Inspector?a floating toolbox, whose contents change depending on what?s currently selected. It makes it easy to change virtually any part of your Web page. Also nice is the pasteboard for storing graphics and text until you?re ready to use them. The program?s find feature allows you to drag in an image, and use it to replace another throughout the entire Web site.

PageMill includes PhotoShop LE, a powerful way to work on graphics (though nowhere near as nice as Adobe?s new, web-focused ImageReady graphics program). Visual Page lacks any graphics-creation add-ins.

Missing from PageMill however are templates. It?s not as easy as it should be to apply a standardized design to a site?s worth of pages. No support for cascading style sheets, which are supported in Visual Page. Awkwardly, when you view source code in PageMill, it?s displayed within the graphic view?s frame, rather than in a separate window, as in Visual Page. If you start with a narrow frame, it may become impossible to read the code.

While both programs offer slim, printed Get Started manuals, only Visual Page includes a printed main manual?the rest of PageMill?s documentation is on the CD in Adobe Acrobat format, which is difficult to read on-screen without excessive scrolling.

There?s no clear winner in this competition?if you?re looking to create and maintain a relatively simple Web or intranet site, you won?t go far wrong with either of these programs. While neither offers the wealth of features of a more powerful program like Microsoft Front Page, they are both easier to use. As well, both create reasonably clean code that will work equally well in both major browser. Either will prove a good choice for the target audience: home users, schools, and small businesses.

Search WWW Search www.zisman.ca

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