Analysis: Powerful Web tools more than novice designers need

Events are conspiring to create a rush on Web page development tools.

A few of the more innovative Internet service providers are offering to host client home pages either for free or at ridiculously low prices. More and more organisations are thinking seriously about developing intranets to disseminate corporate information across the network. And not a few companies with Web sites are thinking twice about paying outside contractors high fees to update their pages. All of these mean that the market for easy-to-use Web page development tools is going to grow quickly.

Putting aside the questions of developing high-end, multimedia, super flash Web pages that are best done by professional Web developers with lots of expensive hardware/software and big budgets, what is the best solution for reasonably capable people who just want to create informative, attractive pages?

There are a range of options. At the most basic level, shareware and low-cost HTML editors like HTML Writer, Hot Dog, and Web Edit offer excellent functionality, control over your content and design, and a range of specialised features. For a good listing of these and more programmes and set of reviews look at http://www.earthlight.co.nz/cws/html.html. The downside is that you have to actually understand the basics of HTML coding and format. Not overly difficult, but time-consuming.

Next up on the chain are a new breed of Web design packages that are based on templates and wizards. Corel WEB.DESIGNER, Microsoft FrontPage, Macromedia Backstage and Adobe Page Mill all offer WYSIWYG HTML authoring functionality as well as all sorts of other bells and whistles ... so many, in fact, that basic Web page design seems to be almost overwhelmed. Additionally, templates are nice, but they severely restrict creativity. In FrontPage, the templates are superb but unless your requirements match the product exactly, they are somewhat confining. That said, these products make the job easier for those not wanting to become HTML programmers.

The most elaborate options are those Web-enabled database and groupware packages that combine Web page development with transactional applications. These products are usually bundled with Web server software. Lotus, Oracle, Microsoft, Sybase, Informix and Borland, among others, all have offerings in this area. While extremely useful for advanced design and serving, they are not for the casual Webmaster unless the platform is already in use. Further, there are a lot of Web design utilities like Symantec Cafe that extend the functionality through Java and related technologies. But these are out of reach, technically, for most normal people.

Which is best? Cost is not the issue ... almost all the packages are so cheap in relation to functionality that one wonders why they bother to make them at all. The deciding factor is ease of use. Most people should be designing Web pages that put across information in a straightforward manner. For those people who just want to do the basics, the most effective solution is the old-fashioned way ... code in HTML. It's not pretty, but it provides practically all the functionality you need. Anything else just temps you to add superfluous graphics and formatting that add to download time and detract from the content. By keeping the Web creation plain and simple, the content drives the utility of the site ... not the flash.

(Parent is an Internet consultant at Auckland-based Creative Data. Email him at pjp@iprolink.co.nz or visit the Creative Data Web site at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd.)

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