I've exhausted my supply of superlatives and expletives to describe the cornucopia of books on authoring for the Web. Last month I began an informal list of titles when the number hit 15. Now I have a formal list (Cye's Definitive HTML Book List) with close to 70 titles. I can only imagine how many there will be when you finally read this. I've expanded the list to include books on setting up your own Web server because they cover HTML and CGI scripts as well. (CGI, or Common Gateway Interface, is the specification covering the way the browser communicates with the server. CGI scripts can query data bases, pass information via forms, and create custom HTML documents on the fly.) In fact, there are now several titles, out or forthcoming, on CGI scripts that are included, as well as books about Perl, which is the de facto standard language (or, at least, the language of choice) for writing CGI scripts.
A new generation of Web authoring products has also made its debut. These are the third generation of Web authoring tools and represent significant strides in the state of the art. I characterize these as tools which take complete documents, such as those created in word processors, page layout programs, multimedia authoring programs and so on, and convert them into HTML documents, complete with figures, and internal and external links. Among the new products are Adobe's PageMaker 6.0 (Macintosh) and AltaVista's MediaWrangler (Windows). Both of these feature HTML file export. PageMaker 6.0 for Windows is due at the end of October. In the word processing area, SkiSoft's Web Publisher and Digigami's Weblisher are designed for publishing existing documents, including conversion of inline images and other goodies. Web Publisher is reviewed in this column; Weblisher is due out later this year.
We'll also review two of the second-generation HTML editors, and have our Tip of the Month Contest and a quick- and-dirty review of six books on setting up your own Web server. Hopefully, we'll have some of the next-generation products to review in the next column. I'll also pass along my first impressions of Microsoft's new browser.
The Present and Future of HTML Authoring
Last month we looked at three authoring tools which were specifically for converting (new or old) Microsoft Word documents to HTML text files. This month we'll branch off in two directions. We'll look at a couple of stand-alone editors and one of the next-generation document converters. All three products are for Windows and were tested under Windows 95.
The HotDog Web Editor from Sausage Software is a stand- alone text editor with a lot to recommend it. It comes in both a regular and professional edition. Both are available as shareware and cost $30 and $80, respectively. The first thing that I noticed about it was that it came with an excellent Help file that itself is a valuable resource and reference tool. It even has several tutorial pages in the Help files. To my mind, HotDog is essentially a text editor with built-in macros and dialog boxes for creating HTML markup. In that sense it's similar to the Word templates we looked at last month, except that here you would start with a plain text file rather than a Word document. It does all the usual things you would expect a text editor to do and has a rich complement of HTML tools in pull-down menus, customizable tool bars (professional edition only), and an HTML tag dialog that allows you to customize tags and add new ones as well. (If you wonder why you would want to create new tags, look at the Tip of the Month below).
There are dialog boxes for insertion of images, creation of tables, insertion of remote and local links, and others as well. These are quite thorough, in fact, and include all the Netscape and HTML 3.0 extensions where appropriate. They are well thought out and have conveniences such as browse dialogs to assist in the specification of file names. There are icons to initiate the dialog boxes and a button bar for the simple HTML markups as well as New File, Open, Save, and so on. The professional version has enough added value to warrant the cost difference if you are going to use the program regularly. Basically, the professional version has more features and can be customized. It even has a spell checker!
This program is no substitute for knowing HTML. It merely simplifies the task of developing HTML. Somewhere along the line you're going to have to learn something about it. For example, when you bring up the advanced dialog box for inserting an image there are eight optional attributes you can set (besides the file name). These would be lost on a complete novice, yet they represent the tools that distinguish an interesting Web page from an ordinary one.
Once I overcame my intrinsic aversion to HTML editors, I actually enjoyed working with the program because I was able to see the HTML code as it was being generated. So if you're of this persuasion I recommend the program highly. On the other hand, if you're daunted by the sight of all the raw HTML markup tags perhaps you should consider another editor, such as the one described below.
Before leaving this review I should point out two things about the program that really irritated me. First, the program is for all intents and purposes an editor and behaves like one in most respects. But I found I was constantly miffed when I would click the I-beam cursor off to the right of a text line and it put the cursor exactly at that place instead of at the end of the line. This is just contrary to the way all my word processors and text editors work and it really bugged me. (Sausage Software assures me that this problem has been fixed.) Another thing that bothered me is the way the table code is inserted after you finish with the dialog box. The dialog box is very good by the way, as it allows you to fill in the table much like a spreadsheet. My complaint is that when it inserts the code onto the page is doesn't follow good coding practice and the result is hard to read, much less to edit. That the author of the program knows better is evidenced in the Help files where the table examples are all coded beautifully.
HotDog is a shareware program and can be downloaded from the Sausage Software site.
Live Markup from MediaTech is also a stand-alone HTML editor but with a very different paradigm than HotDog. Whereas HotDog is a plain-text editor that shows all the HTML markup tags, Live Markup is a quasi-WYSIWYG editor that shows none of it. This might sound appealing at first, but I found the program to be counter-intuitive and felt that it was me fighting me every step of the way when I was trying to develop even simple Web pages.
First of all, each element of the page (header text, text paragraphs, horizontal rules, ordered lists, etc.) is initiated with a button on the toolbar and a small box is placed on the screen indicating where text or images can be inserted. One of the things that I really found irksome about the program was the text editing capability. Text selection could be accomplished only by dragging the mouse across the selection. Double-clicking a word didn't select it, nor would using the shift and arrow keys to select text from the insertion point. Once text was selected, the only way to change its attributes was to click the right mouse button to bring up a pop-up menu for style selection. In fact, I think the program relies much too heavily on the pop-up menu. There are options there that aren't available anywhere else. They aren't in the normal pull-down menus nor in the button bar.
There was also a problem with text imported from a text editor, because of the way it discriminates line breaks. It essentially interpreted each line as a new paragraph. Not a pretty sight when viewed in your browser. Also, while the program supported many of the Netscape and HTML 3.0 extensions, tables were curiously absent. And, as you know from my ranting and raving, HTML without tables is like apple pie without apples. Finally, I ran the 32-bit version of Live Markup under Windows 95 and was disappointed with the performance. Even the Help file seemed to take forever to come up. While I don't recommend the program, it might work for you, especially if the sight of raw HTML markup tags causes you to hyperventilate. And since it's shareware, it won't cost you anything to check it out.
SkiSoft's Web Publisher is the first program I've seen (and run) from the third generation of HTML authoring tools. The program has many commendable features. The biggest advantage of the program is that it can batch process several documents at a time. The biggest disadvantage of the program is that the documents need to be in rich text format (RTF). I found when converting eleven Microsoft Word documents that it actually took me more time to load and save the files in RTF than it took for Web Publisher to convert the RTF to HTML! Of course, working with RTF instead of native Word format allows Web Publisher to work its magic on documents created in many other word processors and document preparation programs.
What separates Web Publisher from the other available Word conversion programs is its ability to deal with the entire document. To wit, it will take the document, figures, tables, and all, and create a complete HTML document. It converts the inline figures to GIF images, all sensibly named and numbered, with appropriate references in the HTML text. It also allows you to set up style templates with properties such as standard header (e.g., for company logos), and creation of table of contents and index with internal links. It even did a credible job on tables, although it faltered in cases where table elements spanned several rows or columns.
On the downside, there was no apparent support for Netscape and HTML 3.0 features (other than tables), and some of the features in the style templates did not work properly. But I'll allow some leeway here as I was working with an early version of the program. Hopefully, the deficiencies will be corrected by now. One source of exasperation was that I couldn't delete or overwrite style templates once they were saved. I was just stuck with them.
At $495, the program is not cheap. But if you're a company with a lot of document conversion facing you (or a magazine with several articles to convert for Web publication) this might just be your redemption. And you can try it out free for 30 days; see the Web Publisher site for details.
For another point of view on HTML editors, visit Carl Davis' HTML Editor Reviews and see the October 10, 1995 issue of PC Magazine (Vol. 14, No. 17) for an article on HTML editors ("Publish to the Web: No Experience Required").
Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web Browser
Microsoft's Internet Explorer Web browser comes with Microsoft Plus! Companion for Windows 95, a $50 add-on for Windows 95 which contains a number of additional tools. At first I was impressed with the browser; it has a good-looking interface and seems to be modeled on Netscape. In fact, at first I thought it must be licensed from Netscape. It recognizes most of the Netscape extensions such as centering text and images, color backgrounds and wallpaper, text wraparound images, and many others. Alas, to my great disappointment, it did not support tables. Imagine my shock and horror when I loaded one of my favorite sites based on tables.
Install and uninstall were very straightforward and the program recognized all the previous information I put in the Dial-Up Networking and the Network TCP/IP for my independent Internet provider (all those 12-digit numbers and such). All in all, I liked the program but I wouldn't use it for serious surfing because it lacks support for tables. If it did have tables, I would say it could give Netscape a run for the money. But it doesn't.
News Flash: Microsoft has just released (end of September) Internet Explorer 2.0 Beta. This new version does support tables and seems to be a significant improvement. Not only that, it does local directories also. Unlike Netscape, which displays them in the Gopher style, Intenet Explorer uses the standard Windows 95 "My Computer" window. This allows you to view the directory in different ways as well as sort it several ways. There are many other new features and HTML extensions. I'll have more to say next month. In the meantime, you can download it from the Internet Explorer Web Site.
Tip of the Month Contest
his month's winner is Michael Declan Dunn, author of The Web Letter by The Write Thing and Secrets of Designing and Building Your Own World Wide Web Site, a video training course. Michael apparently uses the formal HTML 2.0 paragraph container tags <P>...</P>, whereas I use the simple <P> at the end of a paragraph, in analogy with the line break tag <BR>. Noting that the AOL browser does not support the centering attribute for the paragraph tag (i.e., <P ALIGN="center">), he uses the following markup container tags for material he wants to center,
Michael also suggested that if you are interested in generating feedback on your pages you should use mailto or CGI forms rather than traditional email links. In his experience, email links didn't get many responses, but he increased his feedback dramatically when he switched to a mailto form. He argues that the fact that there is a form to fill in invites participation. Who am I to argue?
Thanks, Michael. You are the winner of a genuine WWWiz T-shirt. Wear it proudly, but keep an eye out for creditors.
New On the Bookshelf
This month I've gathered six titles on the subject of setting up and running a Web site. For the most part they are mammoth books and I couldn't possibly read them all, much less do a decent review. Rather, think of this as a guide to the books available. At a minimum, this review should make you aware that there are many books on the subject and that no single one may meet your needs. If your bookstore does not have a large selection you may want to look around some more.
All the books cover the essentials of planning and setting up a Web site, HTML and CGI basics, security, and searching and indexing (except as noted below). In discussing the individual books, I'll try to point out their particular strengths and weaknesses. The books are list alphabetically by author.
David Chandler's Running a Perfect Web Site (Que Publishing, $40 with CD-ROM) is a solid text
with a uniform coverage of all the essential topics mentioned above. It comes with a CD-ROM that contains all the
software you need to set up a Web site for Windows or UNIX. Like other books from Que, I found that the book is
well laid out with icons in the text indicating which software is on the CD-ROM. There are various notes, tips, and
cautions called out in the text as well. The CD-ROM contents are amply described in the book.
Andrew Ford's Spinning the Web (International Thomson Publishing, $30) is a short work that gives an overview of the subject and does not go into a lot of detail. This book would be appropriate if you didn't know anything about the subject or if you even wanted to set up a Web server.
Jonathan Magid et al's The Web Server Book (Ventana
Press, $50 with CD-ROM) is a nicely laid out book which covers all the basics and is particularly strong in
the areas of security and search and indexing. Useful tips are called out within the text. The CD-ROM
contains a complete Web development kit but there is only a brief description of the software on the disk
except for an exhaustive write-up on Linux (the UNIX system for the PC).
Robert Jon Mudry's Serving the Web
(Coriolis Group Books, $40 with CD-ROM) is weak on the subjects of planning and setting up a Web site,
but it stands in a class by itself as an excellent tutorial on HTML, and Netscape extensions, in particular.
The CD-ROM includes Web server software for Windows and UNIX but, as I have found with other books
from Coriolis, the book doesn't adequately describe the contents of the CD-ROM. While I can't recommend
this as a Web server book, I can recommend it as an HTML book because of its thorough treatment of
net.Genesis and Devra Hall's Build a Web Site (Prima
Publishing, $35) is a very rigorous treatment of the subject with incredible technical details for the UNIX
Web server. It includes some topics not covered in the other books, specifically on the HTTP specifications
and on writing clients and servers. Curiously, it doesn't consider security and searching and indexing at all.
There is no CD-ROM, but the book gives ample resources for software that can be downloaded from the
Web itself, and net.Genesis maintains an FTP site with all source code for the book. The book is aimed at
intermediate to advanced UNIX users.
Lincoln D. Stein's How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Web Site (Addison-Wesley, $29) is a thorough book on the basics of setting up a Web site which I found to be very strong in the area of CGI scripts and security. The book is written in a serious tone, more like an academic textbook, and is aimed primarily at UNIX users, though there are occasional concessions to Mac and Windows users. There is no CD-ROM, but the book is replete with links to software sources on the Web.
I'm personally surprised to see so many books on this rather esoteric subject, but the interest must be there. In fact, the October 10, 1995, issue of PC Magazine (Vol. 14, No. 17) ran a feature story on setting up your own Web site, with a review of seven Windows NT-based server packages and four turnkey systems (including three for UNIX). I guess eventually we'll all be mini-Internet providers.
Finally, last month I said it was time for a book devoted solely to CGI, scripts, and forms. Ed Tittel and company have responded with Foundations of WWW Programming with HTML and CGI) from IDG Books. I'll have a full review next month.
I love getting email (don't you?) and encourage you to let me know what you would like to see covered in this column on authoring for the Web. So write.
Web Authoring Tools
SkiSoft's Web Publisher
Sausage Software's HotDog
MediaTech's Live Markup
Carl Davis' HTML Editor Reviews
Cye's Definitive HTML Book List
Chandler, David (1995). Running a Perfect Web Site, Que Publishing, $40 with CD-ROM.
Ford, Andrew (1995). Spinning the Web, International Thomson Publishing, $30.
Magid, Jonathan et al. (1995) The Web Server Book, Ventana Press, $50 with CD-ROM.
Mudry, Robert Jon (1995). Serving the Web, Coriolis Group Books, $40 with CD-ROM.
net.Genesis and Devra Hall (1995). Build a Web Site, Prima Publishing, $35.
Stein, Lincoln D. (1995). How to Set Up and Maintain a World Wide Web Site, Addison-Wesley, $29.
Tittel, Ed et al. (1995). Foundations of WWW Programming with HTML and CGI, IDG Books, $40 with CD-ROM.
The Web Letter by The Write Thing
Secrets of Designing and Building Your Own World Wide Web Site
Microsoft Internet Explorer 2.0 Beta