| Introduction | Visual Café | New on the Bookshelf | In Brief | Tip of the Month | Resources |
Any regular reader of this column knows I'm interested in (some would say "obsessed with") books about authoring for the Web. For several months I've been carrying on about how the growth of new titles is exponential and increasing at a rate of tenfold per annum and that there would be 2,000 books on the list by the new year. Well, I was right on track through November and then everything went downhill in December. In fact, as of the end of January the list had only just passed 1,900 titles. I haven't been doing this long enough to know if it's a seasonal thing or what. At any rate, you can always count on finding the latest books at the WWWiz book site. The site is updated weekly (with a perfect record for over 70 weeks) with new book listings and reviews.
This month we'll take a look at what I believe is the first "visual" IDE (integrated development environment) for Java, Symantec's Visual Café. There is also a review of the prophetic Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds and some Tips I received after misstating some properties of Netscape in the last issue.
A few months ago I wrote a favorable review of Symantec's Café‚ so as you can imagine, I was looking forward to the full-up visual model. I wasn't disappointed. Visual Café is the first complete Rapid Application Development (RAD) environment for Java. If you're not familiar with RADs such as Microsoft's Visual Basic or Borland's Delphi, a RAD is an environment in which the program builds the code as you drag-and-drop elements (buttons, boxes, etc.) on a form or workspace. Visual Café allows the user to switch effortlessly between the visual and text (source code) views, and changes made in either one are reflected simultaneously in the other. Visual Café goes well beyond this with an Interaction Wizard that allows you to point and click to create interactions between objects while it generates all the code.
Some of the specific features I found of interest in Visual Café are listed below. There are many more, but these are the ones you're most apt to notice when starting with the program. As you get more proficient with both Visual Café and Java, you'll get into the more esoteric features of the program.
One of the most useful features of Visual Café is the Interaction Wizard. Say you have a form full of buttons, text boxes, images, sounds, or whatever. So what do they do, and how do they interact? That's where the Interaction Wizard comes in. You start by clicking the Interaction Wizard button on the toolbar. This changes the icon to a kind of wand that you use to connect two objects. The Wizard dialog box comes up and prompts you for the interaction (e.g., mouse click) and the effect (e.g., pause animation), each one being selected from a list of appropriate choices.
Visual Café also comes with a complete Menu Editor, allowing you to create and maintain menu items without writing source code. Remember, of course, that menus apply to only stand-alone applications and not applets. Otherwise, you might get might frustrated trying to invoke them.
Another important aspect of any RAD environment is a debugger. Symantec has gone out of its way to develop a first-class debugger for Visual Café that is at once fast and stable. They accomplished this by writing the debugger in C++. This gives them the fastest speed, and it doesn't conflict with the Java code being monitored. I love running a debugger. Maybe you're too young to remember life before them, or strong-typed languages for that matter. In the (albeit simple) kind of programming I do, I can usually find an error (say an undefined variable) in a matter of minutes. On the other hand, you may prefer to stare at the code for hours or sprinkle print statements throughout the source code to try to locate the offending code.
Visual Café also supports remote debugging, but it's not something I'd recommend if you can avoid it. It's just too much trouble going back and forth between two screens and (most likely different) keyboards.
I know there are a few other IDEs for Java on the market now, and I can't speak to how good or bad they are, but I know that Visual Café is good and the company behind it is one of the most reliable in the software industry. It's obvious they have a long-term commitment to Java, and the corporate resources to see it through and maintain the proper level of technical support. There is already a substantial base of (original) Café users, which makes it more attractive to third-party vendors to provide new libraries. (Witness the enormous diversity of add-ons for Visual Basic and Delphi.) Basically I don't think you can go wrong with Visual Café. Learning a new language and/or programming environment is a major effort and you can't afford (the time or money) to go switching around on a whim. I believe that Symantec Visual Café is one you'll be able to live with for a long time.
Unfortunately, Visual Café comes with no printed documentation. This is a common trend in modern software, which I abhor. Fortunately there are two books that have been announced to fill the void. There's Visual Café Programming Frontrunner by Dan Shafer (Coriolis Group Books, $30, ISBN 1576100596) and Symantec Visual Café Sourcebook by Cary Jardin (John Wiley & Sons, $30, ISBN 0471178047). Both of these books should be available in the first quarter of 1997. In all fairness to Symantec, there is a tutorial in the program, and an online description of the program which I found useful.
Visual Café retails for $200, or $70 with an upgrade from Café. So if you listened to me last August and picked up Café for $100, you're ahead of the game. There is also a Visual Café Pro, which emphasizes database development tools, and retails for $500. You can learn more about Visual Café at Symantec Java Central.
New on the Bookshelf
Beyond Humanity: CyberEvolution and Future Minds by Gregory S. Paul and Earl D. Cox (Charles River Media; $21/24 Paper/Hardback). This book is a speculation on where the current research and development in computer science and neuroscience can take us in the next century. The authors are well qualified to lead the way. Gregory Paul is an evolutionary biologist; Earl Cox is a computer scientist and an authority on artificial intelligence. Together they take us through a review of the current status of computer science, cybernetics, artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness, nanotechnology and neuroscience, and put them in a historical context to demonstrate the exponential growth of both science and technology, and evolution. Extrapolating from the historical base and present state of the art they conclude that early in the next century there will be computers that exceed human brain function, and robots which will take over most of the physical labor. (And you thought it was tough finding a job now.) Continuing further into the next century, they predict the replacement of human intelligence by cyber-intelligence, and even the possibility that our minds may be downloaded into cyberspace, or robots that will be more efficient (and longer lasting) than our human bodies. Along the way they discuss the various sociological, theological, philosophical, economic and scientific issues that will face us in the "Extraordinary Future." I found this to be a compelling read, the more so because some of you are young enough to experience this in your lifetimes. Are you ready?
Web Publisher's Construction Kit with Netscape Plug-ins by Jonathan Angel (Waite Group Press, $40/CD-ROM) discusses virtually all the plug-ins for Netscape Navigator. There are several chapters of introductory material followed by separate chapters on Audio, Video, Presentation/Animation, VRML, Graphics, and Document plug-ins. For each of about 40 plug-ins there are "lessons" on installing the plug-in and embedding presentations on your Web page, including a thorough list of EMBED tag attributes for each plug-in. The book finishes with a brief description of some 30 of the more obscure plug-ins, and a chapter on plug-in resources. The CD-ROM contains over 30 plug-ins and helper applications.
The Ultimate Web Developer's Sourcebook by Ben Sawyer (Coriolis Group Books, $50/CD- ROM) is just that—a Sourcebook. The book covers most aspects of Web development with a brief description of each plus a very impressive list of resources including hardware and software vendors (with URLs, addresses, and phone numbers), Web sites, magazines, and books. There are also practical tips on various aspects of Web page design and graphics, and examples drawn from the Web. The book is rounded out with a few chapters on business aspects of the Web, including employment opportunities in the Web industry, market analysis, advertising, financing, and legal questions. The CD-ROM contains a variety of HTML and Java authoring tools, plus applets and audio and visual clips.
Java How-To by Madhu Siddalingaiah and Stephen D. Lockwood (Waite Group Press, $40/CD- ROM). Like other books in Waite's How-To series, this is not a tutorial but rather a step-by-step problem- solving approach in the question-and-answer format. I found that this book had a number of interesting problems and solutions for the somewhat experienced Java programmer. The book contains chapters on graphics, threads, events, user interface, networking and miscellaneous advanced topics. It's the sort of book you like to look things up in before setting out to program them yourself. The CD-ROM contains the examples from the book.
GIF Animation Studio: Animating Your Web Site by Richard Koman (O'Reilly & Associates, $40/CD-ROM) is the first book on animated GIFs. The book contains specific instructions on using animated GIF software for the Mac and Windows. There is also coverage of color palettes, assorted tips and tricks, optimization, and use of Photoshop and Kai's Power Tools filters. The book is balanced with in-depth examination of some extraordinary animated GIFs. The CD-ROM contains software for the Mac and PC plus the animation files from the book, and more. The author also maintains a Web site for the book. I know it sounds trite, but I created my first animated GIF within 10 minutes of installing the Windows software and following the instructions in the book.
24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave by Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt (Que, $50/CD-ROM). This book, from the creators of the Day in the Life series, is a collection of photographs (with stories) taken on a single day in February 1996 by 150 photojournalists around the world. Their images capture our life in cyberspace from the mundane to the exotic. Among my favorites are those of the Intuit children shown crossing the tundra on dogsleds, and later surfing the Web. The book is replete with paradoxical images like these. While I usually discuss books about authoring for the Web, this book is for looking at and contemplating the potential of the Web for our future. The CD-ROM contains an interactive version of the book with some multimedia enhancements. There is a also an official book Web site with many photographs not available in the book, but what you see onscreen doesn't compare with the image quality in the book.
Instant Java, 2nd Ed. by John Pew ($35/CD-ROM), Java by Example, 2nd Ed. by Jerry Jackson and Alan McClellan ($35/CD-ROM), Just Java, 2nd Ed. by Peter van der Linden ($35/CD- ROM), and Core Java, 2nd Ed. by Gary Cornell and Cay S. Horstmann ($45/CD-ROM). Each of the books has been revised and updated with new material. I've tested the 75+ applets in Instant Java plus the 60 bonus applets on the CD-ROM, and they all work. Believe me when I say this is the exception rather than the rule with CD-ROMs included in books. These applets are well documented and come complete with Java source code and sample HTML code with all parameters. They are ready to use by substituting your own text or images. The CD-ROM is very well organized and designed so that applets can be downloaded individually in Zip or Tar format. The CD-ROM also includes trial versions of Symantec Café‚ and Sun Java WorkShop.
The Homegrrrl (Lynda Weinman) is back with <coloring web graphics>. This book was co- authored with Bruce Heavin, and beautifully designed by Ali Karp (who also did <deconstructing web graphics>). This book has just about everything you would like to know about color for developing Web graphics. The book begins with the fundamentals: the difference between screen and print colors, browser-safe colors (that's the 216-color set that browsers can render without dithering), and Web graphics file formats. It then goes into detail on color principles and imaging techniques. The last half of the book contains a seemingly infinite number of color schemes (aesthetically) suitable for use on Web sites. The whole book is a riot of color starting from the front cover. I also like that you can read the book in random order and are likely to glean useful information anywhere in the book. Did you know that the browser-safe hex combinations are always formed from variations of 00, 33, 66, 99, CC, and FF? Those of you who are interested in more technical aspects of computer color should check out Using Computer Color Effectively: An Illustrated Reference (ISBN 0-13-939878-3) and Number by Colors: A Guide to Using Color to Understand Technical Data (ISBN 0-387-94685-3).
Interactive Web Publishing with Microsoft Tools by Evangelos Petroutsos (Ventana, $50/CD- ROM) is an ambitious tome on Web authoring with an emphasis on the various tools available from Microsoft. In addition to giving the basics of HTML (and the Internet Explorer extensions), multimedia Web elements (images, imagemaps, video, and sound), and server scripts, the book goes into detail on the various Microsoft Internet Assistants (for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access), FrontPage (including setting up a personal Web server and Intranet), VBScript, and ActiveX controls. This is an impressive, clearly written book and there was a lot of material that was new to me.
Netscape Plug-in Power by David Wall (IDG Books, $35/CD-ROM) contains descriptions of over 70 plug-ins, over 30 of which are on the CD-ROM. What I found appealing about the book is that for each plug-in the author tells you who built it, what it does, where to find it, what platforms it supports, plugged-in sites with good examples, and most importantly, where to find authoring tools.
For those with programming interests other than the Web, there's 1001 Programming Resources by Edward Renehan (Jamsa Press, $50/CD-ROM). Here you'll find the best Web sites on all aspects of computing from AI and Assembly to Visual Basic and Windows, and everything in between. Like all the 1001 Web Sites series from Jamsa, each site has a single paragraph description plus some screen capture shots. The CD-ROM contains a full hyperlinked version of the book with links to the Web sites.
Black Art of Java Game Programming by Joel Fan et al. (Waite Group Press, $50/CD-ROM). Following a brief review of Java fundamentals the book goes right into animation and sprites, and then building a video game. From there it goes on to advanced gaming and graphics techniques (networks, multi- player games, image processing, 3-D space, and more). Finally, eight games of diverse types are developed in various levels of detail. Of course, the source code for all the games and other material in the book are on the CD-ROM. Now, I'm not a game player, but I can appreciate a lot of the mathematical detail that goes into game programming. Thus, my only complaint with the book is that a lot of the math is treated in the simplest possible way (particularly the coordinate transformations), with a heavy penalty on performance.
Cutting-Edge Java Game Programming by Neil Bartlett, Steve Simkin, and Chris Stranc (Coriolis Books, $40/CD-ROM), is another in a recent trend of Java books that concentrate on one particular topic. This book is a valuable resource that leads you through many aspects of game programming, and shows how to build game components. The games presented as examples grow in complexity as the book progresses. One of the last chapters is written by a group of people that wrote the game Fred, a DOOM-like clone. (Or at least as good as you can do with the current release of Java.) That chapter is really interesting because they explain some of the problems they ran across while writing Fred, and how they went about solving the problems, where possible. If you're interested in writing your own Java game programs, take a serious look at this book. [Guest review by Stephen R. Pietrowicz.]
A couple of other books caught my attention as well. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to review them because of the holidays and all. But if you're at the bookstore I think you should check out the following titles:
Teach Yourself Java in 21 Days, Professional Reference Edition by Laura Lemay et al (Sams.net, $60/CD-ROM), How to Program Java by Peter Coffee (Ziff-Davis Press, $40/CD-ROM), Photoshop Web Magic by Ted Schulman et al (Hayden, $45/CD-ROM), and Photoshop Type Magic 2 by Greg Simsic.
Elements of Web Design by Darci DiNucci with Maria Giudice and Lynne Stiles (Peachpit Press, $40). This is a very visual book which relies mostly on showing what well-designed Web pages look like, and then explaining how they were done. They have drawn their examples from some of the very best designers, who have explained their "secrets" of HTML programming. This book covers the gamut of Web page design and includes chapters on the process of Web design, structuring the site, HTML, graphics, optional (non-HTML) page formats, multimedia, interactivity, programming, and designing for change. The book is handsomely designed and replete with color graphics. In all, it was a pleasure to peruse this book. Now, if I only had the time to take their advice...
Also from Peachpit, Home Sweet Home Page by Robin Williams and Dave Mark ($15) is a handy little guide for setting up a family Web site. The emphasis of the book is on content, rather than technique. (The authors have written the book for novice Web page designers and assume they'll be using Web authoring software.) There are some great ideas and projects for using a Web site as a vehicle for geographically dispersed families to keep in touch. Now I'm curious to see what they'll come up with when they throw in the kitchen sink (Home Sweet Home Page and the Kitchen Sink, coming soon).
Electronic Highway Robbery by Mary E. Carter (Peachpit Press, $19). This book contains a concise guide to your rights and obligations vis-à-vis copywritten material on the Web or other electronic media. Although written for artists, the book applies to any developers of intellectual property and should be of interest to anyone interested in this complex subject. The book is written in plain English rather than legalese, and I found it to be interesting and worthwhile.
web concept & design by Crystal Waters (New Riders, $40) is cut from the same cloth as the excellent books by Lynda Weinman, by which I mean that a great deal of attention has been paid to the book's design (by Andrew Mundy). The emphasis in this book is on the design process itself, rather than the resulting HTML code. The book covers the traditional design concepts of Web page layouts, then goes into several specialized areas such as storyboarding, using color effectively, playing with type, using or avoiding plug-ins, interactivity, optimizing design for various browsers, and more. There's even a chapter about putting ads on your site. The book is heavily punctuated with color graphics to demonstrate what it's talking about.
Tip of the Month
In the last issue I mistakenly wrote:
"IE lets you write mail and put it in an Outbox to be sent later. You can even close the program and it saves your outgoing mail for the next session. Netscape doesn't allow this and will delete the letters if you close the program before posting them."
Two readers were kind enough to point out the error of my ways. Tim Breen wrote:
"This is NOT correct, at least not in its entirety. Netscape gives you the option of 'immediate delivery' or 'deferred delivery' so that you can do just that—write a note (even off-line), put it in the outbox, and send it later. I do this all the time, since I have only dial-up access to the Internet and yet do a lot of correspondence."
And Marcin Spatzier wrote:
"In the paragraph entitled 'Outbox' of your 'Browser Peeves' article you wrote that Netscape 3.0 doesn't allow your mail to be put in an Outbox to be sent later and it will delete your mail if you close the program. Well, I'm using Netscape 3.0 Gold and I don't have any problems with saving messages in my Outbox for the next session. If you still haven't figured out how to do it, let me know."
I also expressed my concern about Netscape crashing frequently, which prompted Bruce W. to write:
"In your 'Browser Peeves and Praises' article you say that Netscape seems to crash more than Internet Explorer. If you haven't done so, try increasing your memory cache (under Network Preferences). It's set to 1024 MB after installation. Try bumping it up to about 5000 MB. This helped me out a lot."
[The complete "Browser Peeves and Praises" article can be found in Issue #9.]