by Mark Trescowthick - GUI Computing
Microsoft have released two significant Web-authoring tools of recent date :- FrontPage 97 and Visual InterDev. While they both attack different markets, MS clearly expect them to be used in conjunction and the FrontPage Editor component does double duty as Visual InterDev's WYSIWYG HTML Editor. I've been using both recently….
I was a minor FrontPage fan from its first release, but I must say that the new '97 version really has me impressed.
It's still a bit of a memory-gobbler (especially if you're running a web server on your PC, I thoroughly recommend 32MB of RAM), but it really does make life so easy that, for the first time "almost anybody can do it".
In fact, over the past week or so, I've been watching "anybody" do just that in the form of my 12 year old son Nicholas. Nick is certainly used to web surfing (!) but he has no idea of HTML and its intricacies at all. Up until now, his Home Page has been a pretty simple clone of mine with a few odds and ends thrown in by me at his request. Then he saw me working with FrontPage.
Nick's a table-gaming fan (Warhammer Fantasy to be precise), as are a number of his friends. He saw me playing with the Discussion Web Wizard and immediately saw that here was the chance to create something he'd looked for on the Web but not found - a Warhammer discussion. After a 20 minute tour from me (too long, so he tells me) and an hour or so of playing around, he started the appropriate Wizard and within a few minutes had a basic web going.
Of course, like all HTML authors, he then got completely carried away and, as I write, has added some images from our digital camera, a number of other information areas, modified the default navigation include bot, etc, etc.
His review : "Easy!". His elongated review : "Dad, stop interrupting me, I have to get this finished!".
I just don't believe that a 12 year old could have got any sort of decent web running at all a year or so ago, and I must admit to being surprised at how easy he's made it look. It's certainly a recommendation for FrontPage - see for yourself.
In some ways, it's no surprise. The collection of Wizards and Templates is pretty extensive, and I'd be hard pushed to think of something common on the Web (with the exception of E-Commerce and database access) that there isn't at least a pretty good started Wizard for. And they're not dumb, either. They insert reasonable text where it's appropriate, as well as comments instructing you what you might like to do. Of course, they could always bear a little improvement. I created our basic Tech Support Web using their Support Wizard, and had it going within half an hour or so. It would have been five minutes, except that particular Wizard doesn't contain a standard Web Colours / Layout page, so I had to set that up by hand!
Of course, no software is without the odd flaw, and FrontPage is no exception.
I think it's handling of frames in general leaves a lot to be desired - I'd have preferred a tab dialog to the wizard approach, the ability to set relative widths by number, not by dragging and a generally less confusing approach to the whole thing. I also think that a 'frames within frames' wizard or utility of some description might have been a good idea.
It also has a tendency to lose the plot on the odd occasion, and the Explorer can't then find the Editor but a reboot fixes that, so I guess I can live with it.
What I find harder to live with is the fact that, from within the Explorer (which is the first element you see) there is no way to start a new page. I understand what's going on here, but I'm prepared to bet that a number of users have been very confused by that little omission!
There are also a number of neat features though. The one I like best is the ability to preview my standard images by adding a new folder to Clipart. This makes figuring out which image is which a breeze, and the previews are plenty big enough. By itself, this will save me hours as time goes by.
The are a range of other neat features like this on the Web, and the two best sites I've found (other than Microsoft) are Chris' Home Page and PMPCS Support. Both these sites have some great ideas and workarounds and are worth a look if you're serious about FrontPage. Mind you, the manual provided, though thin, is a pretty good guide to the tools available and how to use them - frames aside.
Of course, a lot of FrontPage's functionality is reliant on its range of WebBots. And that means your server has to support them. Installing them under Win95 PWS and NT4 IIS3 is a breeze. But I'm told that those using UNIX servers don't find it such a wonderful experience. Microsoft really need to correct that before too much longer - they might like it if everyone in the world used NT, but that isn't the way it is right now.
I'm obviously pretty enthusiastic about FrontPage 97, but I'm afraid that that enthusiasm doesn't quite carry over to Visual InterDev.
Don't get me wrong, I quite like the product, and (like FrontPage) it has some truly excellent Wizards which should cut my coding time substantially as I get further along. I guess the real problem comes from the very nature of the product, which reminds me of that old Lorne Greene space cowboys series Battlestar Galactica - it really is a "rag tag fugitive fleet" of a product.
But first, the good news - and there's plenty of that. Just the fact that it does manage to handle all the above and more in one environment is good news in and of itself. And it manages to do so reasonably gracefully, allowing you to build a project in pretty easy stages and proving a good Explorer-style view of the components and their relationships (see Figure One).
As you look at Figure One, though, you'll also see what is my major gripe on Visual InterDev you'll note that, though the HTML uses colour-coded syntax, the VB Script portion of the code just gets highlighted in yellow. Frankly, this is a much more serious problem than a simply aesthetic issue. I guess you can call me lazy, but I'm used to syntax highlighting and, especially when an Active Server Page is an amalgam of VB or Java and HTML, I think it's a very poor omission indeed that I can't have it. Clearly, it's eminently doable, just something that didn't get done for one reason or another. I'd like to bet it's in version two, but for now it's a real liability. Of course, if you're working on a 'macro' document (i.e. native VB Script or Java) there's highlighting as usual.
The ActiveX layout (more properly HTML Layout) tools are a primitive but reasonably effective version of the VB 4 layout tool, but with some rather odd exceptions. You have a floating toolbox, and you can add tabbed pages of controls to it but the only way I could find to add controls to those pages was to insert them onto a form, then drag them onto the toolbox. If that's any sort of standard, I've never seen it before… It does, however, warn you if you attempt to add a control that isn't going to work and in general appears pretty well behaved. I could only find a way to add script to a control using the Script Wizard (see Figure Two), but that should be more than enough and should allow you to call whatever other functions you require. I think… again, the sheer number of tools available makes it difficult sometimes to see just how best to relate them.
In keeping with what is looking ominously like a trend, the documentation that comes with Visual InterDev (with the exception of a useful and lengthy tutorial) is entirely on disk. The 'InfoViewer' introduces about standard 32,767 in Microsoft on-line documentation and is a reasonable tool, once you get the hang of it. I do wonder what's wrong with either Help or HTML though… certainly I can't see any real advantage to InfoViewer over any other method of help. Either way, this is a big product with a pretty decent price tag, and Microsoft should be taken out and summarily executed for not including paper documentation.
The range of Wizards available is really a joy for those of us just getting our feet wet in all this, and can generate some pretty useful applications in their own right. Certainly, Visual InterDev puts the lie to the thought that wizards are only for beginners, and it takes the VB 5 wizards (which are pretty nifty in their own right) at least one step further.
In summary, this Visual InterDev is bigger than Ben Hur and suffers from the nature of the environment it's trying to manage. Getting to grips with it, for any other than the absolute guru classes, is going to be a long learning curve. That said, using its wizards gives you a good start, and you can do the basics pretty quickly - even if you might not be doing them in exactly the best or most efficient manner.
With written documentation, life would be so much easier. Without it, well, it shouldn't be without it!