Attention to the details pays off

In the November issue, I reviewed the third-generation Web browsers from Microsoft (Internet Explorer--IE--3.0) and Netscape (Navigator 3.0). Although both browsers are excellent Web clients, neither product lets you create HTML pages. For that purpose, Microsoft and Netscape released new versions of their HTML editors, FrontPage 97 and Navigator Gold 3.0. Both products are Web authoring tools, but neither is just an HTML editor: FrontPage is a complete Web man-
agement suite that just happens to include an HTML editor, and Navigator Gold is a superset of Navigator's capabilities. T.J. Harty reviewed Navigator Gold in September 1996 ("Choosing an HTML Editor"), so I'll focus on FrontPage 97.

FrontPage 97 with Bonus Pack
FrontPage 97 is a great starting point for Web neophytes, and an advanced and robust Web development platform for experienced Web authors. The package comes with everything you need to author and administer a Web site; the base package consists of the what-you-see-is-what-you-get (WYSYWIG) HTML editor (FrontPage Editor) and a site-management tool (FrontPage Explorer). The Bonus Pack components include Microsoft Image Composer, IE 3.0, and Personal Web Server (PWS--a Windows 95 version of Windows NT Workstation's Web server). If you are using Internet Information Server (IIS), you can choose to not install FrontPage's PWS and just install the server extensions for IIS.

FrontPage 97 ships on one CD-ROM that includes multiple language versions of the product. Like all Microsoft products, FrontPage 97 lets you select what to install and what to leave out. I recommend installing the entire package to really see what it can do.

I found a lot to like in FrontPage 97. If you thought the FrontPage 1.1 Getting Started manual was a little on the lean side, you'll like FrontPage 97's 235-page manual, which covers nearly every feature in the software. For Web masters who want to test their pages in a Web browser from within the editor, FrontPage 97 has a toolbar button that loads works-in-progress in a browser of your choice. Like the old saying goes, this product has something for everyone.

FrontPage 97 feels right at home on your desktop and integrates with your existing applications. When you install FrontPage, it places an Edit button on the IE 3.0 toolbar while adding Office 97 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access) and Visual J++ (VJ++) buttons to FrontPage's toolbar.

The FrontPage 97 Editor not only looks like an Office 97 application; it is an Office 97 application. This compatibility reduces the learning curve considerably, so you can build an entire Web site as if you were working in Word. By carrying over Word features such as a multilevel undo and spell checker, Microsoft guarantees that FrontPage 97 will be easy to learn and even easier to use.

Using the program is one thing, but building an attractive and functional Web site is another. To help you focus more on content than design, FrontPage 97 includes a comprehensive set of high-quality page templates and wizards, ranging from press releases to search pages to bibliography sheets. In a little more than an hour, I created a medium-sized sample Web site, that included features such as frames, site searching, forms, and a discussion forum.

Unlike its previous version, FrontPage 97 now supports IE 3.0-specific tags, such as sliding text marquees, and background colors for tables, videos, and ActiveX controls. The editor supports Java applets, so you can insert objects without having to write the code yourself.

One of my pet peeves is graphics-intensive Web pages that take close to an eternity to load over a dial-up connection. Often, Web designers don't realize how slowly a Web page loads, because they have no way to test speed unless they dial up remotely to try it. FrontPage Editor now includes a download indicator in the status bar. It tells you how long the currently loaded page (graphics and all) will take to download on a 28.8 Kbits per second (Kbps) connection. Of course, this indicator assumes that you have a clean connection and that the server has ample bandwidth, but it's usually a good gauge of how long a page will take to transfer.

FrontPage Editor also includes several graphics options. These options include the ability to make GIFs transparent or interlaced directly from the editor.

Database connectivity is becoming increasingly prevalent on intranets and the Internet. FrontPage 97 lets you connect Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) databases to your Web pages, using a search engine as a front end.

One of FrontPage 1.1's highly touted features was the ability to build an entire Web site (links and all) without writing one line of HTML code. But if you wanted to hand-tune your code, you had to load the HTML document in another editor just to modify the raw code. In contrast, FrontPage 97 lets you edit HTML source code directly, going so far as to color-code tags for clearer legibility.

Site management is a time-consuming task that usually requires a program separate from your HTML editor. FrontPage Explorer uses a flowchart-like diagram of your Web site to show the links among pages, as you see in Screen 1. By showing you what works and what doesn't, this logical grouping scheme makes management easier. If a link is broken, you can see the separation in FrontPage Explorer, rather than testing each link by hand. For consistency with the Windows user interface (UI), the FrontPage 97 Explorer includes a folder view, showing the directory structure of your server's Web storage directory.

Whereas FrontPage 1.1 let you import documents into a Web, you couldn't import an entire Web site into FrontPage Explorer. In FrontPage 97, you can pull your existing Web site into FrontPage Explorer, which lets the program sort the files into separate directories.

A unique application in FrontPage 97 is Image Composer. I say unique only because graphic editors are usually sold separately, rather than bundled with an HTML editor. Image Composer takes a novel approach to image manipulation because it lets you work with non-orthogonal shapes, rather than the rectangular images other image editors use. With this capability, you can layer images one on top of the other, creating the appearance of one solid image. Screen 2 shows three separate images and Screen 3 show how Image Composer's Sprite technology merges these separate images into one layered image.

In designing FrontPage 97, Microsoft paid attention to the little details. Typed URLs automatically become links, and you can drag and drop files directly into FrontPage Explorer. The sum of these details not only makes a difference, but it's also enough to make FrontPage 97 a must-have for any Web author.

FrontPage 97
Price: $149