Jack of All Trades, Master of Many

FRAMINGHAM (03/06/2000) - "Intuitive Web design tool" is an oxymoron we just can't afford anymore.

In the days when two geeks could spend weeks arguing over whether or not to use frames, maybe it made sense to design Web sites using the technological equivalent of writing on wet tissues with a crayon, i.e., the classic HTML editor. Now, when companies bet millions of dollars that their Web sites will be more attractive and faster than those of their competitors, it's time to get serious. For my money, Macromedia Inc.'s Dreamweaver is serious stuff. The fact that it's also a pleasure to use is simply icing on the cake.

I've been building sites with the San Francisco-based company's latest version, Dreamweaver 3, which comes bundled with Macromedia's Web graphics tool, Fireworks. Fireworks has a lot of the same features as category leader Photoshop from San Jose-based Adobe Systems Inc. It works with Photoshop plug-ins and extensions, optimizes GIF and JPEG files for fast display and can perform detailed touch-up on original and imported artwork. Better still, it can accept Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia Freehand files, and those files will remain editable.

Fireworks also gives you the ability to perform repetitive tasks, such as resampling an image or changing palettes in batch mode. And unlike most imaging packages, it lets you build, test and edit the code for rollovers, image swaps and other interactions as you're building the graphics. The program integrates well with other Macromedia tools such as Flash and Director, but it is just about seamless in its cooperation with Dreamweaver.

But the real breakthrough here is Dreamweaver. In Version 3, Macromedia developers have obviously given a lot of thought to how Web pages are created; they've built in several features that overcome some of the more irritating routines. For example, there's a command to clean up the bulky, sloppy HTML generated by Word from Microsoft Corp. Since Word is probably the most common way to produce Web text, this step can be a real time-saver. The program has also added explicit commands to work with e-mail and image albums and overcome the layer display problems in the Netscape browser.

Version 3 also introduces QuickTag, Dreamweaver's code-revealing HTML editor.

Select an element, press Control-T, and you can see and edit its HTML code without exiting to an edit window. The program drops context-sensitive hints as to what code can be edited - and how. There's a fully interactive HTML editor as well.

Dreamweaver's preferred design mode uses layers similar to the frames used in desktop publishing packages. You draw a layer, then insert text, graphics or a table. Layers can move freely across the page. That's a pretty radical departure from the table-based grid system used by most Web layout tools, including Adobe's GoLive. Since layers upset 3.x Web browsers, you can convert layers to conventional HTML tables, albeit somewhat tediously.

Supporting the User and Team

Dreamweaver spits out dialog boxes and requests to save at just about every turn. Until you get used to it, the handholding can get on your nerves. On the other hand, I'm making fewer mistakes that need correction after the preview.

Dreamweaver understands that corporate Web teams are just that: teams. It supports the addition of time-stamped design notes in an XML file that stays with the page and can be shared across the network. I used to keep a notebook just to jot down notes on color codes, element size and so on; now I do the same thing on the page.

Dreamweaver files can be checked in and out, and the program's libraries and page collections can be synchronized with the server in just a few mouse clicks in GoLive-like fashion. And a single change to the template can propagate throughout the Web site automatically. That sort of power means you'll have less trouble making minor tweaks to a site as necessary, in Web time.

If that's all these two programs did, that would be enough to put the Dreamweaver Studio at the top of the design heap. But the program is extensively customizable. Templates can be locked so users can edit some elements without disturbing others. You can add and subtract program capabilities with JavaScript and the content-tagging language XML so that your users see only the tools they're permitted to use.

Dreamweaver's history palette provides a running tab on all keyboard commands made since the start of a session and lets you backtrack and erase your actions. You can add segments of the history as a new Dreamweaver command on the menu, which is great for automating repetitive tasks. Unfortunately, it doesn't work with mouse-driven commands such as selection, which may limit its usefulness.

The program offers support for cascading style sheets and is flexible about accepting HTML commands specific to certain Web development tools. Unlike GoLive, whose Macintosh and Windows versions have trouble communicating, the Macintosh and Windows versions of Dreamweaver swapped pages with nary a hitch.

The Dreamweaver 3/Fireworks 3 package sells for $399. The program isn't perfect. Despite its extremely precise layout capabilities, Dreamweaver lacks a zoom mode to see that precision up close. And its habit of cluttering the landscape with menus is annoying; I'd much prefer a single, tabbed toolbox. But I'll put up with those irritations for a Web design tool this intuitive.

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