SAN FRANCISCO (03/17/2000) - It may be a while before home improvement guru Bob Vila lends his name to a home-page building site. Why? Most do-it-yourself sites look like a Tim Allen accident from the sitcom Home Improvement. The free LiveUniverse.com site stands out from this crowd.
Sophisticated sites are best built by pros. But nonetheless LiveUniverse.com aims to give Web rookies professional polish with its page-building tools that allow users to easily create a Web site with chat rooms, bulletin boards, guest books, and online quizzes.
I tested a beta version of LiveUniverse.com and found it easy to use. It only took a few hours to put together a Web site with advanced features like a bulletin board and a list server, which makes managing large e-mail lists simple. Now I'm ready to host chats, invite readers to post opinions on my bulletin board, and manage an e-mail-based discussion with anyone who cares to register with my site for updates.
Beyond a One-Page Wonder
To start, I selected what I needed from LiveUniverse.com's features, or "Tools," which include a chat function, quizzes, and polls. Next, I picked a layout from the available templates: Medical, Corporate, Homepage, Personal, or Business. I then refined the layout, selecting colors and font sizes. I ended up with a dummy page, and then replaced the sample text and images with my own.
Links to the Tools I chose appeared at the top of my home page by default, but I was able to embed them throughout my site. I could also edit the raw HTML code.
The Hammer Hits the Thumb
While I was building my Web site I was stung by three frustrating bugs. First, the E-Mail List Tool worked only half the time. LiveUniverse.com attributes this to heavy simultaneous usage. Second, when I wanted to tweak the HTML code I couldn't find the index.html file until I asked LiveUniverse.com tech support for help. Third, a link to my chat room wouldn't embed at the top of my page, and again I had to call for assistance.
There are some more caveats. For example, the URL I was assigned is way too long -- the convention (http://sitebuilder.liveuniverse.com/username) is embarrassingly cryptic. In addition, there are not enough templates -- and many are just plain ugly. But that shouldn't be an issue for people who just want to host their existing sites on LiveUniverse.com servers and take advantage of the host's advanced features.
To its credit, LiveUniverse.com does not insist on branding the home pages. The Tools, however, display the LiveUniverse.com logo. In addition, LiveUniverse.com offers advanced features like polls and chat, unlike many of its competitors. And LiveUniverse.com imposes no limit on the size of users' home pages. The site even makes it easy for users who have their own Web sites to add LiveUniverse.com Tools to their own pages, by copying a bit of the Java-based HTML code.
In my experience nothing is ever as easy as it should be on the Net -- and that includes using LiveUniverse.com. But LiveUniverse.com is a cut above the rest.