Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Mac web authoring for non-experts: My choices 2015.

In the beginning we wrote web pages in BBEdit and we FTPd them to a NeXT box.

Things progressed quickly. Almost two decades ago, when Microsoft FrontPage 97 was released and Macromedia created Dreamweaver, there were many powerful Windows applications for creating largely static web pages - with dynamic reflow based on HTML tables [1]. Operating systems, like Windows 95, shipped with a native web server. Netscape added Composer, fulfilling TBL’s original vision of the web as authoring environment. Non-technical users worked with server based systems, ultimately producing millions of web pages on sites like GeoCities [3].

Technology has moved in odd ways. There’s nothing quite like mass market FrontPage today, though Sharepoint Designer/Wiki came close and SeaMonkey survives. Dreamweaver is the strongest survivor of the original era, but it has evolved into a high end tool leased for $20 a month. I don’t think there’s a practical way to move Dreamweaver content to another platform, so adopting Dreamweaver is a deep commitment to the Adobe platform.

At one point I thought the Wiki would fill the vanishing mid-market niche [2], but Wiki solutions seem to have stalled out - much like WebDAV technologies. iWeb/MobileMe came and went quickly - an early sign of Apple’s decade (so far) of dysfunctional application development and fondness for destroying customer data.

Today developers hand code web sites in Coda, a programmer’s tool not so different from the BBEdit we started with. Other experts use Adobe's deep lock-in solutions, from Dreamweaver to Muse ($15/month) or open-source server-based WordPress (Less technical users some might use Blogger in a similar way).

For non-experts Weebly’s small business oriented server side authoring platform is an option, but it’s another deep data lock commitment to one vendor. Google Sites, amazingly, is still around, but focused on intranet solutions.

There are two longlived Mac desktop products both sold for $80 on the Mac App Store: RapidWeaver (presumably inspired by DreamWeaver) and Sandvox. I’ve tried both in the past, Sandvox more frequently than RapidWeaver. Neither product supports wysiwyg table authoring. RapidWeaver was last updated in January of 2014 and has three stars in the Mac App Store; it may be in maintenance mode. SandVox was last updated in April 2015 and has recently added a hosting service (revenue stream!), it has 4-5 star ratings. It’s App Store page still references iPhoto and Aperture however. Of these two I think Sandbox is more likely to make it to 2017.

It’s rarely mentioned anywhere, but TextEdit will export to well formatted HTML, and it even has table support (since 2006 at least). You can embed images and export — but only in single file “webarchive” format. As a simple page editor it’s not too bad, and it’s as standard as anything is these days, but the image limitations are a killer. (I suppose one could similarly author in Pages then view in Pages/web and export the code.)

Similarly one could author in Blogger or WordPress (example: free wordpress.com blog) wysiwyg mode, switch to HTML mode, and paste the HTML into a text editor (Coda?) for FTP upload. Or I could author in MarsEdit (as in this post) and similar export the HTML view as a file. Nisus Express and Pro both include HTML import and export; I don’t know how well their table export works and if embedded images are exported. When I last tried them years ago they weren’t a practical HTML authoring solution.

Google Docs work quite well for sharing and editing online, but they’re not useful for a root (www) web document. Very proprietary of course, but in some ways Google Docs are the closest thing we have today to the original view/edit vision of the www. I haven’t tried sharing iCloud Pages web sharing, but it seems like it would work similarly; it also can’t serve as root page of a web site.

Of the options today, what makes the most sense for me? There aren’t a lot of options on the table, so things should filter quickly with a few constraints:

  • I’d like to avoid dying products.
  • I want to be able to produce a reasonably pretty looking site without a lot of effort (iWeb pretty at least).
  • I’d like a solution that works with Dreamhost and it’s (typical) constraints on www/domain mapping [4]. 
  • I don’t want to sell my soul to Adobe. 
  • I’m not a developer and web authoring isn’t my profession. 
  • I really miss wysiwyg HTML tables and table based layout, but they are clearly gone. Still, I’d love basic table support.
  • I’d prefer to avoid hard data lock.
  • I’d like something that managed a site and updated links when I rearranged web page relationships or renamed pages.
  • I’d like to avoid major malware and security issues. Static sites are very nice that way.
  • Mac (or course) or Safari if server based.

Based on my review of the options, and applying my constraints, it’s easy to see that my best choice is ….  is …. Ok. Nothing survived the constraints. It’s easy to see why I’ve been struggling with this for about 15 years.

If I relax a few constraints I think my least bad options are WordPress (free) and Karelia Sandvox ($80). So I’m going to try both of those — and maybe, if only to close the long loop, Coda too.

Am I missing anything?

See also

- fn -

[1] I think we took the wrong road when we entirely substituted CSS for dynamic tables; no modern tool approaches the table management power of FrontPage 98. Perhaps this happened because it was insanely difficult to manage table authoring by hand, it was really a job computers did better than humans.

[2] Speaking of vanishing mid-market, remember when personal finance software was big? Intuit is trying to find a buyer for Quicken and its future looks quite bleak.

[3] The immolation of GeoCities, echoed on a smaller scale with the 2012 death of MobileMe’s iWeb based web pages, should not be forgotten.

[4] The odd handling of the www domain is, I think, a legacy of early net development. It is a pain in the butt.

Update 4/29/2016

Sandbox can be used free for up to 5 pages. I gave it a good try with a book site I’m working on. The lack of both drag-and-drop placement and tables made me give up on Sandbox. 

Of course RapidWeaver doesn’t do tables either, but I’m going to try it anyway.

It’s obvious that tables are insanely hard to implement; I wonder if CSS support made the challenge even greater. I wouldn’t mind an editor that handled CSS tables, but no tables at all reminds me of all the software functionality and value we have lost over the past 15 years (yeah, Apple Aperture, I miss you.)

Oh, and vendors, please stop trying to tell us we don’t really want tables or that HTML tables are fine. You are just insulting our intelligence. Just say something like “tables are extremely hard to do …”


Dan Swift said...

The primary focus on the web now is content and a content management system. Gone are the days of maintaining multiple web pages. I think that's why most of the WYSIWYG applications are going away. Unless you are developer, I think most people either higher someone (or company) to create their template or find a free one where they think "eh, this will do". I wouldn't be surprised if part of the drive to move to this model is accessibility issues. The web is my day job so I could go on and on :-D

My opinion, pick a hosting company that has a cPanel type thing with one-click install and choose a CMS that works for you. Do all of your editing in your browser.

Feel free to drop me a line if you want any guidance. Take care!

Mary said...

Google Sites?

Though its a bit clunky, I believe that Google use it for some of their internal documentation, which means it's not so likely to go away as some people have predicted.

Marek Piaček said...

Realmac's Rapidweaver last update is from the August 25, 2015. And with Stacks 3 it is a real powerful editor.


Best regards


JGF said...

I was looking at RapidWeaver dates on the app store Marek. Is it outdated there?

JGF said...

i've been looking at WordPress (Dreamhost) Dan -- but for some things it may be too much complexity. I quite agree that web authoring has gone pro -- the market for web creation by amateurs is largely gone.