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by Stevi Deter

SINCE THE EMERGENCE of the first WYSIWYG tool for web page design, there has been a split in the web design community: graphical user interface (GUI) versus text editing. GUI users like being able to focus immediately on the way the page actually look. Text editor users like having control over their HTML coding. Text editor users tend to be more vocal in their disdain for the other camp -- people who didn't even bother to learn HTML and didn't care about the horrors inflicted upon their code by the GUI editor. GUI-produced HTML has rarely conformed to standards, and usually has particular quirks that make those of us who have to edit the pages later crazy: missing closing tags, a proliferation of font tags, proprietary tags that have no discernible use and generate error results in our error logs every time the page is viewed.

I've always been a strong supporter of text editing myself but have found myself forced into the world of GUI editors for two reasons: the sheer size of the web sites I maintain, and the need to work with content providers who shriek in terror at a body tag. One of the sites I currently develop and administer has over 13,000 objects. Not having the luxury of a database for this site, I've resorted to GUI editors to make the process of page creation faster and to take advantage of whatever site management tools I can (not many can handle a site quite so large). As most webmasters know, the more work you can persuade your users to do, the easier your job (usually) is. So if relying on WYSIWYG editors is what it takes to get my content providers to write their web pages themselves, I'm willing to put up with the awful HTML code.

But no longer! I finally have a tool that allows GUI ease for my users while providing clean, well formatted HTML code that is easy for me to edit. Macromedia Dreamweaver 2 is one of the best web tools to come out in the history of the web. It's so easy to use that my product evaluators, all web neophytes, were creating HTML pages almost immediately. And instead of the usual horror of links to files and modified paths for image files, I was receiving pages that I could post to the web site with almost no editing.

From my perspective, one of Dreamweaver's most attractive features is its powerful templates. I can create templates for the various page formats on my web site and publish them for use by my content providers. They can create a new page from the template as easily as creating a new blank page. More importantly, templates allow the designer to lock off sections as uneditable. The user is presented with a page in which s/he can only change those sections that should be changed, and absolutely nothing in the headers, footers, and navigation bars is modified.

One of my biggest frustrations when using FrontPage, a tool I had resorted to out of sheer desperation, was FrontPage's propensity to modify links. All the image links would be reset to expect files in the local directory -- which isn't all that helpful for a page that's not in the image directory, nor is it ever going to be. Linking checking was a boring and arduous task. Netscape Composer, another tool frequently used by my content contributors, does the same thing, although it does allow you to set options to stop it from doing so -- if you can figure out what the options mean.

The handling of links is one example of the benefits of the Dreamweaver approach. Dreamweaver will not change your HTML code unless you specifically ask it to, and even then, you can choose what changes are made -- just format it for easier reading as text, or clean out extraneous tags and add missing closing tags, even clean out all comments if that's what you want. This is a refreshing change from the other major WYSIWYG editors, which seem to think they know better than you what you want. I have countless times been unable to get FrontPage to do what I want; ever encountered the behavior where it decides you really want a full paragraph space between each of your list items? I'll go into the HTML, edit it by hand, return to the GUI, and, voila!, FrontPage has helpfully set it back to what it was before. Infuriating.

You'll never get that behavior from Dreamweaver. If you do encounter a case where what you're seeing on the GUI is not what you really want, you can click the "Show HTML Source" tag, edit the HTML directly, return to the GUI window, and there the text will be, behaving the way you want it to. I'm actually getting to the point where this is no longer a surprise for which I am grateful.

In addition to refraining from mucking about with your code unless asked, Dreamweaver has some very good compliance-checking features. You can select to write pages that will only work with both the major browsers. You can select which version of HTML with which you want to be compliant. You can even add your own tags to be part of the standard that is checked if you really want to.

Extensibility is another powerful plus for Dreamweaver. If you can write JavaScript, you can write add-ins and even modify the out-of-the-box stuff that comes with the program. Want to make your default table five columns wide and four rows deep? Go straight to the source and change the code Dreamweaver inserts when you select to insert a table. Have a nifty bit of JavaScript that can add some functionality to your pages? Add it to the objects window, and have access to it with just one click. It's also that easy to add chunks of pre-written HTML to drop into your pages as needed.

For site management features, Dreamweaver lets you choose from both a site file listing and a site map listing. The site map is one of the nicer implementations I've seen. Dreamweaver uses a site cache, which means that it doesn't create a folder and file for every folder and file you have on the site to track links. I've also been impressed with the speed with which Dreamweaver can create a site map for a large site.

Dreamweaver can use the local file system or FTP to copy from your development area to the live site. Publishing your new file is as easy as clicking the "put" button. Dreamweaver also provides a rudimentary access control system, in which you can enable a check-out/check-in feature that will let you know if you're trying to edit a file someone else has checked out of the system. While source-control features are lacking in version 2, I've found it robust enough to save me from several errors, especially as I work on my site from both home and work. I can tell if I've checked out a file on my work machine, which will remind me not to modify it from home.

One of my absolute favorite tools in Dreamweaver is its search and replace functions. You can search and replace in just the "text" of the file (just the content), the HTML source, or in individual tags. You can also use regular expressions that allow you to create extremely complex replace requirements; anyone who has made major modifications to a static site should be able to appreciate this feature. This feature alone has saved me hours, if not days, of work and in my estimation is worth the price tag.

I'm not alone in my high estimation of Dreamweaver. The recent Web99 Design and Development conference gave Dreamweaver the Reader's Choice Tool Award, noting that more than 20 percent of the nominations from readers of Web Techniques was for this product. Given the wide range of products they could have chosen from, not just editing programs, this speaks highly for Dreamweaver's popularity. And for once in the computer industry, this popularity is earned because Macromedia has put out the right product with the right functionality.

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