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8.6. HTML Tools

HTML documents are simple ASCII text files, which means you can use any minimal text editor to write them. Fortunately, there are a number of tools that make the process of generating HTML documents more quick and efficient. They fall into two main categories: HTML editors and WYSIWYG (What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get) web authoring tools.

8.6.1. HTML Editors

HTML editors are text editing tools designed especially for writing HTML. They require that you know how to compose HTML by hand; however, they save time by providing shortcuts for repetitive tasks like setting up documents, tables, or simply applying styles to text.

There are scores of simple HTML editors available, and many of them are free. Just enter "HTML Editor" in the search field of Shareware.com (http://www.shareware.com) and wade through the results. For purposes of brevity, I'm going to cut to the chase.

Windows users should definitely check out HomeSite, a high-powered and inexpensive HTML editor from Allaire (recently merged with Macromedia). It features HTML shortcuts and templates, color-coded HTML syntax, an FTP function, HTML syntax checker, spell-checker, and multiple-file search-and-replace. In addition, it includes wizards for creating more complex elements (such as frames, JavaScript, and DHTML) and many other attractive features. For more information and to download a demo copy, see http://www.allaire.com/products/HomeSite/. HomeSite information is also accessible on the Macromedia site at http://www.macromedia.com/software/.

If you're working on a Macintosh, you want BBEdit, a commercial HTML editor from Bare Bones Software, Inc. It is overwhelmingly the editor of choice among Mac-based web developers. It includes features such as an array of HTML shortcut tools, color-coded HTML syntax, multiple-file search-and-replace, a built-in FTP function, support for 13 programming languages, a table builder, an HTML syntax checker, and a lot more. For more information and to download a demo version, see http://www.bbedit.com.

8.6.2. WYSIWYG Authoring Tools

WYSIWYG HTML editors have graphical interfaces that make writing HTML more like using a word processor or page layout program. So for instance, if you want to add an image, just drag it from the desktop onto the page; the authoring tool creates all the HTML coding needed to accomplish the effect on the screen. In addition to simple style and format shortcuts, many of these tools automate more complex tasks such as creating Cascading Style Sheets, adding JavaScript functionality, and generating time-based DHTML effects. Some can even tailor code to specific browsers.

In the beginning, the goal was to spare authors from ever having to touch an HTML tag in the same way that page layout programs protect designers from typing out PostScript. Today, the role of WYSIWYG authoring tools has shifted towards making document production and site management more efficient and automated while still providing access to the HTML source. Pros and cons

Many professional HTML coders shun web authoring tools, preferring the "pure" experience of creating HTML documents by hand using only a full-featured HTML editor. Others appreciate being spared the grunt work of typing every HTML tag and find the WYSIWYG environment useful for viewing the page and making design decisions on the fly.

If you do choose to use a web authoring tool, don't expect it to excuse you from learning HTML altogether. In many cases, you will need to do some manual fine-tuning to the resulting HTML code. There are a few pros and cons to authoring tools that you should consider.

The pros include:

  • They are good for beginners. They can even be useful for learning HTML because you can lay out the page the way you want and then view the resulting code.

  • They are good for quick prototyping. Design ideas can be tried out on the fly.

  • They provide a good head start for creating complex tables and other advanced functions, such as JavaScript and DHTML functions.

  • They offer considerable time savings over writing code by hand.

But also keep in mind these cons:

  • Some programs are infamous for not generating clean HTML documents. They add proprietary or redundant tags and often take circuitous routes to produce a desired effect.

  • Some editors automatically change an HTML document when you open it in the program. They add their own tags and may strip out any tags they do not recognize.

  • The code these programs generate may not conform to the latest HTML specifications.

  • The built-in graphics-generating features do not offer much control over the quality or the file size of resulting graphics.

  • They are expensive. The more powerful packages cost hundreds of dollars up front and additional costs to upgrade. Some available web authoring tools

The following is an introduction to a handful of the tools that are popular as of this writing (versions are omitted because of the speed of updates). All are available for Mac and Windows systems.

Macromedia Dreamweaver

As of this writing, Dreamweaver has emerged as the industry-standard HTML authoring tool, due the fact that it produces the cleanest code of any of its competitors. It does not generate proprietary code and it will not change any code that you add. It is one of the most full-featured authoring tools on the market. It has a fairly steep learning curve. For more information, see http://www.macromedia.com.

Adobe GoLive

Another powerful and professional-level HTML editing tool, GoLive supports all the cutting-edge web technologies (JavaScript, ActiveX, WebObjects, style sheets, etc.). It also provides excellent site management tools. Its interface is more difficult to learn than other tools, but it seems to be worth the effort. For more information, see http://www.golive.com.

Microsoft FrontPage (Windows only)

FrontPage is easy for beginners to learn and is popular with the business community. It offers wizards, themes, and tools that make web page creation easy for beginners. FrontPage 2000 won't mangle your code the way earlier versions did, which is good news, but it still produces code that many professional web authors consider to be unsatisfactory. Some FrontPage functions are closely integrated with Microsoft's Internet Information Server (IIS), so check with your hosting service for possible conflicts. For more information, see http://www.microsoft.com/frontpage/.

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