Microsoft FrontPage 2003

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New design power and a serious focus on coding - but FrontPage still isn't ready to challenge Dreamweaver..

Microsoft's commitment to the Web is undoubted but its dedicated web-authoring package FrontPage has always been unconvincing and the last 2002 release was particularly under-whelming. By comparison, FrontPage 2003 represents a serious overhaul - but does it deliver the goods?

In the past FrontPage has always prided itself on its simplicity and virtually code-free design, but that's no longer the case. The first sign of this is FrontPage 2003's new Split view that combines both the "Normal" and "HTML" views (now renamed as "Design" and "Code"). Other new coding features include improved formatting and an Intellisense-based Autocomplete that prompts you with a drop-down list of context-sensitive options as you type. FrontPage 2003's Autocomplete also handles snippets of code that you regularly re-use and is available not just for HTML but for CSS, XSL, Javascript, Jscript, VBScript and ASP.NET all of which are now directly editable. A new tab in the Find and Replace dialog lets you intelligently search based on features such as tags and attributes. Most welcome of all is the Quick Tag Selector which shows you the currently selected tag in its hierarchical position, ready for selecting, removing or editing.

FrontPage 2003 finally foregrounds the importance of coding.

FrontPage 2003's focus is on coding but its wysiwyg design capabilities have also been boosted. You can now load an image as a background in Design view and use this to set up a page grid. Normally you'd recreate the layout using HTML tables and FrontPage 2003's handling of these has been improved with two new task panes: Cell Formatting. which lets you size and format table elements and apply new features such as AutoStretching and rounded edges; and Layout Tables and Cells. which lets you choose from a range of pre-designed layouts - you can even choose a new style and the content will be moved accordingly.

If you'd rather design your layouts using CSS-based absolute positioning rather than HTML tables, that's now an option thanks to FrontPage's new Insert > Layer command. You can interactively resize, position and arrange multiple overlapping layers to produce any design. Because CSS browser support isn't universal, HTML tables are generally a better layout option but layers come into their own for scripting. FrontPage's handling of this has been completely revamped with the new Behaviours task pane providing pre-supplied scripts to manage visibility, formatting and so on at runtime. Other behaviours let you create expanding menus, play sounds and so on, while there's a dedicated command for adding interactive Javascript-based rollover buttons.

Support for tables, layers and scripting has also been improved.

By this stage Microsoft's strategy is clear - virtually every new feature from the Split view right through to Behaviour-based scripting is a shameless lift from Macromedia Dreamweaver. As such it's not too much of a surprise to find FrontPage adding direct drag-and-drop support for Macromedia Flash files and implementing a template-based system. This latter is particularly important for team working as it allows you to lock-down page elements for security and then update them centrally and consistently. I was surprised though that Microsoft has chosen to use exactly the same syntax for its DWT (dynamic web templates) as Dreamweaver - though this does mean that Dreamweaver and FrontPage users can collaborate on a site.

Further inspiration from Dreamweaver is apparent when it comes to publishing. The new Remote Site view lets you view files on the server, get and put files and synchronize sites. Workgroup collaboration is boosted by support for file locking either via WebDAV or .lck files on FTP servers. The biggest change is apparent in the Publish command's new Optimize HTML tab. Here you can remove all the extraneous code such as Author-time Web Component Comments that FrontPage uses to maintain ongoing editability. Optimization during publishing means local and remote sites aren't identical and purists will point out that there's a lot more to streamlined HTML than just removing comments and white space, but again it's a recognition of the importance of the quality of the end user code. 

Another sign of FrontPage 2003's conversion to the more open mainstream is that it hasn't added more Web Components requiring new and proprietary server extensions (though the old ones are still supported). However you can still extend FrontPage 2003 if your site is hosted on Windows Server 2003 with Microsoft Windows SharePoint Services. This lets you set up Web Logs, Issue Tracking Lists and News and Reviews sites with the minimum of fuss. More importantly you can build data-driven sites based on XML, Web Services and OLEDB data sources. Once the link is made, you can apply pre-built Data views or you can manually format your data using any of the available tools. If you do, FrontPage 2003 automatically creates a fully editable XSLT transform that will be applied to all your data.

It's impressive power, with FrontPage 2003 not just embracing HTML but CSS, XML and XSLT! The problem is it's a huge leap to make and existing users are likely to feel let down - "I thought FrontPage was meant to protect me from all this" - while more advanced users are unlikely to be convinced by Microsoft's sudden conversion  - "if Dreamweaver's the model why not use it?"

If you want a simple and largely code-free approach to web design NetObjects Fusion is a better bet, while if you want maximum power Dreamweaver MX remains the professional solution.

Features
4
Ease of Use
4
Value for Money
5
Overall
4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

May 2003

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