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Contribute's simple administration and Browse-Edit-Publish workflow offers a completely new way to manage your website.

It's not often that an entirely new application is developed by one of the big software developers but that's exactly what Macromedia has done with Contribute. In fact it's not just a new program it's an entirely new category of program. Yes, it's a web authoring package but it's completely different to the likes of Dreamweaver, GoLive and FrontPage because it focuses on web content contribution rather than design.

To understand what makes Contribute so different you have to understand the need it's designed to address. The fundamental problem is that all web pages are built on HTML. In fact HTML is a very straightforward markup language but it's still code and you can't expect everyone involved in the creation of the content of a website to get to grips with it. More to the point, if a non-expert does start playing with the code they can easily wreak havoc. The almost inevitable end result is that all content gets funneled back through the HTML expert - it's an appalling bottleneck and a serious waste of everyone's time and potential. That's where Contribute comes in, promising to deliver reliable but "HTML-free" editing and authoring directly into the hands of the web site contributors.

If it's to succeed, Contribute has to be fool-proof and Macromedia has done everything it can to make the interface as intuitive as possible. The current page appears in a large window to the right with a toolbar above that changes depending on the current task. Down the left of the screen is a panel with a section listing all pages that are currently being worked on and a "How Do I." section with comprehensive step-by-step help. It really couldn't be any simpler and after ten minutes with the tutorial you are ready to begin editing.

Before you can do that however, you first need to create a connection to your site. Rather than circulating your site's LAN and FTP details and passwords, Contribute provides its own connection key system. The administrator of the site can email an encrypted key to contributors and, when double-clicked, this asks for a password. Enter it and click OK and Contribute automatically configures all necessary parameters and within seconds your connection is up and running.

Connection keys make setup simple.

Next you have to locate the page that you want to edit. Contribute takes advantage of the Internet Explorer functionality built into Windows to enable you to browse directly to the page (Macromedia is working with Opera to provide similar functionality on the Mac). With the browser toolbar's Back, Forward, Stop and buttons the functionality will be very familiar as will the ability to store regular pages as bookmarks - though I'm not sure why Contribute imports your existing favourites as you're unlikely to be allowed to edit them! As an alternative to browsing you can use the Choose File on Website command which displays a directory-based view of your site.

Once you've opened the intended page, you click on the large Edit button and the toolbars' navigation commands are replaced by simple editing editing commands. The focus is largely on text with icons for controlling alignment, indenting, bulleting and numbering and text and background colours. Using the drop-downs you can also choose from a range of point-sizes and fonts. To the contributor the power on offer seems much like a simple word processor and there's no reason to know that behind-the-scenes the formatting is actually being controlled through HTML tags - mapping the point sizes to HTML's seven in-built sizes for example and ensuring that font choices are actually applied as font lists.

The simplicity of this basic text editing is important but there's also some decent power at your disposal. As well as offering HTML's core tags from the Style dropdown, Contribute reads all CSS information connected to the current page and presents all available stylesheets which seriously boosts formatting power while keeping it strictly controlled. Also, if you're having to do more extensive text editing, Contribute lets you import or drag-and-drop work from Word or Excel while maintaining all formatting. And there's a spell-checker to prevent the most embarrassing mistakes.

Text support includes Word import and a spell checker.

Text editing isn't the only option. You can also add and edit tables, including adding and resizing columns and rows and managing table formatting. You can also add links though the default method of browsing to the target is rather laborious and a directory-style view of pages would help speed things up. In terms of graphics, you can add images though these should have been optimized first. Alternatively, you can open any image into your favourite editor and, if you use Fireworks, Contribute will even prompt you to open the embedded GIF or JPEG's associated PNG file.

Editing existing pages is relatively straightforward, but if Contribute is to be successful it also needs to enable the site contributor to create pages. Not from scratch however, as that would be asking far too much. Instead when users hit the New Page command they are asked to choose an existing page on which to base their efforts. Normally you'll pick an appropriate page as designated by the administrator, but Contribute also comes with a meagre range of unexciting sample pages that you could use as a starting point. Much more impressive is Contribute's automatic support for Dreamweaver templates which allows the site designer to set up editable and non-editable areas of the page.

As you work on your pages, three main commands are always available from the toolbar. If, despite all the protective measures, you still manage to make a mess of the page you can always hit Cancel and start again. If you want more time to work on the page you can hit the Save for Later command which is very useful if you want to work offline. When you're completely happy with your page you can hit the Publish command secure in the knowledge that all forms and server side scripts are protected and that, because Contribute shares the Dreamweaver MX HTML authoring engine, no unnecessary code has been added. If your site is based on XHTML pages, Contribute will even make sure that your changes are XHTML-compliant.

It really couldn't be much simpler for the contributor - but what about the administrator who's ultimately responsible for the site? Again set-up is child's play. Crucially, Contribute needs no server software or even any modifications to your site. Even better, it works with all standard FTP and LAN protocols and with any site whether the HTML was produced with Dreamweaver, GoLive, FrontPage or hand-coded. The end result is that, again after a quick run-through of the tutorial, you can be up-and-running in minutes.

And controlling your site's contributors is just as straightforward thanks to the use of Permission Groups. These let you regulate exactly what contributors are and aren't allowed to do. To begin with, you can control which folders are accessible and whether the contributor is allowed to delete files. This is also where you can set all scripts and forms to be protected so that your CFML, ASP, JSP and PHP code is safe. You can even lock down everything apart from the text, as well as control whether the contributor can create new pages and set what templates and samples are provided.

Administration is straightforward thanks to Permission Groups.

From the design point-of-view you can also make choices such as whether to allow multiple spaces and whether to format using the <font> tag or CSS. You can even enforce good practice by setting a maximum limit on image size and insisting that the contributor provides an alternative description for graphics. Once everything is set up, you can email the encrypted connection keys to your contributors and the relevant permissions and parameters are automatically enabled when they create their connection to the site.

Permission groups enable some level of security, but clearly opening up your site to multiple live contributors raises a number of issues. To protect from accidental overwrites, Contribute uses the same check-in, check-out system that Dreamweaver provides to prevent more than one user working on a page at any time. More protection comes from Contribute's automatic file versioning which maintains a history of who made what changes and enables you to rollback to any previous page version (by default Contribute saves four versions though you can increase this to 99).

Version rollback is an important safety feature but, by its nature, it's after the event - by the time you use it, your mistakes have already been published! It's worth thinking about and for many sites such an approach is unthinkable. Contribute does provide an E-mail Review command which automatically posts the current page to a temporary directory and emails all relevant parties to review and approve it before it's officially posted. However there's no option to set this as mandatory or even as the default workflow. Currently the best solution is to have a separate staging site that everyone can contribute to, and a public site which is only updated once approved, but that's not going to be an option for everyone.

Version rollback is useful - but only after the event.

Assuming that, after consideration, you do decide that the potential benefits outweigh the potential problems, how does Contribute perform in practice in the real world? Not surprisingly things aren't always quite as simple as they seemed in the tutorial. To begin with, Contribute's Browse-Edit-Publish workflow isn't exactly instant. When you edit a page, all its elements have to be downloaded to your system and, when you publish your changes, the new page needs to be uploaded and the existing version stored. On an FTP system this can seem pretty slow even with an ADSL connection.

If your site is not completely standard this can also lead to complications. Contribute lets you select individual pages within framesets to edit, but you'll have to ensure that contributors know how to target their links. If your site uses Dreamweaver's library system, as many do to manage their site-wide navigation, this could also lead to serious problems as these are automatically locked and uneditable within Contribute. Finally, despite the reassurances, it's worth checking the code. I was surprised to find that the formatting in imported Word documents was handled through a whole host of inline CSS and <font> tags. It's workable but hardly efficient as a web professional would have pulled out each style into a single embedded stylesheet rule.

Contribute's coding is safe but not always ideal.

It's a useful reminder that creating "HTML-free" web pages can never be completely straightforward and can never be the ideal solution. For enterprise sites, a data-driven solution remains much the best way of reliably and efficiently managing the input from multiple contributors. However, for the vast majority of smaller sites with more organic content and limited resources that's not an option. Here Contribute could prove a real godsend. As any web professional knows much of their time is spent on the relatively trivial task of content updating, while for the site contributor - or site owner - working at one remove is a constant source of frustration - and expense. Contribute unlocks this bottleneck and gets everyone working as efficiently as possible and doing what they do best.

Macromedia deserves credit for identifying a serious problem and coming up with an innovative and effective solution at an excellent price. Contribute isn't the right choice for everyone but, where it is, it could well be worth its weight in gold.

Features
4
Ease of Use
6
Value for Money
6
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

System requirements: 300MHz Pentium II, 64MB of RAM, 40MB of hard disk space, Windows 98, SE, Me, 2000, NT and XP, Internet Explorer 5 or later.

Tom Arah

Jan 2003

 

 


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