Top
Bottom
Top

Feature Article
FrontPage 98

April 1, 1998
By Scott Lewis

I just loaded FrontPage 98 on my system this month. I have used it for all maintenance of this site during March. I have also played around with some of its toys... uh, I mean features.

Before you get your hopes up on finding out all the details of FrontPage 98, let me set some baseline information. I do not have a server that supports FrontPage extensions, such as Microsoft Internet Information Server (IIS). I will not tell you about all the great things you could do with FrontPage in conjunction with IIS.

What I will cover is my experience with FrontPage 98 to create pages that will run on any server. The page you are reading resides on a UNIX server. You can also have your pages reside on your local hard drive, and get the same results. (If  you want to see the FrontPage extensions in effect you can load Personal Web Server. PWS lets your own machine act as a web server that supports FrontPage extensions. I will cover this in a future column. I do not load PWS, this way I can be sure that anything I do is supported with any server, including my UNIX server that expressly does not support FrontPage extensions.)

Themes

Now that the ground work is set, here are my experiences with FrontPage 98. First thing I played with was Themes. FrontPage enables you to set a visual theme to all your pages. As you add pages to your web site they maintain this theme, and therefore your pages retain a consistent look.

FrontPage puts special HTML code in your pages to identify where theme items go. If you are careful about maintaining your pages you can change themes at any time. You have the option of applying a theme to your entire site using FrontPage Explorer, or applying a theme to just one page with the FrontPage Editor.

But, why? I understand the theme approach to building a site. But why did Microsoft make it such a large part of FrontPage 98. It seams to me that people do not radically change the look of their web sites. Why put the effort into making the theme changeable. It seams more logical to just let you choose a theme when you first create your web site. Afterwards I doubt you would change the look so dramatically. Mind you, there is nothing stopping you from working like this. It just seams that FrontPage could operate with less overhead if the themes were a start up only option.

By the way, if you already have FrontPage 98, look in the \SDK directory of the CD-ROM. In there is the information you need to build your own themes. Something I may try myself. You can also download some new themes from Microsoft's FrontPage site.

Code

FrontPage allows you to modify the HTML code that makes up a page. Displaying the code is much easier in FrontPage 98 than FrontPage 97. At the bottom of the FrontPage editor are three tabs... Normal, HTML, and Preview. Normal is the editor. Selecting HTML allows you to see the code that makes up your page (or does it), and Preview shows you what your pages will look like in a browser.

The Preview seams to work pretty well. Pages look accurate, and work as expected. I would still test pages with actual browsers. In fact, you should always check your pages in Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator. These are the two most used browsers, and you will probably not be able to know which one your readers have.

Problems arise with FrontPage's HTML. The code you see in the FrontPage editor is not the code that is saved to disk. This can be a big problem if you put in code specific to your own server. FrontPage may modify what you type in the editor from what it saves to the actual .html file.

This is more troublesome when using themes. Code to support themes is radically changed when saved to disk. Let's take a closer look at this with an example.

Let's say you want a bulleted statement on your page. The text will be "I Love To Read Books." This is what the HTML code looks like in the HTML view of the FrontPage editor:

<ul>
  <li><font face="Arial">I Love To Read Books</font></li>
</ul>

This is the code that is saved to disk:

<!--mstheme-->
</font><!--msthemelist-->
<table border="0" cellpadding="0"
cellspacing="0" width="100%">
<!--msthemelist--><tr>
     <td valign="baseline" width="42">
<img src="_themes/auto/autobull1.gif"
width="20" height="20" hspace="11">
</td>
<td valign="top" width="100%">
<!--mstheme-->
<font face="century schoolbook,
times new roman, times">
<font face="Arial">
I Love To Read Books
</font><!--mstheme--></font>
<!--msthemelist--></td></tr>
<!--msthemelist--></table>
<!--mstheme--><font face="century schoolbook, times new roman, times">

Some difference, huh? Here is what you see in your browser:

     I Love To Read Books

For the curious, this is what you would see if the first code sample were really used:

  • I Love To Read Books

Note: Don't look at the code for this page to further understand this. I did a little fudging to get the look needed to demonstrate the differences.

My advice, don't use FrontPage if you modify a lot of HTML code yourself. Get a decent HTML editor like HomeSite.

Page Management

I have one more major gripe about FrontPage 98. Moving pages in my site caused links to get broken. I have not had enough time to find out why. This did not happen in FrontPage 97, and I cannot duplicate the problem in a FrontPage Web created with FrontPage 98. This may be a problem with FrontPage 97 sites opened in FrontPage 98. I will let you know if I figure this one out. This also applies to renaming pages on my site, but again I could not duplicate it in a site created with FrontPage 98.

Assuming that the problem I had is a glitch with opening a site built with FrontPage 97, page management in FrontPage is excellent, if a little difficult to get used to.

FrontPage Explorer is the main tool. Here is were you can create, move and rename pages. If you are using the themes, it is imperative that you learn your way around FrontPage Explorer. You can look at your site in a number of ways. There is a Folders view that lets you see the files and folders (sub-directories) of your site the way Explorer looks at your hard drive. This is a little misleading since many files are not visible. If you use Explorer (the regular one) to look at the files on your hard drive you will see a lot more files and sub-directories that make up your site. Even the All Files view of FrontPage 98 only shows the files that FrontPage wants you to see.

Next is the Navigation view. This is the most important view if you are using themes. Many of the graphics used by the themes are generated on the fly. If you create a page called "Feedback," The banner that matches your theme will be generated with the text Feedback part of it. This will help make graphically challenged individuals (like myself) better web designers. Since you don't have to figure out how to get four different text items on a banner graphic.

FrontPage uses the information in the Navigator view to generate these graphics, and to help setup your pages. You cannot change this information in the FrontPage editor. Get used to it and it will become easy to make these kinds of changes.

The downside is with the graphics. If you want to make any changes to the graphics, you will need to modify the theme. Note: I found a glitch in the active buttons on one of the themes. The glitch is in the action. FrontPage generates two graphics for an active button, the page uses a mouse over event to switch the images. The problem was that the images did not line up. You see a little shift when you pass your mouse over it. Some people might not care about this, but most people would. I was able to modify the theme (look in the directory \sdk\themes\designer to find the tool to modify themes) to fix the problem.

Files, Files, Files

If you use the themes you will have a lot of files to move to your server. FrontPage creates a lot of directories to store lots of files for your web site. You will need to maintain these files and directories on your server. This is difficult since you cannot use FrontPage 98's publishing capabilities to copy your files to a UNIX server. Tip: get a good FTP client application that can copy sub-directories. I have found another bug. FrontPage 98 is supposed to invoke the Web Publishing Wizard if it detects that your server does not support FrontPage extensions. This did not work.

Web Publishing Wizard (part of Internet Explorer 4.0 and downloadable form Microsoft's site) does a decent job of copying file to your server. If it detects that your server does support FrontPage extensions, it will copy only the files needed. However, since FrontPage 98 does invoke Web Publishing Wizard, there is now way to upload only the pages that have changed. WPW will copy your entire site. This can be time consuming over a modem connection.

The Little Things

FrontPage 97 insisted on using Times New Roman as the default font. I have always loved the font, but find Arial a little easier to read on screen. It annoyed me that FrontPage 97 kept trying to force Times New Roman on me. FrontPage 98 uses a default for the default font. What? Basically if you leave the font as default in the editor, the browser's default font is used to display text. As it should be on the web.

Spaces and tabs can be typed, and are replaced by non-printable characters in the HTML (&nbsp). This is a huge improvement over FrontPage 97. I never could figure out how to do this. I would keep cutting and pasting a non-printable character around all my pages.

In fact, the FrontPage Editor is more word-processor like. I have found it a little easier to think I am in a word processor than in FrontPage 97. A nice break from having to think how everything will look in a browser. Things flow a little smoother, and it is a welcome change.

Webbots

Some FrontPage extensions, or components, are supported on all servers, in a sense. FrontPage will save your page, the HTML code, with both a webbot (recognized by a web server like IIS) and a regular HTML version. This allows you to use some of the better features of FrontPage without IIS. (I have not had time to test the dual entries yet.) For instance, you can put a date field on your page that gets updated every time you save your page. FrontPage will actually put the date into the saved .html file. Everyone should use this. One of the most important items on a page is the date is was modified. This allows your audience to know how current the information is. I have been doing this manually, but will be changing all my dates to webbots. No more maintenance. Do it yourself, you don't have an excuse anymore.

I am going to explore how many webbots are supported in FrontPage's HTML. In a future article I will cover more of the webbots that work without server support for FrontPage extensions. I can tell you this... there seems to be a lot of navigation support that webbots can handle for you. This would make inter-page linking almost transparent to the casual web designer. More in a future column.

Conclusion

Should you get FrontPage 98. In a word, YES. I find it very good. The Editor is more word processor like, and the themes can be fun to play with. (I still don't know anyone that would change themes on a real site, but creating one is a good way to get a clean, reasonably attractive, and consistent site).

If you like to tinker with code, you will not like FrontPage as much. But this aside, I find FrontPage well worth the price of admission. With the HTML generation of many parts of your site, you can have a good site up and running in no time, assuming you have your content ready.

FrontPage 98 is even better if your server is running IIS. You can create all kinds of automated tasks, forms, counters, and generated information. It makes web site maintenance a lot easier. Just spend the time up front to build a quality shell.

Coming...

I have decided to create a web design site. Instead of just a monthly column about web design, this new format will enable me to show you what I am talking about. I will have sample web pages that demonstrate topics being discussed, and even have some examples of technology. The site will be built mostly with FrontPage 98. I will also have sections that are created solely with FrontPage Express, for those on a budget (read FREE). I may even play around with using an HTML editor. Look for it in a couple of months.

Let me know what you think of a web design site that covers the basics, and covers FrontPage from a non-IIS standpoint. Also, I need a name. Any ideas on a name for this site.

Bottom