WYSIWYG HTML editor and WWW page-handling tool
Published by Adobe Systems Incorporated (0101 800 833 6687)
Distributed in the UK by Adobe Systems UK (0131 451 6888)
Recommended selling price: UK£99 (Multi-user packs are also available)
Typical selling price: UK£75
Educational pricing: Adobe Systems offer a 50% reduction over its entire range for educational users.
Availablity: Adobe PageMill 1.0 for Macintosh is available now; A Windows version will be available first-quarter 1996.
Over the past five years, many cartographers have found themselves becoming typesetters and layout artists. Perhaps despite their own reservations, it was assumed they possessed the design skills, knowledge and experience for page design; and just as importantly, many possessed the computer - a Macintosh - perceived as the standard platform for much of the pre-press industry. For the past two years a new form of page layout has been sweeping the world. These are the totally electronic pages of the World Wide Web (WWW), and it is a fair guess that before too long, many cartographers will be asked to start creating pages for this new medium.
The WWW is barely four years old, and is still growing up fast. Although some web pages are dazzling displays of the designers art, the whole thing is controlled by HTML (HyperText Mark-up Language), an intricate series of text and tags which control the whole look and layout of a page. Although there has been a proliferation of HTML editors, all of these have been text-based, could in no way be considered user-friendly, and required an extensive knowledge of HTML to produce anything but the simplest of web pages. When PageMill was first rumoured this summer, it rapidly became known as 'the PageMaker of the WWW', and its commercial launch was eagerly awaited. Adobe finally launched it in late November.
At first meeting, PageMill is both an excitement and a disappointment. If you have been used to writing HTML 'by hand' (ie the hard way) it is also most disconcerting. PageMill is the first true WYSIWYG HTML editor, and like any good WYSIWYG application, shields you from those unfathomable formatting commands that lie behind the glossy facade. You rarely think of these commands in PageMaker or XPress, but HTML writers have come to know (though probably not love) them, and loosing them can be quite a shock. PageMill cannot show you the HTML coding and you have to open up the file with a text editor to view the code. However, you do soon get used to the fact that you are always working in what is effectively a preview-mode.
Once you get used to working in PageMill, you quickly find it's an invaluable tool to start exploring the possibilities of layout and design. You don't have to keep previewing your designs in a web browser such as Netscape to see what you have actually coded. PageMill has a simple and elegant interface, similar to a web browser. A toolbar at the top of the page can handle much formatting, and although the icons are a little too small, a text prompt for each is given at the side. PageMill works in two modes: Preview, which simulates how your pages will finally appear on a web browser, and Edit, which allows you to edit your layout. In reality there is little between the two modes. In Preview, links are double-clickable (though of course, only for files you are creating. It is all too easy to expect PageMill to link to third-party sites). Edit mode allows you to change those links in a WYSIWYG environment. I would have also preferred a third mode - raw HTML - to see what was actually being coded.
PageMill coped well with a variety of documents. During this review I tried previously HTML-coded pages, text files from a word-processor that had to be converted to web pages, and web pages created from scratch. Most work without a problem, but some word-processed files lost their line breaks, and had to be put through a text-based HTML editor first. Much of the interface is drag-and-drop, and this speeds up the coding process tremendously. The lack of a spell-checker is the most suprising omission, and would prove very useful in the creation of new pages. Links are coded by highlighting and if the appropriate file exists locally, dragging this onto the highlight. If the link is to an outside server, the URL is either pasted into a location bar dialog, or the complete link is dragged or copied from another document. Images can be imported directly into PageMill as either GIFs or JPEGs. It will automatically convert PICTs to GIFs, and can set GIF background transparency and interlacing at the click of a mouse. It has an excellent toolset for making image maps and their associated links. PageMill also allows you to make coloured and tiled backgrounds, and set coloured text.
It is when opening previously coded pages that the disappointments start. PageMill supports version 2 of HTML. This is good enough to support the basic options for a web page that you know will reliably work with all web browsers. HTML is currently in a state of flux. HTML 3.0 has been proposed for some time now, though nothing has been formally implemented. In the absence of any agreed format, Netscape (the most popular WWW browser) has developed its own extensions, and by default, these have almost become standard due to Netscape's dominance. PageMill supports some, but not all, proposed HTML 3.0 tags and Netscape extensions. The result is that you may find your existing pages splattered with red 'raw HTML' coding when you open them up in PageMill. However, this is as much HTML's failing, as it is PageMill's, as in the absence of an agreed standard, PageMill cannot be expected to support every variety of HTML. The biggest disappointment of all is the lack of support for HTML tables. Tables are both difficult and tedious to code by hand. This has been the major criticism of PageMill so far, and one I expect Adobe are addressing with urgency. Also, though I have not experienced the problem, many HTML authors on the Internet have remarked that PageMill can implement HTML in a non-standard way that will not layout properly in any other Web browser except Netscape Navigator.
PageMill also has excellent tools to create forms, another tedious aspect of HTML writing, and working in WYSIWYG allows you to quickly create a variety of layouts. However, PageMill doesn't aid the creation of the CGI scripts, the programming language in the background which controls the form. PageMill's manual simply says "Programming experience is required to create a script. Information about script creation is beyond the scope of PageMill and this user's guide, so you'll probably need some technical help to create an action script for your form." Thanks guys ! As there are already applications in existence that will help create and write CGI scripts for you, I hope this is another shortcoming Adobe are looking at.
The PageMill user manual runs to 60 pages and though a comprehensive guide to the application, it is lacking in some details. It contains a glossary of general HTML terminology, but gives no guide to any HTML commands PageMill does not support and you may wish to include. The manual also includes a 'Resource Guide' with URLs to quite a few WWW sites, though curiously, it doesn't include a PageMill version of this that could be used with a browser, and consequently all the URLs have to be entered manually.
Although the manual recommends you create a 'root' folder on your hard disk into which all files are placed to be uploaded to your WWW server at some later stage, it does not emphasise this strategy strongly enough, nor give enough advice on how to handle existing sites. Finally, PageMill does not give any help in uploading the files to your server. It does recommend the Fetch FTP application for this, but loading files onto a remote server can be a daunting task for naive users, and some help in this area will be appreciated.
Version 1.0 of PageMill has been reviewed here, and it is obviously still very much a fledgling product. Despite my criticisms of it, PageMill is already a very useful application and has the potential to become an invaluable tool for anyone working with WWW sites. Currently PageMill has only one rival on the horizon - Netscape Gold. As may be expected from the name, this is a 'professional' version of Netscape that supports many HTML 3.0 features, extensions, frames, etc. Netscape Gold was unavailable for comparison, and although the Netscape site gives copious details on Gold, it doesn't tell you how much it will cost (it certainly won't be free), and when it will be available. From the specification sheets, it appears that Netscape Gold does not offer any more HTML editing features than PageMill.
So, if you are considering, or currently writing HTML, should you bother with PageMill ? In a word - yes. If PageMill is the PageMaker of the WWW, it is currently at that stage where everyone was content using 24pt San Francisco for those titles. Expect it to develop into a feature-crammed beastie you just cannot live without, and expect it to develop quickly. There are a few wrinkles that need ironing out, but it's the first tool to bring the WWW out of the laboratory and into everyone's grasp. Adobe have produced a simple, sturdy application, capable of turning out good WWW pages. It may seem a little unadventurous to the web-wizards, but it's a god-send to the rest of us. If you haven't used HTML, PageMill will shield you from its complexities; if you write HTML regularly, PageMill will allow you to produce webpages far more quickly and reliably than you have been able to previously (though you may still wish to view the HTML with a text editor before mounting it on your server); if you are a web-wizard, you will have already bought it, just to see what all the fuss is about. In short, if you have to produce HTML, buy PageMill.