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Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003 Preview

FrontPage is Microsoft's Web site creation and management application, and part of the Microsoft Office System (formerly the Microsoft Office family of products). The software giant purchased FrontPage and its parent company Vermeer Technology for $130 million in early 1996 largely because the product was one of the first WYSIWYG Web page editors, and even though millions of customers use the product every day and it continues to be unmatched, in some ways, by the competition, FrontPage has never gotten a lot of respect in the Web development world. That's largely because FrontPage had historically eschewed code quality over output, with the idea being that no one cares what the underlying structure of Word or Publisher documents are, as long as what the end user sees is high-quality; shouldn't the same rules apply to Web pages? The problem with this approach, of course, is that Web developers and designers tend to work directly with the code in their pages, unlike word processing users, and FrontPage's infamous code mangling quickly won it little support among the Web's elite.

Despite this, I've always liked and used FrontPage, and I distinctly remember downloading the first preview version Vermeer offered in late 1995; it was impressive for the time, though it confusingly had two separate apps, one for editing and one for managing sites and files. After using Visual InterDev for Web development for several years, largely because of its excellent code editor, I was able to switch to FrontPage full-time with the release of FrontPage 2002, part of Office XP. That release was the first version of FrontPage to include a decent code editor, a feature that was significantly enhanced in FrontPage 2003. Like many of the Office 2003 products, FrontPage 2003 is largely an evolution, rather than a new, written-from-scratch product. But if you use FrontPage, or are comfortable with Microsoft Office and would like to learn more about Web publishing, FrontPage 2003 is an excellent upgrade. Here are the features in Microsoft FrontPage 2003 that really make this version worthwhile to me.

Better code-writing tools

As a one-time programmer and professional Web developer, I'm happy to report that FrontPage 2003's code editor is very similar to that in Microsoft's Visual Studio .NET products. This is a huge deal for me, and probably for many other users, because it means that FrontPage now includes advanced code editing capabilities, like IntelliSense, which includes HTML, JScript and VBScript statement completion and drop-down lists of available parameters, depending on which code construct with which you're dealing (figure). The FrontPage code editor also supports features programmers have been clamoring for, such as optional line numbers, automatic indenting, and HTML tag matching (FrontPage will automatically append </a> to the end of <a href="">, and so on), which works well (figure).

Of course, the big gripe against FrontPage has always been its code mangling. As I noted in my review of FrontPage 2002 (LINK), however, FrontPage has actually made huge improvements in this area over the year, leading me to suspect that the product's detractors are working with out-of-date information. In FrontPage 2003, the ante has been upped significantly with the addition of a new Optimize HTML tool (figure). This tool can significantly clean up HTML code, removing extraneous whitespace, HTML comments, and other unnecessary gibberish. Optionally, you can choose to optimize HTML as it's posted to a public site, letting you work with the fully commented versions locally. Nice.

For people not interested in moving between Design and Code modes, FrontPage 2003 now offers a new Split view (figure) that divides the editing window into separate design and code panes. I don't personally use this feature much, as my style of Web page development varies per project; my personal Web site is developed almost solely in Design view, while my SuperSite work is done purely in Code view. However, I could see this being a big feature for many people, especially those moving from the word processing world to the more code-centric Web development world.

One new feature I'm ecstatic about involves cut and paste. In previous FrontPage versions, when you cut and paste text and other items from Word, IE, or other applications into FrontPage while in Code view, FrontPage would actually attempt to apply the style of the incoming object, which often resulted in a bizarre jumble of HTML and style tags and a lot of hand editing to get rid of it all (alternatively, you could do a Paste Special, which required an extra step). Now, you just get plain text when you paste into Code view, which is exactly the way it should be. Bravo.

Another excellent improvement also involves the move to a more professional code editor. In previous FrontPage versions, you couldn't select a block of text and move its indent; for example, if you made a selection and pressed TAB, the entire block of text was replaced by a TAB character. This meant you had to manually tab each line of code over to where you wanted it, an unnecessarily laborious process. But the FrontPage 2003 code editor works like exactly that in Visual Studio .NET 2003: When you select a block of text and press TAB, the entire block of text moves to the right (figure); hitting SHIFT+TAB moves the text to the left. Finally!

New layout tools

Of course, FrontPage is, at heart, a visual editor, so it's not surprising to see some important HTML layout improvements as well. First, FrontPage 2003 supports richer Web site templates than previous versions, though they still seem more at home in Word documents than Web sites. But FrontPage 2003's templates are syntax compatible with those from Macromedia Dreamweaver 4, which is nice for those people moving from Dreamweaver to FrontPage (unlikely) or working together on a site with Dreamweaver users (only slightly less unlikely).

On that note, I don't use FrontPage's visual tools all that often, though some are worth noting. For the first time, you can visually place objects onto a page in FrontPage, and use a ruler and/or grid to align them where you want them. Sadly, it doesn't feature true drag-and-drop functionality, ala Visual Basic .NET. But FrontPage does sort of support pixel-perfect layout through its new layout table tools, which take the old-school approach of using HTML tables (rather than Cascading Style Sheets, CSS) to create layout. On the other hand, it does work, and the HTML code it generates isn't horrible either (figure).

So why would you use such a tool to do layout? The biggest reason is that FrontPage lets you add effects that would be painful to create manually. For example, lets say we wanted to have curved corners using a simple layout table. How would you do that in pure HTML? With images, of course, and that's a lot of work even for a professional graphics artist (which I'm not). But FrontPage lets you add curved corners directly through the interface, and they look pretty good (figure). You can also add shadows to table cells as easily (figure).

Another potentially neat new feature I haven't had the time to try extensively is called Image Tracing. This feature lets you import a drawing you or a Web designer has made of the site and then trace layout elements over the top. Here's how it works: First, select the image you want to trace, configuring transparency and where it should appear on the page. Then, you simply draw table and cell boundaries and you're in business with a layout that accurately reflects the drawing you made.

Better Web browser integration

Previous FrontPage versions were often criticized as being "IE editors" rather than true Web editors. There was some truth to this, though previous versions offered at least lip service support of non-IE browsers like Netscape. Starting with FrontPage 2003, however, non-IE browser support has been enhanced dramatically, and since I like to work primarily with Mozilla-based browsers, and then test sites for compatibility in IE and other browsers after the fact, this change is most welcome.

At its simplest level, FrontPage 2003 lets you set your default browser without going through a dialog box. Frankly, I don't understand why it doesn't pick up your default browser setting from the OS, but the new Preview drop-down (figure) does at least give you options for all of your installed browsers, even if IE is first. When you choose "Default browser for HTML files," that does become the default in FrontPage, which I appreciate. You can also simultaneously preview in multiple browsers, check various resolutions, and edit your list of acceptable browsers. Good stuff.

Final thoughts

Sadly, Microsoft has chosen not to include FrontPage 2003 in any of the Microsoft Office 2003 suite versions, though the previous version was available, for a limited time, in a special version of Office XP Professional Edition (cunningly called Office XP Professional Edition with FrontPage) that also included a Microsoft optical mouse. With Office 2003, potential users are going to have to shell out about $100 to upgrade to the new version of FrontPage, which won't be an obvious choice for many people. But for me, FrontPage 2003 is an excellent upgrade and a product I use almost every single day.

So how do you decide whether to upgrade? If you're currently using an earlier FrontPage version and like it, FrontPage 2003 is a no-brainer. It includes better coding capabilities and, if you're into that kind of thing, better visual layout tools as well. If you're among the Web elite and scoff and the very thought of FrontPage, I can't help you, other than to disagree with your opinion. But look at it this way: If all you need is an excellent Web code editor, FrontPage 2003 stands up very against any competition in the $100 space. Give it a look.

If you're familiar with other Microsoft Office applications and are used to that sort of interface, and would like to get into Web page design using something a little more sophisticated than Word, FrontPage is, again, an obvious choice. Most other Web design tools, like Macromedia Dreamweaver MX, are aimed at professionals and will only confuse you. With FrontPage, you get ease of use and an awesome code editor.

Remember, most FrontPage critics probably aren't familiar with the latest version. For those of you still on the fence, simply spend some hands-on time with the product. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

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