FrontPage, front and center

Microsoft FrontPage 2003
Microsoft Corp.
Redmond, Wash.
(425) 882-8080
Rating: 4 out of 5

In the world of Web design, the line between professional and amateur has always been a bit blurry, but the gap between the two has steadily widened with the growth of the Web as a medium of business. It's fair to say that Microsoft's popular, though lightweight, Web designer, FrontPage, has long been a favorite of novice users, while the pros have tended to seek out more powerful design packages, such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver MX and Adobe's GoLive.

But serious corporate developers and weekend homepage builders alike will find a lot to appreciate in the latest version of the Microsoft tool. In fact, both because of its improved feature set and its competitive price, FrontPage 2003 may just give the competition a run for its money, especially among small business users.

Although it was on the roll call of revamped applications included in Microsoft's Office System 2003 rollout last year, FrontPage 2003 does not come bundled with any version of the new productivity suite. Yet this standalone app received some of the most extensive improvements of any of the new offerings (along with Visio and Outlook).

Microsoft has given FrontPage a major facelift in this version, drawing on the interface styles of other Office applications for a more unified look and feel. For example, this version includes ''task panes,'' a familiar feature to Office users. Task panes, such as the Layout Tables and Cells pane, make layout easier. Even the Help text appears in a task pane next to the work area. The revamped interface also provides a new level of efficiency by replacing the vertical Views bar with tabbed access to site management and editing features directly from the editing screen. Moreover, it's just a whole lot roomier, with more space on the screen to see the page you're designing.

Current FrontPage users who rely on the tool to create simple Web pages will feel at home with the new version. Its popular WYSIWYG design capabilities are here, including layout tables that let users build professional-looking sites without writing HTML code, and a variety of new templates. However, the new version combines those features with a new respect for coding. In this version, Microsoft has focused on, in the company's words, ''generating clean, industrial-standard HTML code.''

The new version includes a Visual Studio-like editor that includes professional-level developer features. Among them, I particularly liked the IntelliSense-based Autocomplete feature, which handles snippets of regularly reused code, and works for HTML, but also CSS, XSLT, JavaScript, JScript, VBScript and ASP.NET -- all are directly editable in FrontPage 2003.

Easily the coolest new feature is the Split View, which displays a design pane and a code pane at the same time. Actually, I should call this an ''it's-about-time'' feature because competing products already have it. Modifications in the design pane show up automatically in the code pane, giving users a powerful, interactive tool for writing better code. Many believe that this feature will help a lot of FrontPage users to expand their HTML coding skills by allowing them to see what the program is writing as they work with the design elements.

Another capability that I like a lot in this new version is a design-time-layers feature that makes it easier to work with multiple pieces of content from different applications. In my test, for example, I opened several GIFs (photos) with Adobe Photoshop and then combined them with some diagrams I created in Visio into a single FrontPage document. The process was simple and straightforward; I was able to position the illustrations precisely using the program's page rulers and layout grid.

This version also allows you to drag and drop Macromedia Flash content directly into the workspace. And it includes some new accessibility checkers for meeting federal guidelines.

FrontPage 2003 allows users to build Web sites that can be viewed by any browser, and it includes tools that support the targeting of specific browsers. It even lets you reconcile multiple browser conflicts. You can see how your site will look in a range of browser resolutions and correct problems before you go live. And an Autostretch feature prevents browser distortion.

But perhaps the most significant changes in FrontPage 2003 revolve around XML, which is rapidly becoming the de facto standard for sharing data among disparate computer systems. The new version of FrontPage allows users to define how XML documents that follow any customer-defined schema will be formatted on a Web page via XSLTs, which are created directly within the FrontPage editor. According to Microsoft, FrontPage 2003 is the first commercially available XSLT editor.

My biggest complaint is that FrontPage 2003 was built to support Microsoft's SharePoint Services, which is server- and desktop-collaboration software that lets workers share documents and data. What this means is that XML collaboration requires SharePoint on Windows Server 2003. In fact, all of the live, data-driven Web site features in FrontPage 2003 require SharePoint, including XML support, the Data Source Catalog, Web package templates and Web Parts. FrontPage also lets users publish to FTP and WebDAV servers, but here, too, Microsoft warns that to access the entire set of new functionality in FrontPage 2003, you should use the tool in combination with SharePoint on Windows Server 2003. (I consider Microsoft's white paper Using FrontPage 2003 to design customized Web sites created with SharePoint Portal Server , found at, to be essential reading for FrontPage users.)

Finally -- and I know that this is nitpicky -- I was disappointed in the online help, which lacked the detail found in Dreamweaver.

Overall, however, I was impressed with Microsoft FrontPage 2003. Whether it will actually cut into the markets of industrial-strength packages of Web-authoring tools, like Macromedia's Dreamweaver or Adobe Systems' GoLive, remains to be seen.

As I mentioned before, FrontPage 2003 is available only as a standalone application. But it is priced competitively at $199 for a full version, and at $109 for an upgrade (compared with Dreamweaver's heftier price tag of $399).

System Requirements:
* Personal computer with an Intel Pentium 233 MHz or higher processor, Pentium III (recommended)
* 128 MB of RAM (recommended)
* 180 MB of available hard disk space (Hard disk usage will vary depending on configuration; custom installation choices may require more or less hard disk space.) According to Microsoft, optional installation files cache (recommended) requires an additional 200 MB of available hard disk space.
* Super VGA (800x600) monitor
* Microsoft Windows 2000 with Service Pack 3 or later, or Windows XP or later

Pricing and Availability:
A full version of FrontPage 2003 is $199. An upgrade version is $109.

Bottom Line:
A major advance from the previous version with plenty of new features makes this product a must-have upgrade for current users. Its competitive price and advanced code-management features, and its support of XML, make it a product well worth trying for anyone developing commercial Web pages.

* New interface with Office-type task panes and intuitive navigation features.
* New code-management features, such as Split View and Quick Tag Selector and Editor, for faster and more accurate coding.
* New layout and graphics tools streamline the design process.
* Support for XML-based data sources.

* Lacks the detailed online help found in Macromedia's Dreamweaver.
* HTML editing tools could still be better.
* All live, data-driven Web-site features, including XML support, require SharePoint Services on Windows Server 2003.

About the Author

L.J. Cohen is a freelance programmer based in Los Gatos, CA.


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