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Web Developers' Dilemma: Text vs. GUI

By Lesley Hensell
Sep 17, 2003 3:55 AM PT

In the beginning, there were basic Web sites -- text arranged (sort of) on a page, with a piece of clip art dropped haphazardly into the mix. Then the Web development pendulum swung the other way. Graphics became king, and text was relegated to a supporting role -- sometimes even a cameo. Although the two elements have achieved relative balance in recent years, text still must conform to design, and as Web sites grow in complexity and scope, Web developers must rely more on programs to help them get the job done.

Web Developers' Dilemma: Text vs. GUI

Still, developers differ in their approach to Web site creation and maintenance. Some quickly and happily adopt new software that helps them build graphically intense Web sites with point-and-click ease. Others view such software tools skeptically or even scornfully.

Web development tools have evolved to reflect this dichotomy: Some, known as WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) tools, offer graphical user interfaces that allow users to drag-and-drop elements onto a page; others are mostly text-based and geared toward developers who prefer hand-coding HTML and other Web languages. Which tools are best? The answer may depend on the state of an industry that is constantly in flux.

Developing Trends

When listing top Web development tools, a few familiar names likely come to mind: Macromedia's Dreamweaver, Microsoft's FrontPage and Adobe's GoLive all hold considerable sway in the marketplace. But are these GUI-based software programs suitable for serious Web developers?

"The leader right now is Dreamweaver, followed by GoLive in second," Michael Calore, senior technical editor at Webmonkey, told the E-Commerce Times. "Macromedia has done a good job over the years of crafting Dreamweaver into 'the' building tool for developers. The product is extensively user-tested, and it shows. GoLive is still a solid program, but Adobe missed out when GoLive first went to market by trying to make the interface too similar to their other products and by not paying close enough attention to usability.

"Nobody in Web development takes FrontPage seriously," Calore added. "It's made for beginners, but it only encourages bad habits that slow them down when they move on to more complicated design and programming tasks."

When Content Is King

Makers of the abovementioned WYSIWYG products once believed they could count on revenue from less-experienced users. It was assumed that content providers would use Dreamweaver or FrontPage to update pages that had been created by their firms' Web development teams. But any movement toward spreading development tools throughout the organization seems to be evaporating.

Instead, many IT departments are developing automated tools that allow content managers to literally cut and paste text into an existing site, leaving the more complex job of working with Web development tools to the Web developers. Those developers, in turn, can be free to choose a more complex tool, since they will be the only ones using it.

Looking Up Language

With nearly a dozen large Web sites and complex e-commerce back-end systems, Encyclopaedia Britannica is one company that has forsaken GUI development tools in favor of text editors. The company's Web sites feature a common look-and-feel, but each provides different information to a different subscriber base. By focusing on coding rather than working in a GUI, sites can be rapidly developed in extensible markup language (XML), according to Tom Lang, executive director of product technology at Encyclopaedia Britannica.

All of the company's sites are based on graphic design and logic structures created in XML. When a new site is developed, the team builds a new database. By applying that database to the company's standard Web site infrastructure, a completely new site that adheres to Britannica's look-and-feel can be up and running very quickly. This includes a new site featuring language in traditional Chinese characters.

"If a firm out there needs a Web site as a presentation tool or a marketing extension of their core business, maybe it would make sense for them to use a tool like Dreamweaver or even FrontPage," Lang told the E-Commerce Times. "But they're not going to be creating new Web sites day in and day out."

An Editor and Then Some

Jay Cann, CTO of Web development firm Macquarium Intelligent Communications, agreed that coders can be more productive when they use a powerful editing tool. "We don't have any visual designers who just visually design -- they're all HTML coders," he told the E-Commerce Times.

Macquarium designers sometimes use Dreamweaver, Cann said, but have moved away from it since frame sets became less popular.

"We almost always bring the site back to BBEdit for final tweaks," he added. "It has some of the best search-and-replace tools of any program I've ever seen. And it has a fantastic HTML tools palette, which drops in code snippits automatically."

All About Control

Indeed, Bare Bones Software's BBEdit, available for Mac OS only, is all about control.

"We've heard time and time again, year after year, from our Web designer customers -- they want control," Rich Siegel, founder of Bare Bones, told the E-Commerce Times. "Giving them a text editor gives them ultimate control."

Other Web development tools can make tweaks to the code, causing problems for developers, Siegel said. In contrast, BBEdit provides a simple text editor, plus a palette of tools to automate certain tasks, such as tagging, syntax checking and basic site management.

"If you are working in a graphical HTML generating tool and it generates incorrect HTML, there is nothing you can do about it," Siegel said. "You will have to resort to another tool to clean up the mess."

Beyond the Coding Frontier

However, some Web page elements cannot be created effectively in a text editor -- and the next generation of Web technologies may defy manipulation by even the most highly skilled coders.

Consider Corel Smart Graphics Studio. Launched in April, the software creates dynamic, interactive graphics based on real-time information for intranets and extranets. It adheres to the latest standard buzzing around the industry: Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG).

"There are people who like to write HTML by hand and folks who like products like Dreamweaver and FrontPage," Ian LeGrow, Corel's vice president of new ventures, told the E-Commerce Times. "But I also think that the market is changing. HTML is definitely here to stay as the main vehicle for Web page layouts. But we're going to be seeing a pretty radical change from simple-to-edit, static HTML to more of an XML interface where [scalable vector graphics] comes into play."

With SVG, he said, users will be able to experience more rich, dynamic Web sites based on real-time information. The more dynamic a Web site becomes, however, the less practical it is to hand-code.

LeGrow noted that a new kind of developer is emerging at the forefront of Web development teams -- one who is an expert in either coding or graphic design but also can dabble in the other profession. The balance of power may be shifting yet again, toward a new middle ground -- and if it does, Web development tools no doubt will evolve to accommmodate it.


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