FrontPage 2003 leaves the Office nest

FrontPage comes into its own with its latest version. With more hooks and features than earlier incarnations, FrontPage 2003 is giving other Web design tools a run for their money. The question is, do you need this much power?

By Mike Gunderloy and Susan Harkins

Earlier versions of FrontPage have the reputation of being more of a tagalong Web tool in Office rather than being a serious competitor in the Web design market. FrontPage 2003, however, does seem to finally have the makings of a real Web design tool. Microsoft's marketing hype claims you can use FrontPage 2003 to create better Web sites quicker and with less effort than before. The hype may be right—but does this mean you should spend the money to upgrade?

Who needs it?
FrontPage 2002 is a part of the Office Developer Edition package. But with Office 2003, Microsoft is dropping the Developer Edition. None of the standard suites will include FrontPage. Instead, FrontPage 2003 will be available as a separate product through retail, OEM, and volume licensing channels. This means that you need to think about the FrontPage upgrade decision separately from the rest of Office; you won’t get it in the box “for free.” Hopefully, Microsoft will offer an attractive price for existing Office owners, but such details have not yet been announced.

FrontPage 2003 tries to push the envelope in both directions, with new high-end features (such as XSLT editing) and more ease-of-use for common tasks. Experienced developers can use their skills to work efficiently with the new tools and enhanced features with very little time spent learning the product. FrontPage 2003 is flexible enough for both the casual user and the professional developer.

New and enhanced design features
Perhaps the biggest change is the inclusion of task panes—it's another Office-familiar feature that's working its way into all the Office applications. In particular, the Layout Tables And Cells task pane, as shown in Figure A, takes tables and formatting to a point-and-click level not seen before.

Figure A
The Layout Tables And Cells task pane is new to FrontPage 2003.

A number of new tools make layout easier than ever. These include:
  • Pixel-precision control.
  • Autostretch, which prevents browser distortion.
  • A variety of layout templates that take a lot of the grunt work out of the process of creating a Web page.
  • Design-time support, which makes it easier to work with multiple pieces of content that share the same space.
  • Image tracing, which allows you to work from a background picture to build content.
  • Default behaviors, which make it easier to work with foreign graphics.
  • The ability to drag and drop Macromedia Flash content into your work area.
  • The ability to reconcile multiple browser conflicts so you can see how your site will look in various browsers and resolutions—and correct problems before going live.

Overall, the FrontPage 2003 interface has been given a much-needed overhaul. It’s more consistent with other Office applications than ever, and it manages to make new tools and information easily available.

Powerful coding tools
While designing the layout and working with graphics is much easier in FrontPage 2003, so is generating code to run the site. Whether you manage expert coders or your coders have little to no experience, the following tools will help them generate efficient code:
  • Split view shows Code and Design view at the same time. As coders edit in Design view, they can watch FrontPage 2003 automatically update the code in Code view.
  • Quick Tag Selector helps the coder select individual elements.
  • Quick Tag Editor helps the coder create and alter tags.
  • Find And Replace is smarter, allowing site searches for faster updates.
  • Coders can use the FrontPage editor to directly edit JavaScript, XML, and XSLT.
  • Coders can use IntelliSense to produce JScript and VBScript code quicker with fewer errors.
  • New behaviors increase functionality.
  • Supports ASP.NET controls so you can work with Microsoft Visual Studio.

FrontPage also does a better job now of leaving HTML code alone. If your coders are putting in their own formatting in HTML view, they can expect it to remain the way they left it.

Connectivity counts
Like the rest of the Office 2003 suite, FrontPage 2003 emphasizes connections, both with data and between applications. Some of the new features you’ll find in this area include:
  • Full support for designing and editing Windows SharePoint Services sites. This gives you an easy way to add interactivity to a Web site.
  • Easier insertion of data from any OLE DB database.
  • The ability to use Web Parts, bits of SharePoint functionality in control-like wrappers.
  • The new Remote Site View for easily moving pages and files from your local machine to a live Web site or vice versa, using FTP or WebDAV. Filtering tools let you see where the two versions are out of sync. This is a much nicer interface for deployment than previous versions featured.
  • Passive FTP and SSL support for easier publishing in secure environments.

Decision time
The decision on whether to go with FrontPage 2003 or stick with your current version of FrontPage is likely to be largely based on the price and licensing deal that you can cut with Microsoft. However, there are some situations where we think upgrading is a no-brainer. If your organization decides to use SharePoint for an intranet or Internet site, for example, you should definitely move up to FrontPage 2003 because the new integration features and the ability to edit your SharePoint site in FrontPage are must-have features. If you’re considering XML features for a site, you’ll also want to upgrade because the visual XSLT editing is well done and will make integrating XML much easier.

On the other hand, if you’re not pushing the envelope with FrontPage 2002 and not making major technology investments for your Web site, the decision is less clear. While FrontPage 2003 looks nicer and is a more consistent citizen in the Office nation, you may not want to buy an entire application just to get nice looks. If you’ve previously gotten FrontPage as part of a bundle, you may choose to invest your limited upgrade dollars elsewhere.

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