Reviewed: FrontPage 2003

We got our hands on a brand spanking new copy of FrontPage 2003 and decided to take it for a spin. With all the powerful new features and upgraded UI, this is definitely not your father's FrontPage.

My first exposure to FrontPage was shortly after Microsoft acquired Vermeer, the company that originally created FrontPage. Fast-forward seven years to 2003, and FrontPage has changed considerably. The minute I opened this latest incarnation of FrontPage, the crotchety old man in me spoke up. In my day, we didn't use these fancy GUIs to build Web sites. We slaved day and night hand-coding our HTML using vi, and we liked it.

But there's no stopping the march of time—it's only natural that as Web sites have become more sophisticated, so too have the tools used to create them. Unfortunately, that means what was once a nice, easy-to-use Web editing tool has become basically a full-blown IDE (integrated development environment), with the steep learning curve that implies.

Oh, behave
Sorry, couldn't resist the Austin Powers reference. One of the new features in FrontPage 2003 is something called Behaviors—basically a way to add interactivity to your site without any manual JavaScript coding. Accessing this capability isn't what I'd call intuitive. On the Format menu, select Behaviors; this opens up a task pane on the right-hand side of FrontPage. You then click on the element you want to script, use the drop-downs in the task pane to select events (e.g., onmouseover), and choose what actions to take when those events fire off (e.g., change the text in the browser's status bar).

Now that's all well and good, but I have two problems with this. First, that task pane sucks up a lot of screen real estate, leaving you less room to view the page you're working on. I had to do a lot of scrolling around to select the various elements on the page that I wanted to script.

Second, it wasn't always obvious how to do specific tasks, such as connect a button so that it changes a preloaded image in another layer of the page. Stuff like that is certainly doable with Behaviors; it's just so much work that you almost might as well hand-code the darned thing instead of relying on FrontPage.

Better code editing
Luckily, if you need to do some hand-coding, FrontPage 2003 has some really nice improvements in the code editor from previous versions. The two I liked were IntelliSense, the umbrella name for Microsoft's various code-completion aids, and Split View.

IntelliSense is basically code completion. As you type out some HTML or JavaScript, you can ask FrontPage for a list of possible attributes for that tag or function by hitting [Ctrl]L. Or you can configure the editor to always use IntelliSense whenever you're manually editing the code. If you make IntelliSense always-on, make sure you've got the horsepower on your PC to run it. When we were testing on an old 650-MHz PIII with 128 MB of RAM, the editor would occasionally stop responding for a few seconds while it loaded the necessary index to display the drop-down list for the tag we were editing. Nothing fatal, but annoying nonetheless.

Split View, the other code-editing enhancement I liked, does pretty much what the name suggests—it divides the main editing window into two panes: the raw HTML code view in the upper pane, and the graphical design view in the lower pane. It's very intuitive. Just select a part of your page in the design view, and that section of code gets highlighted in the code view so you can see and edit the HTML.

A couple of things I didn't like: There's no redo command, which means if, for example, you have to apply the same text formatting to a bunch of different regions on your page, you'll have to click through the same set of menus and dialog boxes each time. There's no easy way to do the formatting in one text box and then just reapply the same formatting steps somewhere else.

Big upgrade
It's clear that this is a major upgrade. Beyond the new features I've already mentioned are a ton of other odds and ends. There's much improved handling of Flash files (including using Behaviors to control a Flash movie); a tracing feature similar to Dreamweaver's that lets you draw out the HTML while using a picture of your page design as a guide; and support for layers to let you position (and overlap) elements anywhere on a page

Unfortunately, this huge upgrade also means the FrontPage target audience has moved upscale as well. Previous versions were sort of aimed at people like me, the tech-literate guy who wanted a decent-looking Web site but couldn't possibly do it by hand. This latest version has several more professional features, much more power, and a more complicated and busy interface. That's not to say I don't like this new version; it's just that I kinda miss my old FrontPage.

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