TCS - NetObjects Fusion Review

NetObjects Fusion Review

by C. E. (Bud) Gammell
Tulsa Computer Society
From the January 1997 issue of the I/O Port Newsletter

So you want to get your business on the web, but you don't know HTML coding?
(A first-hand review of NetObjects Fusion 1.0, a new, smart, WYSIWYG HTML site creation tool for building web pages.)

As wannabe webentrepreneurs with both day jobs and personal business interests, my wife Billie and I have been working at marketing different products and services via the web for the past couple of years.

First, we figured out that one must learn something about HTML, the underlying instruction code that tells a web browser how to present the information contained in a web page.

We started out by building pages in Notepad (minimally, all one needs is a text editor). This might be a good way to learn HTML tags, but it is painfully slow and takes a lot of trial and error testing to get things to work as one thinks they should.

Graduating to a word-processor add-on that incorporated some of the basic HTML tags, we found this was better than a text editor, but still somewhat lacking.

Over the past couple of years, we have probably downloaded 300 Mb of freeware/shareware HTML editors . Some we liked, some we didn't. Some weren't much better than Notepad, or the word-processor add-on, while some had such a learning curve that they simply weren't worth the time and trouble.

Finally, about a year ago, we locked into HTML Asst. Pro (v2.0). After downloading the freeware version and playing with it for a while we decided to purchase the fully-enabled "Pro" version so the freeware version's disabled features would be available.

Since then, we have upgraded to their 3.0 version, and are official beta testers of the forthcoming "Pro97" version (now in beta 4) due out sometime around the first of the year.

Although HTML Asst. Pro 3.0 and up does have a built-in test viewer, it does not have the smarts of a Netscape 3.x or Microsoft's Internet Explorer 3.01, so we do testing with several different browsers and versions to get an idea of how our pages will appear to the masses.

HTML Asst Pro is a very good, easy-to-learn, non-WYSIWYG HTML editor, that allows integrated live testing with the internal viewer, or other browsers of your choosing. We'll continue with it for editing raw HTML code directly.

The dawn of the WYSIWYG HTML editors is upon us!

We have experimented with Microsoft's FrontPage (v1.0 & v1.1) and the FrontPage97 beta, among others. We like the site management features and the wizards, but Mr. Gates and friends still have a ways to go for this to be seriously considered as a heads-down production tool in the site-building business.

Microsoft's FrontPage and Internet Explorer products offer some sophisticated client-side capabilities and server extensions, but Netscape routinely meets or tops whatever they dream up next very quickly. With roughly 65% to 85% of the market still (depending upon whose propaganda you believe today) with Netscape, a site designer must always be sure to build for the largest group of surfers.

The rubber meets the road!

This brings us to a true breakthrough in site design technology. A WYSIWYG design environment with awe-inspiring database import tools, 50 or so rich, stylish, and professional site styles, and a host of individual page templates so sites can be produced quickly and uniformly, without extensive knowledge of HTML.

The product is called NetObjects Fusion, and is currently in version 1.0, which we purchased after a 30-day free download trial period, during which we fell totally in love with it. It is currently available for Win95/WinNT users only, but a Mac version in beta now is due for release in December.

NetObjects Fusion is over-kill for a personal home page, at a street price of around $500, but a steal for small to medium-sized businesses that can't afford to have a custom site built by the big boys.

In-house web authors who need high-precision, desktop-publishing-style layout and control capabilities, and rapid site development will find nothing else that even comes close.

For example, to create a page (or start a site) you select one of the scads of single-page templates, a pre-built multiple-page "autosite" template, or even a totally blank site. Now these autosites aren't just pre-designed layouts (like FrontPage); they're complete templates, pre-constructed for a marketing department, human resources, online publishing, and others, and each has numerous pages with text, object, and image place-holders in a truly professional manner.

To add a page, you press the INSERT key. To move pages around, or reorganize the entire site structure is drag 'n drop from the Site View. You can zoom in and out, collapse levels of the hierarchy, or view your site in a "tree" view similar to the Win95 Explorer. You can color-code selected pages, make notations, and flag them to indicate status.

Once you've decided upon the site structure, you switch to PAGE VIEW to work on the individual page content. The Style view enables you to apply background patterns or colors, bulleted lists, and textures for the navigation bars to any page. By default, Fusion uses the name of the page you add in the Site View to generate the automated navigation elements. We've found this works best if you keep the page names short (less than 12 characters).

Most of the web authoring tools we've experimented with emulate text or word processors. Fusion is more like a desktop publishing system. You position elements where you want them on a page and Fusion's engine generates the tables and other HTML code required to get it there. This has been tough in previous environments, requiring a lot of manual coding trial & error to achieve success.

If you try to import existing HTML pages into a site, Fusion doesn't position the elements in a WYSIWYG fashion. It takes a little manual rearranging to get them the way you want them. This may be addressed in a forthcoming future release.

For a web author, one of the really nice features is that each page can be associated with headers and footers, which could contain banners, navigation bars, or other recurring elements. Once you define the page relationships for your site (parent, sibling, child) in the Site view, it can automatically regenerate these elements on each page throughout the site. This saves tons of coding or copy/paste time to create a look of consistency and uniformity throughout a site.

There is a *.gif composition utility that automatically overlays text onto banner graphics and buttons in any font. This allows you to select a generic banner for every page, but vary the text within the banner graphic on each page so you don't have to painstakingly create dozens of individual graphics by hand. Fusion also provides an imagemap creation tool and converts *.bmp files and others to *.gif or *.jpg formats.

Fusion lets you choose to preview a single page or your entire site in a browser of your choice to ensure that it looks the way you intend for it to in that particular browser. It also gives you text and image properties manipulation and lets you insert external page links or text anchor points within the current document.

You can incorporate animated *.gif's, audio and video clips, ActiveX, Java, and Shockwave components, including a few that are provided. You can insert your own HTML or scripting code, but you CANNOT edit the underlying HTML code directly from within Fusion. That is one reason we plan to keep on using HTML Asst Pro (Pro97 when it is in final release!) -- to edit the HTML documents as needed once Fusion creates them.

Some would say that the lack of support for HTML frames is a significant omission. However, most frames implementations are for navigation, and with the uniform navigation bar schemes you can define in Fusion, lack of frames just isn't the end of the world, in our opinion.

One of the most potentially powerful features is support for data publishing. When you insert a Data Table object into a page, you can import a database into your site. Fusion generates not just a tabular view of the database, but individual detail pages for every item. One example would be to load the company phone list from Excel or Access and have each employee's name linked to a detail page reflecting title, location, etc. It supports several native database and spreadsheet file formats, plus ODBC. One problem noted is that you can't apply numerical formats to individual fields before publishing the data.

Once your site is developed you can review the various components through an Assets View, and you can Stage your site for local testing or upload to a live server through the Publish function. It also allows you to create alternate versions of the site automatically, to support low-bandwidth connections or text-only browsers.

We found NetObjects Fusion easier to learn than a word processor. There is some context-sensitive help, but most of the resources are online via the company's web site (http://www.netobjects.com). They recommend that you do NOT run multiple instances of the program due to the risk of data corruption.

The suggested retail price of $695 is certainly healthy, but we found it available from the PC-Zone catalog at $475. It requires 16Mb RAM, 50Mb of drive space, Win95 or WinNT, and is optimized to use Netscape Navigator 2.0 or higher, MSIE 2.0 and higher, or other HTML 3.x compatible browsers. A Pentium processor is highly recommended. We are running it on a 100mhz Pentium with 32Mb RAM and find that it performs quite responsively. We can just imagine it would be even better on that 200mhz Pentium Pro we keep trying to talk the wife into believing we "really need".

{About the author: The author has no connection with NetObjects, Inc. whatsoever. C. E. (Bud) Gammell, a.k.a. "The BudMan", is a 22-year veteran of the corporate rat race by day, and wannabe webentrepreneur by night. Their Tulsa-based company, Creative Endeavors Group, is a TCS Corporate Sponsor. Their newest operation is the Creative Endeavors Group web site (http://creativewebgroup.com), which offers virtual web site hosting services, design, and marketing services (see ad elsewhere in this issue). The Gammells also operate the "SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) Business Guide" site (http://www.backrest.com), a resource for small and home-based businesses. They market a Windows 3.1x datafile backup utility ("Back\Rest") at the "Virtual Office Tower" (http://www.backrest.com/tower.html) site.

For additional information, send an email to webmaster@creativewebgroup.com or directly to budman@ionet.net. The BudMan's personal home page is at http://www.ionet.net/~budman.shtml.



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