Web Sites in Minutes?

An academic colleague has asked me for advice on setting up his own web site that is independent of the University. I’m sure this is a common need. My colleague is competent in Word and PowerPoint, but he is not interested in becoming a web site developer!

With some searching he discovered a number of companies offering on-line tools to create “web sites in minutes”, and at a reasonably low cost per month too.  He thought it sounded too good to be true, and asked me to comment.

I looked at a number of these, including MoonFruit here in the UK, Intuit in the US, and many others. They all provide Flash based, Web 2.0 tools for drag and drop page design starting from a collection of pre-designed templates.

The first problem was that all the templates had a business or family theme; we couldn’t find one that fitted in with my colleagues ideas for his academic site. No problem I thought – take a template and adapt it. Well, it’s harder than it looks. After spending an hour with the drag and drop interface, we were still only part the way to where we wanted to be. In fact, I could have achieved the same hand-coding in NotePad in a quarter of the time. Unfair, I know; I’ve been writing web pages for quite a while, but it did make me realise that calling something ‘drag and drop’ is not the same as providing an easy to learn tool.

And then the real problem. The tools generate Flash-based web pages. Yes, some of the tools also produce an HTML equivalent, but they are clunky when compared with the sharp, smart, Flash versions. I suppose the assumption is that these days every web browser is Flash enabled. However, putting aside the accessibility discussion, the number of Flash-less browsers is on the increase – iTouch, iPhone, iPad!

Now I have a love-hate relationship with Dreamweaver. It’s a great tool, but it can also be very frustrating. It is not the sort of tool that I could point my colleague at. Even if I did most of the development, I suspect he would still struggle with making his own changes to the content. Instead, I have decided to give iWeb a go. My colleague is a mac-believer and open to exploring another mac tool. My (limited) experience with iWeb suggests that it is pretty much drag and drop, and being in-tune with the mac interface, not difficult to learn. And it creates HTML, CSS that validates (along with a whole lot of JavaScript!).

It will be interesting to see how he gets on.

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