The FrontPage Experiment Has Failed

By on January 12, 2006

Can we finally admit that the FrontPage experiment has failed? You know — the promise that FrontPage will allow novice Web authors to create and maintain (especially maintain) good, solid Web sites? Can we finally admit that this just isn’t going to happen?

How many people know someone that is maintaining a Web site of anything beyond trivial complexity in FrontPage? I mean anything beyond a five-page brochureware site. Anyone?

I’ve tried on two occasions now to teach a Web novice how to create decent content with FrontPage. Both attempts have been complete failures. I found myself the other day outlining a curriculum entitled “How Not to Screw Yourself with FrontPage,” and realizing that it would be at least a dozen hours of instruction.

The idea of FrontPage, of course, is to make creating Web pages as simple as writing in Word. However, I find that you end up having to teach people a lot about how Web authoring works in order for them not to completely hose a site up in record time.

Here are the biggest things I see happening when letting beginners run wild with FrontPage:

I know what you’re saying — “these users need to be trained.” Sure, but I’ve found that the number of hours spent training them is really better spent installing a lightweight CMS, or — better yet — showing them how to use a tool like Squarespace or Typepad.

The fact is that to get someone really proficient in FrontPage so they can build a good-looking, easily maintained site, you need to teach them about the basics of Web authoring, CSS, a fair amount of HTML so they can get themselves out of problems, Web conventions like file naming, best practices for site management, etc. This is so far removed from the supposed Nirvana that FrontPage was intended to give us: simple and effective Web authoring for everyone.

So what’s the answer? I don’t think it’s a more capable tool. Dreamweaver is an amazing piece of work, but that would kill the average newbie if they tried to build anything with it.

What we need is a Web development tool we can neuter the crap out of to effectively seal off functions and transfer their administration to another, more qualified party. Give me a WYSIWYG editor that will let me control the interface — shutting off formatting tools and basically leaving the user with a styles dropdown, a hyperlink button, and maybe an italics button if they promise not to overuse it. Is Contribute this tool?

If you could do this, then you can move a lot of functionaity to server-side tools that the user can’t touch. My method for applying headers and footers based on URLs that I detailed here is good for that.

Yes, I know good sites get built with FrontPage everyday. I’ve built several of them over the years. But I know Web development. And so does the Microsoft FrontPage team, which proudly points out that the official FrontPage site is built and maintained in FrontPage.

This discussion leaves me curious about what percentage of FrontPage sales are actual, retail sales? It gets bundled with the Office suite a lot, and Microsoft throws it in with a lot of server software too — I got FrontPage 2003 with Small Business Server. Thus, I’d estimate that less than 10% of FrontPage sales are actual, full-price, retail sales.

I’m sure many will disagree, but I have solid experience that the idea that you can give new user a copy of FrontPage and a set of shared borders and think they’ll keep a site in shape is somewhat ridiculous.

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Comments

  1. Craig says:

    What we need is a Web development tool we can neuter the crap out of to effectively seal off functions and transfer their administration to another, more qualified party.

    I can't think of anything more anachronistic than having an "arbeiter of stylistics & aesthetics" to make sure that the hoi polloi don't do anything untoward. Poorly designed/maintained websites are the pink-flamingos-in-the-neighbor's-front-yard of the 21st century.

    There must be another windmill at which to tilt...

    best, Craig

  2. Deane says:

    I can't think of anything more anachronistic than having an "arbeiter of stylistics & aesthetics" to make sure that the hoi polloi don't do anything untoward.

    True, but the end result is often that the very author that FrontPage is designed to help is just as unsatisfied with the results as the visitor (or myself, for that matter).

    It's not that authors are having a grand 'ol time and thinking that everything is perfect. If that was the case, then you could give them a copy of FrontPage, send them off, and never hear from them again.

    Invariably, however, they call you, and say...

    • "This just doesn't look right..."
    • "I don't know what I'm doing wrong, but I can't get this to work.."
    • "Why does my site look like crap?"
    • "FrontPage told me this form would email me stuff, but I've had it up for three weeks and got nothing..."
    • "Why does that one image take two minutes to download? I dragged the little resizing handle so it got smaller..."
  3. Remember what Vincent Flanders has preached on this topic:

    Frontpage doesn't kill websites, people with Frontpage kill website!

  4. ted says:

    Frontpage is something I use to lay out a page, then open the resutling html in notepad or scite and adjust all the html to something useful and viewable. I tend to use FP to make the table structures, div sections, and so forth. And I agree, it's woefully inadequate unless the resulting code is carefully gone over with a text editor, and that requires html knowledge.

    But it's still better (apologies to the gods of open source) than nvu, which I've been dying to switch to and which I keep ditching because of those same flaws you mention.

  5. Of the desktop tools I've seen, Fog Creek's CityDesk comes closest to doing this.

    CityDesk also addresses the issue that a site is a network of pages, rather than just a collection of pages.

    Then again, great tool though it is, CityDesk never really took off.

  6. Deane says:

    Of the desktop tools I’ve seen, Fog Creek’s CityDesk comes closest to doing this.

    I'd agree with this. I like CityDesk, though it's a little pricey. And it does get it right that the Web site is a network of pages, rather than islands of information, scattered about.

  7. Deane says:

    Frontpage is something I use to lay out a page, then open the resutling html in notepad or scite and adjust all the html to something useful and viewable.

    Then you are, absolutely, without question, not the person I was talking about in this post.

  8. Sauron says:

    I personally hand-code everything. Even when I use Dreamweaver it's just so I don't have to refresh a page and I still handcode.

    However, the webmaster of this site told me that he only knows FrontPage, so either I misunderstood him or there actually is a site being created and maintained in FrontPage (no, he won't switch to Dreamweaver despite having the Macromedia suite.)

  9. marcinw says:

    great article

    but don't favor Dreamweaver: there are 24,700,000 pages in google entitled "Untitled Document" ;)

  10. WWWGeek says:

    This, sometimes unfortunately, is a topic I know a bit about. A few years ago I taught many FrontPage classes on how to use its various features the right way. While I do agree that it is over sold as the end all be all of WYSIWYG, it does have a market that suprised me.

    I have found that there are many compentent web developers who are using FrontPage but are also smart enough to work in the HTML view when necessary. Why don't they switch to something different, such as DreamWeaver? Suprisingly they cite ease of use. Yep, the age old reason Microsoft continues to sell software. They make it easy to mess things up, but those who are willing to get beyond all that and learn the software can utilize it to its real potential.

    Outside of the talented web developers I have had some success with allow users to create pages with FrontPage... but only as a document generator. Since it is part of the Office Suite on many desktops it is perfect for someone to quickly compose and style a page. I do draw the line at graphics usage, but it is better than Word.

  11. I gave up on FrontPage and Dreamweaver. I wrote my own CMS for my main site, but use CuteSite Builder (was Trellix) for personal sites and use CityDesk for professional sites. CityDesk comes in two flavors, one that you use to let anyone create basic pages, and then the other that let's you design the pages and set up macros.

  12. macros says:

    and use CityDesk for professional sites. CityDesk comes in two flavors, one that you use to let anyone create basic pages, and then the other that let?s you design the

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