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Microsoft FrontPage 2003
Web page design and editing, site management application.

By Jon Deragon, Visca Consulting
Wednesday, January 28, 2004; 9:50pm EST

FrontPage has long been a comfortable place for both novices and seasoned web designers to create their web sites. It has always been superb at handling "site" creation rather then just "page" creation. It has had a history of versions that attempt to refine the product in an evolutionary way with small improvements in functionality and stability. Generally the changes between versions were not breath taking and some of the programs quirks and bugs were at times difficult to work with. But in general it was still an application that really made the web design process easy, and got the job done. During the past few years however, competition came and eventually surpassed FrontPage with more features, stability and quality of code.

FrontPage 2003 somewhat breaks this tradition and gives us a version we can finally say is a strong application that is in line with competition and the expectations of high end web designers and programmers.

We have always appreciated how FrontPage has catered to novice users with its themes, components and "ready to use" features, while also giving programming and advanced features to its more seasoned user base. However it certainly built a reputation of catering more and more to the beginner segment as it focused more and more on features to simplify building sites for people with little or no knowledge of web design. FrontPage 2003 continues to offer even more for the novices, but also adds a much needed bag of assorted goodies and more stable operation, that experts will love.

Installation was truly a no-brainer, like most applications these days. Starting the application is almost instantaneous on a decently configured workstation. When starting a new web page or web site project it gives you a number of predefined projects that help you get started faster. Typically, however, we found just using the "web with a blank home page" the way to go. But we could imagine where some of the other templates could come in handy in certain circumstances.

Once you have a blank page and you're ready to start designing, the interface is clean, intuitive and offers a large design area to work in. The drop down menus intelligently place tool options, and toolbar buttons are clear and easy to figure out. Text handling is clean and easy to use, however we would have liked to see better handling of backup fonts and having a predefined list of the most used font sets that saves between uses of the application. Example, "Verdana, Arial, Helvetica" rather then it only displaying all of the single fonts on your workstation. This is since there are a very limited number of fonts you can really safely work with in the first place on web pages.

Open documents are represented by tabs along the top of the workspace, and sandwiched between the workplace and document tabs is the Quick Tag Selector. This is a great feature that displays the tags which your page is composed of and allows you to individually select particular page elements with ease and modify or remove them. The workspace is configurable to be in one of four modes  "Design" (web page only view), "Split" (web page and code view), "Code" (code only view) and "Preview" (view fully rendered web page). This was truly a welcome and long overdue addition to FrontPage 2003. FrontPage 2003 also includes statistical data along the bottom status bar for such things as estimated page loading times based on the data transfer rate you set and resolution of the work area.

We have always like the visual approach FrontPage has used for its table building feature. However it has long been plagued by horrific accuracy problems and inaccurate rendering once in a browser. FrontPage 2003 eliminates these problems by making it literally pixel perfect, now it truly is easy to get table and cell sizes exactly how you want them - and they stay that way when in a browser. The only thing we would have liked to see would be to see dimension sizes displayed on the table when you are moving borders so that you can get exact pixel numbers to work with.

Something we have long wanted in not just FrontPage but in all applications is a more advanced Find and Replace function. FrontPage 2003 has an incredible update to a long ignored function that will make programming changes infinitely easier. It allows entire blocks of code to be searched and replaced rather then a single line - it also allows you to define your search specifically to HTML tags even further improving your ability to do a successful replace across multiple documents. Such a small change, but such a potentially big impact to improve site wide changes for large web sites. We were also impressed with the fact that they finally made it more easy to update META tag information by placing the "keywords" and "description" tag fields right up front in the Page Properties option, instead of having to create the tags yourself.

FrontPage continues to include its selection of "Components", a collection of pre-made functions that FrontPage does instead of you having to code them. The downside is that they require something called FrontPage 2002 "Extensions" that must reside on the server the site will be published to. They have had a long history of being "temperamental" at best and have a reputation of unreliability and a need to be regularly reinstalled and maintained. The positive side of these components is that they really do help make tasks like doing page includes, feedback forms, counters and even database interactions incredibly easier then if you had to code them yourself. Microsoft stopped offering the server side of the extensions in the 2002 revision - but still offers the components in FrontPage 2003 that are compatible with 2002. This is a sad development, the components were a great idea and should have been improved in their functionality and reliability instead of being axed. The database component was an incredible time saver and webmasters with absolutely no database experience could easily build a web page that interfaced with a database - very valuable. Components in 2003 are literally identical to 2002, and still contain bugs. Our use of the "Include Page" component, for example, caused application errors which required a restart of the application to overcome on a few occasions.

The method in which you publish your web projects to the web server has also been improved to include more options and a more organized interface to manage your transferring of files between the server and your workstation.

A number of features targeted for beginners have been improved, including the use of CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) instead of HTML in the customizable themes; the ability to add pre-made interactive buttons to your site; and "behaviors" which eliminate the need to write code in order for a web page to perform certain tasks. Advanced users will be happy with the XML support; uses Microsoft SharePoint; HTML code "optimization" which attempts to clean up unnecessary code and tidy its presentation; and accessibility compliance checking.

The programming environment has been enhanced with the use of Intellisense and a number of other features to make programming easier. FrontPage 2003 as a result, will complete commands as you type, offer a list of available parameters for the command, perform auto word wrap, display line numbers, perform automatic indentation, and more. This level of programming assistance works when you are programming in HTML, XSL, Visual Basic, VBScript, JavaScript, JScript or ASP.NET languages. Something we truly despised about previous versions of FrontPage was its poor handling of inline code which it would tend to change, remove or add to at its own discretion causing at times quite damaging effects to web applications that were difficult to repair. This is even after specifying in its options that you do not want it to reformat existing code. FrontPage 2003, during our initial testing, appears to have corrected this issue and leaves code the way you intended it to be. This is truly a relief and worth the upgrade alone.

Documentation included with the retail box is non-existent with exception to a rather vague mini-booklet that is basically a "lite" version of the reference book they encourage you to purchase. In-program help pulls its content from the Microsoft web site so prepare to have a connection to the Internet available when asking FrontPage 2003 for help. Answers to our queries generally resolved our issues, but at times the answers were unclear or were difficult to follow.

Overall, the pros far outweigh the cons in this release of FrontPage. We recommend users of any previous version to upgrade as there are numerous improvements in almost all aspects of the program. Users new to web design or who are considering changing from their existing web design tools are recommended to download an evaluation copy and try FrontPage 2003. FrontPage has always had a less steep learning curve than its primary competitor, Macromedia Dreamweaver, and now it is comparable in features as well. It is also considerably less costly than Dreamweaver MX 2004 which retails for a hefty $399USD.

System requirements are a Pentium III 233MHz processor (we recommend a Pentium 4); 128MB of memory; up to 380MB of drive space; SVGA graphics card and display; Windows 2000, XP or above operating system. FrontPage 2003 has a recommended retail price of $199USD for the full version and $109USD for the upgrade. It is available immediately, and was launched October 21, 2003.

PROS - Great workspace improvements such as tabbed documents, tag selector and split screen mode; programming assistance such as Intellisense; no longer damages in-line code; great Find and Replace feature; improved accuracy of table and cell designing; improved application stability; HTML optimization; accessibility checking; better web publishing and file transfer mechanism; reasonable purchase and upgrade pricing.

CONS - No improvement to the temperamental "Components" and discontinuation of the server extensions instead of improving them; text handling could be better; in-program help was at times difficult to follow.

About The Author
Jon Deragon is president and founder of Visca Consulting, a firm specializing in web design, development and usability for businesses of all sizes. His many years in the technology industry has enabled him to write quality, in-depth product reviews to assist businesses make more informed technology purchases. He welcomes any questions or comments you may have regarding his company's services, this review or interest in having your company's products reviewed.

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