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Tools of the (Web) Trade

Just like using Microsoft Word for word processing or Adobe Photoshop for creating graphics, you need a web-building program to create a website. The main code created by these web-building programs is called HTML. This code controls how web pages look, plus provides a little interactivity, like hyperlinks that take you to other pages.

The programs (i.e. tools) used to create that code are as varied as the people who use them. Some are very simple and inexpensive. Some cost thousands of dollars and require days of training before the web builder can use them.

If you're thinking about having a web builder create a website for you, it's helpful to have at least a passing awareness of the types of web building tools that they might use, and their implications.

Notepad and its cousins  

In the early days of the web, many a website was "hand coded" with Notepad (yep, the same Notepad that's in Windows) or another plain text editor. Using Notepad, raw HTML code is typed. For example, to make the word "Wow" appear in bold, you'd type "<b>Wow</b>". The "<b>" and "</b>" code, called beginning and ending tags, mark the area that should be displayed in bold text.

Typing by hand can be slow going, tedious, and error prone, however. Using the HTML example from above, if you accidentally type the wrong kind of slash in the end tag ("<\b>" instead of "</b>", web browsers won't display the text properly.

These days, many HTML-oriented text editors are available, and some of them are quite inexpensive. A few of the better known ones are Homesite, CoffeeCup HTML Editor, and Hotdog.

"WYSIWYG" Design Tools

"WYSIWYG" stands for "What You See is What You Get." These tools use a visual interface to create web pages. For example, to make the word "Wow" be displayed in bold, you'd select it with your cursor, and then click the bold button – just like you'd do with a traditional word processor like Word. Note: Behind the scenes, the "<b>Wow</b>" HTML code is still generated automatically.

One of the first mainstream WYSIWYG tools was Vermeer's FrontPage, which was purchased by Microsoft and incorporated into its Office family. Unfortunately, early versions of FrontPage had a well-deserved reputation for creating "messy" HTML code, and doing things in non-standard ways. The last few of versions, however, have been much better, yet still retain much of the user friendliness that made the program so attractive to the masses in the first place. 

During the time that early versions of FrontPage were generating messy code, many web designers flocked to MacroMedia's Dreamweaver, which is probably the most popular WYSIWYG tool for professional web designers.

Graphic Tools

There are also traditional graphics tools, such as PhotoShop and Publisher, which can also save their images as web pages. However, these pages usually take a long time to be displayed in a web browser and are generally just not well suited for creating websites.

A graphic-oriented tool that is geared toward web building is Flash. A few years ago Flash was the cool new thing, and, as so often happens with new cool things, it was overused. Flash is probably the best tool for adding animation to a website, but, unfortunately, its devotees used it for everything else too. This led to an abundance of sites with overwhelming usability problems. It's largely responsible for the animated "splash" screens you have to endure in order to get into so many websites. These days, most Flash designers are more discriminating about what they do with it.

"Real" programming

Finally, high-end, interactive websites (called "web applications" in the web industry), are usually programmed with expensive (often costing thousands of dollars), hard-to-learn, "industrial-strength" tools such as Microsoft's Visual Studio, Borland's JBuilder, Oracle's JDeveloper, and Sun ONE Studio. These are the tools used to create the sites used in online banking, book stores, auctions, etc.

Design vs. Programming

There are two aspects to most websites, especially the more complicated ones. There's the programming aspect - mentioned above - and there's also the design aspect. The web designer usually creates the appearance and layout of the site using WYSIWYG tools while the web programmers simultaneously create the "functionality" of the site (things like calculating shipping costs for a shopping cart).

Why two different groups of web builders? Well, they tend to be left-brain vs. right-brain folks. The attributes that make for good web designers don't make for disciplined programmers, and vice versa. That said, both groups need to have at least a passing knowledge of what the other does, seeing how they interact so much.

Why should you care?

It usually doesn't matter all that much which tool is used to design your website in the first place as long as the site can be modified easily down the road.

For instance, if your web builder creates your site entirely with Flash or a graphics program, and then later isn't available to update it (it happens!), it'll be harder to get somebody who can update it in a timely, cost-effective manner. You may even end up starting over from scratch and paying for a new site. Or, even if the original creator is still around, changes to this type of site can be much more costly than for a standard HTML site (and slower going).

Finally, the tools used to create the site will usually determine the type of computer and web server used to host the website.

So which is best?

There's really no one best tool. As long as the site that's produced in the end does things in a standard way, most all of them can do a great job. Of more importance is the web builder who's using the tool. Not only do they need to be proficient at using the tool, they need to have an excellent understanding of the web code that the tool creates and how the Internet interacts with it. They also need excellent design and communication skills. It's a rare person who has all of those skills - that's why it usually takes a team to build a professional website.

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