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8/96 Reviews SW: Backstage Designer

Listing of August 1996 Reviews

All the Web's a Stage

By Lynn Ginsburg

In terms of user-friendliness, most HTML authoring tools are about where desktop publishing was in the '80s: clunky and counter-intuitive. Fortunately, Macromedia's Backstage Designer, and others in the next generation, are bringing this category up-to-date.

Generally speaking, a program whose chief attraction is WYSIWYG editing doesn't turn heads in 1996. It's a new frontier for HTML development, however. While the transparent HTML creation capabilities of Microsoft FrontPage and Netscape Navigator Gold are first steps, Backstage Designer takes a quantum leap forward in sophistication.

Like its competition, Backstage Designer lets you start creating HTML documents immediately from a blank page, without ever seeing the HTML tags. But unlike either FrontPage or Gold, this program lets you directly edit the HTML code beneath the surface. If you're a user who understands HTML but prefers to have most of the tagging work done automatically, viewing and editing the HTML is crucial. Though other authoring tools will switch you to an alternate editor, they don't automatically update all changes. Backstage's easy access to the HTML code gave me the best of both worlds, letting me use the generated HTML for basic tasks, while writing my own HTML tags or editing the generated HTML at will.

Backstage doesn't offer page-creation wizards to jump-start an "instant" home page. Of course, you're likely to build an extremely generic home page with a wizard. That's still a nice hand-holding start, and Backstage definitely would benefit from it. The program doesn't abandon you to your own devices entirely: It offers many page sample templates.

Backstage simplifies insertion of state-of-the-art Web components, such as Shockwave and Java applets, into a Web page. FrontPage and Navigator Gold require you to insert these HTML tags into your code line by line. Backstage adds them as a simple menu command and automatically writes the appropriate tags for you. I've spent many an hour cursing this process in other programs. Backstage turned it into a no-brainer.

If you want to customize the behavior or appearance of these applets, you can easily edit parameters from a dialog box, which prompts you for parameter name and value. I found this to be a huge improvement, making it much easier and faster to place the freeware applets that I grabbed off the Web into my HTML pages without having to becoming a Java coder to get them working.

Backstage ships with a few basic Java and Shockwave applets and includes clear instructions on how to insert them into your own Web documents. It also offers understandable suggestions for modifying the parameters to suit your needs. You can use these samples, along with their directions, as a jumping point for creating your own advanced tools. Even novices should be able to spice up home pages with Web multimedia applets given Backstage's simple procedures.

Backstage also ships with many predesigned objects to facilitate the creation of your own Web pages. You can effortlessly inject a generic horizontal rule-or a custom one-using the Insert Image command. You can also add several Backstage Objects, including hit counters, navigational buttons, date and time stamps, and tables. The package comes with a huge clip-art collection, along with backgrounds and images, that can greatly enhance your page's professional appearance.

One minor irritation for me: No matter how I tried to change it, Backstage's Insert Image command always defaulted to the Backstage project directory when I tried to add clip art, although the actual clip-art directory is stored many hierarchical steps away. It would make more sense for the program to automatically default to its own clip-art directory when you ask it for images, or at least let you customize your default directory preferences.

Compared to its competition, Backstage offers some innovative features that professionals can easily start using. But precisely because it offers more powerful controls, this product may prove more difficult for the novice to learn and use than either FrontPage or Navigator Gold.

The lack of page start wizards can be detrimental for a customer base that's brand new to this technology. But if you're a novice willing to invest the necessary time to figure out the additional options, Backstage offers an excellent balance between WYSIWYG ease of use and more advanced control.

-- Info File --
Backstage Designer
$79; Designer Plus, $99
Pros: User controls; ease of use
Cons: No wizards; file handling
Platforms: Windows 95, 3.1x, NT
Disk Space: 7MB
800-326-2128, 415-252-2000
WinMag Box Score 3.5
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