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Web round upTom Arah takes a no-holds-barred view of the web-based offerings of the major graphics and publishing developers.
Nowadays it seems that every new software release claims to be redefining the relationship between user and developer thanks to its "unique" new web integration. It's easy to see what the fuss is about. The benefits that a dedicated web site can provide are immense. At comparatively little cost users can be kept informed about upgrades and complementary applications as soon as they are released. With unlimited space there's all the room necessary to provide troubleshooting support for the most common problems and also in-depth background and tutorial information to turn beginners into experts. Even better, thanks to the web's ability to handle electronic downloads, users can be given access to maintenance releases and other goodies direct from the site. For the increasingly web-oriented publishing and graphics companies there's even the chance to showcase just what their programs can do. Needless to say it's not a charitable venture: happy current users are also more likely to be future customers.
The potential is enormous but what about the reality? I decided to test each of the five main publishing and graphics developers to see just what they offered. Below are the results divided into general impressions of content, level of support provided, notable downloads (including latest maintenance releases), design quality and an overall verdict.
Where to Begin?
Before looking at the individual sites the first question is: where to begin? Virtually every release these days offers direct links from within the application, but each takes a different approach. Corel Draw 9, for example, takes a typically scatter-gun approach with ten links available from the Help menu, further links available from the other menus and a web icon on the main toolbar. In case you haven't got the message you'll also find a web link added to your desktop and a whole new section in your browser's favourites list! Adobe on the other hand takes a more streamlined approach with its single Adobe Online icon at the top of its applications' toolbars. Click on this and you are presented with a clear dialog offering access to six site sections: register, support, tips, software, upgrades and plug-ins. It sounds simple but incredibly not all the links are set up properly so that when I tested the system I ended up in a couple of "oops" pages.
Generally the initial integration from within the application is laughable. This needs to be addressed, but with the majority of users still using dial-up rather than permanent connections, it's likely that most will be making their own way to the site in any case. Many of these will quite naturally take it for granted that there is a site dedicated to their expensive software so their first port of call will be something along the lines of www.programname.com. Oh dear. While some attempts such as www.coreldraw.com will at least redirect you to a relevant section of the full Corel site, others will be redirected to much less savoury hosts.
It looks like the only workable option is to think in terms of the developer and to enter through the front door of their respective homepages. So here goes in strictly alphabetical order.
General: Adobe offers a magazine-style site with a strong emphasis on content. The Studio section gives access to tips and techniques, gallery and case studies. The magazine section offers access to back issues and some useful in-depth articles from respected industry figures (though be prepared for some heavy PDF downloads).
Support: You can interactively search both an in-depth technical and a broader customer service database. Wider-ranging help is offered through a selection of top technical issues on a program basis and more general technical guides, for example, discussing halftones.
Downloads: Latest service releases include Distiller 4.01. Illustrator 8.01, Photoshop 5.02, Premiere 5.01. Other goodies include an EPS parser for PhotoDeluxe and Pentium III optimised plug-ins for Photoshop 5.
Design: With 16 major program categories to deal with, from Acrobat through to Printer Drivers, the site could easily be overwhelming but the generous use of white space and the ever present site map, index and search features prevent information overload. Even so I would have preferred a more application-centric approach. The site is also static and uninvolving if you aren't the sort of person turned on by puzzles such as "can-you-spot-the-ligatures".
Verdict: Worth visiting for the wide-ranging content though you'll need the Acrobat Reader program (best downloaded from a cover disk) to make the most of it.
4 out of 6
General: Corel has same focus problem as Adobe but its interests are spread even wider with its Linux development and Office apps both largely irrelevant to the average designer. The problem is made worse by the site's strong corporate influence (legal and investor relations, public relations and jobs) together with the constant attempt to sell, sell, sell. The end result is that the core information on Draw, Photo-Paint and Ventura get lost.
Support: The support available looks impressive with white papers, updates and patches, tips and tricks. In fact many of the white papers are actually just PDFs of feature guides ie recycled hype and the tips and tricks drop-down list stops with Ventura 7 and Corel Draw 6! Ultimately you're left with the strong suspicion that Corel is trying to push you towards its pay-for-support services. Typically these just add to the confusion with premium, priority, classic and electronic services each offering different options for different programs.
Download: Corel Draw 8 Service Pack 2 Rev C. The offer of a free version of WordPerfect Office 2000 with unlimited technical support looks tempting until you see the small print in which Corel reserves the right to send an evaluation copy, to charge shipping and to limit the unlimited technical support.
Design: The site as a whole feels uncomfortably torn between a database-driven corporate site and a pile 'em high bargain basement shop.
Verdict: Worth checking out for bug-fixes and occasional offers such as the 110,000 items of free clipart but otherwise disappointing.
2 out of 6
General: With its "add life to the web" home page slogan and its extensive use of Flash, you might be worried that the Macromedia site would be all style and no content. In fact the use of Flash is generally subtle and helpful although if you want to see some all-singing all-dancing action you can use the home page, gallery and semi-detached www.shockrave.com sections as jumping-off points. More importantly the site is fast (apart from the bitmap-based ads) and not light on content.
Support: The Support and Developers centre offers a searchable database of technotes and also collates these into useful browsable categories so that the Flash information, for example, is divided into areas such as basics, symbols, interactivity and sound. All of the notes are written by developers who really understand the software.
Download: Fireworks 2.0.2, GoLive and Fireworks templates, latest Flash 4 viewer. Fireworks, Flash and Generator trials.
Design: Apart from the Flash content, the Macromedia site is unusual in that it doesn't offer a permanent navigation bar for random access to different site sections. Instead it uses a more drill-down approach (eg Macromedia > Products > Flash > Support) that is more linear but means that you always know where you are.
Verdict: Not surprisingly, Macromedia is the most modern and interactive of the major sites, but the real reason for visiting is the content. If you're struggling to get to grips with programs like Flash and Dreamweaver (and you will) here's the first stopping-off point to find out how others have succeeded.
5 out of 6
General: The site that you might expect to be giving Macromedia's a run for its money is Metacreation's. With web-orientated programs like Painter 5.5 and Headline Studio and new technologies such as the exciting 3D Metastream you might expect fireworks. In fact the use of animated GIFs and Metastream content is so low-key that its benefits are outweighed by long download times. Sadly it's not just the design which is minimalist, the content is also bare.
Download: Poser 3.0.1, Painter 5.03, Bryce 3.1 and the MetaStream 3D player.
Design: Given the idiosyncratic nature of its program interfaces you might expect something similar for the Metacreations web site. Instead it's all oddly tasteful but at the same time disappointingly slow. The site is certainly easy to navigate, but ultimately that's because there's so little content.
Verdict: Sadly the Metacreations site doesn't really live up to its "creative web company" slogan. Come back Kai - all is forgiven.
2 out of 6
General: First impressions of the Micrografx site are that you've come to the wrong address with a dodgy opening screen teaser saying "a woman in a low cut dress. she is smiling". Click through and this is at least partially explained with a picture of the Mona Lisa and the tagline "some things you just have to see". Click through again though and you'll be lost again. Most users will be looking for content on Micrografx' longstanding applications Picture Publisher, WebTricity, Windows Draw, Simply 3D and so on, but all you'll find is unintelligible babble about "the intelligence graphics framework". In fact this refers to Micrografx' new iGrafx suite but in the bizarre corporate-speak of the site where everything is concerned with "process improvement endeavor" most visitors won't have a clue what they're talking about. Hunt through the site map and eventually you'll find links to the programs you're interested in. When you do get through, for example to the gothic heavy-metal influenced Picture Publisher section, you'll immediately see why the new corporate-friendly Micrografx is so embarrassed.
Support: Negligible with no tutorial-style information and you have to sign up for a user account before you can access it.
Download: Picture Publisher 8.0c.30 patch, Simply 3D 3.1 Update patch
Design: The overall design is dreadful with lots of text needlessly converted to bitmaps and unable to fit into the standard 640 x 480 screen. It's the fact that the site actively tries to hide information though which is unforgivable.
Verdict: "Some things you just have to see" - if only to make sure that you don't make the same mistakes.
1 out of 5
From the individual reviews it's clear that the major developers' online offerings can best be described as variable ranging from Macromedia's stylish content through to the Micrografx site which is an object lesson in how not to provide a web presence. Generally though I have to say that I'm not impressed. I have to trawl these sites regularly to keep abreast of what each company is up to, but the most I could recommend to readers is a quick hit and run. An overall report would be:
General: Many developers are simply using their sites as a sales device and have completely missed the opportunity to provide more in-depth information to help users really make the most of their existing programs. Even worse the content is largely insular with very few links on from the site to help users develop a broader picture.
Support: Many provide little more assistance than the existing help and readme files and instead seem to be trying to push pay-as-you-go support to fill the vacuum.
Downloads: There's generally not enough honest information on why you might need or want the latest maintenance releases (or how big they are) and the other goodies (especially freeware) are seldom worth the time and effort of downloading.
Design: Perhaps the most disappointing category of all. Publishing and graphics developers are by definition concerned with the visual and creative and many of these companies produce software specifically designed to enhance the web experience. In spite of this, there's a definite play-safe attitude that results in a generally very pedestrian browsing experience in what should be showcase sites.
Verdict: The publishing and graphics developers are failing to live up to either their promises or their products when it comes to their web-based offering.
Despite these failings, all of these sites still generate huge amounts of traffic with the Adobe and Macromedia sites in particular among the top 50 most visited. This potential is currently squandered for one fundamental reason. From the beginning to the end of a visit, from the lack of easy access through to the lack of forwarding links, the sites have been designed from the developer's perspective rather than from the user's. Users are interested in their programs and making the most of them, not in the companies that make them or the rest of their product range. They are interested in Photoshop, Draw, Flash, Painter and Picture Publisher not in Adobe, Corel, Macromedia, Metacreations or Micrografx. The companies have to recognise that their real interests lie in satisfying their users not the other way around.
Signs of Improvement?
Thankfully there are signs that this is happening with some recent launches and announcements of semi-detached satellite sites. Corel was the first off the ground with www.designer.com. This is specifically designed to build up a sense of community among Corel users and its site sections, such as focus, freebies, interact and links, show a refreshing customer-based perspective. That's the good news. The bad news is that the site's still very thin on content, still patently selling the Corel line and still can't resist irrelevant links to the Linux and Office sites. Adobe is also getting in on the act with its announcement of a forthcoming site www.activeshare.com intended to provide both the software and space necessary to "share images in a personalised Internet community." Typically Macromedia, or rather its dedicated web publishing division, looks to be ahead of the pack with its plans for www.shockwave.com. This will provide users with a free downloadable "shock machine" for storing up to five shockwave-based games, toons, juke-boxes and so on. Macromedia recognises that by putting the user first and building up the community, sales will naturally follow.
Clearly each of the big three developers is beginning to wake up to the full potential of the web, but in fact the real leader of the pack is a small developer, MGI, the producers of the prosumer product PhotoSuite II.
General: Deceptively simple site dealing with the MGI products but also integrating a universally relevant Photo Street section (www.photostreet.com) offering a newsletter, a guide to web resources, tips and tricks, a photo showcase, downloads and information on relevant online services.
Support: Slightly disappointing technical notes made up for by the emphasis on the "fastest possible" free email support.
Downloads: PhotoSuite II 1.03 to make the most of Explorer 5 plus plenty of photos, props, projects and special effects to expand the core program.
Design: No interactivity but a clean and strong layout with a good cross between random access and structured drill-down.
Verdict: The one site successfully designed to attract general users not just existing customers.
Judged purely on the same terms as the other sites, the MGI offering is already impressive with reasonable content, good support, worthwhile downloads, useful links, clear design and the so far missing ingredient: a sense of community. What really makes the difference though is the complete integration of application and web. The PhotoSuite II application is a "dynamic client" which means that it is built on modular browser-based technology. This is very different from a thin client "weblication" (yuk) where most processing is undertaken on the server. Rather, thanks to the underlying architecture, PhotoSuite can access web features as needed and then download and seamlessly integrate them into the program on-the-fly. The idea is that the application becomes more of an organism evolving over time with each user building up exactly the features and expertise that they want.
Of course this doesn't mean that PhotoSuite is automatically a better program than Photoshop (though I do prefer it to PhotoDeluxe) or even a better model for future application development. What it does show is just what an ongoing web-based relationship between user and developer can offer when both program and web site are designed from the ground up to work together. Sadly it also shows just how far the major developers have to go before their current claims become reality.
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