Microsoft FrontPage 2002

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Some useful new add-ons but the program's core HTML engine has been allowed to stagnate.

Alongside the lesser-known NetObjects Fusion MX (see opposite), Microsoft FrontPage caters for those users wanting to produce a Web site without having to master the intricacies of HTML. With Microsoft's general software dominance it's hardly a fair fight as things stand, but with the company's new and total commitment to the Web, FrontPage should have an unbeatable edge. So what does the latest version have to offer?

In terms of FrontPage's interface and working environment, relatively little has changed apart from the addition of page tabs under the main toolbar. Other than this, the main advances all come from closer integration with the rest of the Office suite. This includes shared features such as the new options for controlling formatting when pasting and the New, Search and Clipboard task panes. Particularly useful for producing attractive page designs should be the new support for AutoShape drawing, Clip Art management and WordArt text effects - though I was unable to get these up and running on my system.

Shared Office features include intelligent paste options, task panes and drawing capabilities.

In terms of new power, as with the latest Fusion, much of this comes in the form of new services available from the main Insert>Web Component command. The new Photo Gallery service is a good case in point with its ability to automatically turn sets of photos into thumbnail-based Web galleries. More regularly useful is the new Link Bar component that builds on FrontPage's existing use of automatic links and rollovers to offer arbitrary links to any page and to other sites. This ability to easily and interactively manage site navigation is one of the features that helps FrontPage users get off to a flying start - but Fusion's Site view and master borders are even simpler.

Another set of new FrontPage components provide a range of server-side services. The program has long offered a crude onscreen counter but now you can add components to provide serious usage analysis with daily, weekly or monthly web stat reports. You can also add an automatically updated top ten list to your site with links to the most popular pages.

Useful new components include a photo gallery, customizable link bars and web usage lists.

Other component options include the ability to link directly to Microsoft's bCentral for banner ads, affiliate links and even to build up a catalog of items to sell online. You can also add automatically updated Web content to your pages though in each case the news, weather forecasts, maps and stock quotes are all being supplied from MSN and Expedia, so you have to ask yourself who's doing who a favour.

Another reason to be wary is that, unlike Fusion, some of the FrontPage components require your server to be running special FrontPage Extensions. This has long been a criticism as users either find much of FrontPage's functionality unavailable or have to pay extra to get their ISP to provide support or, even more serious, find themselves tied in to a proprietary solution. Microsoft is clearly impervious to the criticism as it has developed the idea further with its new SharePoint Team Services server-side system.

As its name suggests, SharePoint is all about team working. Once your SharePoint site has been set up it's simple to store and share information by setting up document libraries and templates and end users can then edit content, upload documents and take part in online discussions directly from the browser. SharePoint sites can be opened directly in FrontPage and themes, graphics, link bars and up-to-date lists of events, announcements, links and so on can be customized. It's too early to tell how successful and scalable SharePoint will prove in practice, but the potential benefits for an easy to set up and manage intranet are clear.

FrontPage 2002 can act as the gateway to a SharePoint-based intranet.

FrontPage's use of add-on components is impressive - if you know what you are doing and are happy to go down the proprietary route - but what about the program's fundamental Web page power? Incredibly almost nothing has been added to FrontPage's core layout capabilities. The advances in table-based layout-editing, for example, amount to little more than a drop-down border tool to manage the appearance of cell borders and the ability to quickly copy content from one table cell to others - hardly pushing back the boundaries.

That wouldn't matter so much if FrontPage offered a Fusion-style wysiwyg layout system that allowed you to quickly design your page onscreen and then took care of creating the necessary HTML behind the scenes, but it doesn't. At least FrontPage does let you edit the page's underlying code directly with its HTML Source view - but while the likes of Dreamweaver and GoLive continually strive to outdo each other with new coding functionality, FrontPage's has been left to stagnate.

This is bizarre. With neither serious behind-the-scenes nor direct coding capabilities, FrontPage seems unconcerned about the bread-and-butter work of Web page layout. It's as if it's not just the FrontPage user who is trying to avoid getting their hands dirty with HTML, it's Microsoft too!

And ultimately that's the point. Yes Microsoft is entirely committed to the Web, but its vision isn't built on HTML but on its own .NET brand of XML. When all the Microsoft application file formats go XML-native, what's the point of an HTML-based authoring package? No wonder Microsoft is more interested in developing the FrontPage add-ons than the core HTML engine.

Ultimately FrontPage might still find a central position acting as the gateway to the Microsoft-based office intranet. In the meantime, today's Web is still very much built on HTML and for those users wanting to produce professional sites without having to learn to program the solution is clear - Fusion MX.

Ease of Use
Value for Money

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

June 2001

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System Requirements: Pentium 133 or higher, 32MB of RAM, 165MB of disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 or NT 4.0 (SP 6 or greater), CD-ROM, SVGA

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