PageMill struggles to make the grade

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 12 March, 1996, 12:00am

BACK in the Stone Age, a man was a man, a woman was a woman and a programmer had to do everything without the help of tool-boxes, libraries or anything else.

Computers were magical boxes and those who could make them do extraordinary things like put a list into alphabetical order were binary boffins who earned reputations known round the world by those who understood what was going on.

All that has now changed. For normal applications on just about any platform - UNIX, DOS, Windows, Mac OS - there are code generators, libraries, tool-boxes, and a host of other little friends to help in the process of generating code and bug-less applications.

This has not only affected the world of application development, it has now even encroached on the territory of Web-page creation which uses the hyper-text mark-up language (HTML) that all Web pages are made with.

This creates an interesting little problem. When the programmer - the creator - had to do everything himself, he tended to know how everything worked, or at least knew enough to know how to find out.

With all these wonderful little aids that now exist to help the 'novice' programmer in his efforts to make the beasties behave, the 'programmer' has almost been relegated to the position of an editor rather than a writer.

I did say 'almost' because things are not what they seem. I applaud all attempts at making programming easier.

Unfortunately, it still takes a bit of understanding of how computers work and what it means to be a programmer.

Most attempts to make it easier for the novice to learn only end with the poor novice being able to create the ubiquitous 'Hallo World' application and nothing else.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the world of Web page creation. Adobe has brought out PageMill for the Macintosh, an application that is supposed to make it easier for those who are rather less than au fait with HTML design to create wonderful Web sites.

The idea is fine, of course, but the execution leaves something to be desired.

To be fair, PageMill can make the life of the novice much easier. Unfortunately, making life easy does not always mean that life will continue to be easy.

My advice to the novice is to get a simple text editor and learn what the HTML commands mean. Do it by hand first and then move on to a more automated system.

The problem with an application like PageMill is that no matter how automated it may seem to be, you will always have to look at the HTML file and 'tweek' it.

It is true, of course, that for the simplest designs a product like PageMill can do the job. You can put text and graphics on a page simply by clicking and dragging. The placement of the picture may not be exactly where you wanted it, but it will be on the page.

PageMill will also let you do all the basic things such as create hyper-links to other sites, define text as bold or italic and create lists. Most of these are listed under the Style menu.

There are options for most of the type face possibilities as well as the 'raw' HTML which will appear in red and enclosed in angle brackets.

The Format menu allows you to indent left or right, create paragraphs, select various headings, preformat text (it will appear in a monospaced font), and create a list from a choice of seven.

PageMill will certainly do a lot of the simple work that someone who wanted to set up a simple site would want to do.

The key word here, however, is 'simple'. Creating Web pages is not an extraordinarily difficulttask but there are so many pages out there that unless you can do something quite electrifying, no one will want to look at it. Doing something truly interesting on the Web usually requires either a radical design and implementation or quite unusual content.

I suppose one could get away with creating a good site if the content was great and the design was simple but the Web is quite visual and the tendency does seem to be that what is visually attractive is considered to have interesting content.

This may not be true, of course, but it seems to be what the majority of those who are out there looking at sites until the early hours of the morning are looking for.

This means that considerable thought should go into creating Web pages. The ability to throw simple ones together - which is precisely what PageMill allows - is not perhaps what the World-Wide Web needs right now.

A lot of old timers will tell you that there is already far too much out there and allowing any fool to create even more is a crime, or at least ought to be.

That is, of course, debatable. The good thing about the Web is that uninteresting sites will be left alone. The question that will be asked is: what is an interesting site? This, again, is likely to depend on a number of factors and what will be interesting to one person will not be to another.

The Web is, however, one of the world's truly democratic institutions because a site is judged by the number of 'hits' or visits it gets.

That means that those who may feel they have excellent content and do not need to think about design are possibly deluding themselves.

PageMill is probably a good thing for those who want to get started, but it ultimately fails, probably because it was put together a little too quickly.