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FrontPage has had a troubled history. Those that enjoyed its simple WYSIWYG approach felt let down by its lack of support for newer web technologies whilst HTML gurus sneered at its poor HTML generation and dependence on proprietary extensions on the server to achieve anything useful.
With the 2003 release Microsoft have tried very hard to please everyone and managed to achieve great strides although it is still far from perfect.
FrontPage 2003 also has tools to help develop web site features such as Web logs, news feeds, reviews and so on although these are dependent on the presence of SharePoint Services. This is a bit of a limitation though as it is far from easy to find a host that supports that unless you are hosting it yourself.
What is very clear with this release is how much attention Microsoft have been paying to the competition. Many of the new features are lifted from ideas pioneered by Dreamweaver. Microsoft has even gone so far as providing compatibility with Dreamweaver's own DWT format web templates.
FrontPage does still look very much the same though, sharing the common look and feel of other Microsoft Office 2003 products making it easy for novices to get up and running without too much pain. Anyone who is used to using Microsoft Office will find FrontPage easy to work with for simple web pages.
A very welcome change is the addition of a split view on pages showing both the HTML and the drawn page on screen at once. Here you can click on the drawn page and be taken to the right place in the code and vice versa. Another useful feature is the ability to load an image as a background that can then be a guide for designing the page. This allows developers to design a page using their favourite graphics package, get the go ahead from a client and only then start laying it out properly, tracing the design from the image underneath.
The improved use of CSS and layers means you can now avoid the dependence on complex tables for page structure. A further aid is the Layout Table feature that allows you to work as if you were using tables for the layout although the final page won't show them. The themes now use CSS making them more standard and also easier to control. The CSS editor is a bit basic though and you may want to consider one of the 3rd party CSS tools.
Useful options include an Optimize HTML tool and an accessibility checker. The former isn't all that clever though and just seems to remove whitespace and comments rather than performing any real code tuning.
Finally, you can set FrontPage 2003 to only offer options and tools that do not need FrontPage extensions. Previously, it was a bit hit and miss as to whether your site would work as expected when published unless you had an intimate knowledge of how FrontPage constructed its pages.
Page templates can be created that only allow certain elements to be edited, much like excel works with locked cells. Further support is provided by support for WebDAV and FTP file locking via .lck files. These helps when multiple users are updating a site and prevents people overwriting each others updates.
Database support is beefed up with improvements to the autogeneration of web sites to access existing data sources. Data can also be read directly as XML and styled via autogenerated XSLT with the latter being editable to suit your needs.
The FTP upload tool seems a tad idiosyncratic with a few foibles you need to be aware of such as how to specify relative or absolute paths in the way it expects. It also seems a little slow compared to using a 3rd party FTP tool for uploading. A useful trick is the ability to remotely view your site should you need to check or compare files.
With FrontPage 2003, Microsoft has moved away from the program's roots and made the code side far more important. You can still use FrontPage in WYSIWYG mode and may well spend much of your time working this way. However, you now have much more control over the code both as HTML and any of the other supported standards. The quality of generated code is also much improved. On the downside, there is still too much reliance on other Microsoft tools such as Sharepoint for some of the more advanced features but that apart, this is a significant upgrade that both existing users and those looking for a powerful yet friendly(ish) tool need to consider.
A final thought - the online help is usable but it's well worth investing in a copy of 'FrontPage 2003 the Missing Manual' which explains things far better.
A very good Review but a bit less use of abbreviations that non technies may not understand would make it more widely understandable
eljimbob 07.02.2007 15:26
Great review, I have tried with frustration at creating something with the 2000 version but have given up, this version doesn't even fulfil my needs really, maybe next time Microsoft will fulfill the real potential of FP :¬) James