Server vs. Client Authoring
Draft #1, 31 January 2000
Where should web authoring be done? When should you use a browser/server-based tool and when a client-based tool?
I'm CTO of a company that makes a client-based tool which I use for most of my web sites, including this one, so I know that area well. I also use lots of browser-based applications including email, and have used a variety of server-hosted authoring tools. I also watch the work of people like Dave Winer who use such tools. Here's what I've seen so far:
To understand web authoring by regular people, I think it's helpful to have a taxonomy that distinguishes among the various aspects of the process. I have broken it down into both the elements of web site creation and the stages in the life cycle of sites. Then, using that taxonomy, I look at how various authoring techniques stack up at each stage.
The elements and the times
There are different elements of a web site that must be addressed:
Content - The stuff you write including the pictures, links, etc.
Visual design - Page layout, colors, fonts, decorative graphics, etc.
Organization - How the content is broken up into pages, how they are linked.
Navigation - The links that reflect the organization and let the reader get around.
There are two times to look at:
First experience - When you build your first web site.
Regular use - Maintaining a web site or creating sites after your first.
First experience: Hello World!
When you are trying to make a web site for the first time, your choice of tool depends on various factors such as motivation. There are different motivations. Many people say "What the heck, let's try making a site". It's kind of like programmers trying out a programming language by making it display "Hello World!". In this case, the threshold to get results has to be real low. Server-based tools accessed through a browser are great for this.
The simplest "web sites" people create are the one-page mini-sites of e-cards like Blue Mountain Arts. The systems email a URL which points to a simple page that mixes custom text with a template. Other tools, like Tripod's QuickPage, let you fill in a more extensive form to create a page with longer text, links, and pictures, also mixing it with a professionally designed template. Millions of people use template-and-forms systems like these to create e-cards and simple sites. Few people move on to maintain sites this way (who maintains a birthday card?). Using these tools shows you can get a simple message across and make a mark in cyberspace. I think this is a good place for most people to start, and it will continue to be popular.
Much of the content on these simple sites is part of the template. The design is almost entirely in the template -- you express yourself by choosing the template from a gallery and perhaps setting some simple parameters. Being mainly one page, there is no organization or navigation to worry about.
First experience: A real site
Another motivation is when you really want a web site, with a message to get across, and you want to maintain it. In this case, there is more forethought. There are different options here.
Learn the technology
You can first learn some technology (HTML), and use some basic tools to write in pure HTML and post it, like NotePad and FTP, or Tripod's FreeForm, or Anglefire's system. Many people have gone this route, but it is not something that I believe the general population will follow. It is like the early days of personal computers (before spreadsheets) when people talked about just learning a little BASIC and writing a simple program yourself. Many people did, but it wasn't something that became widespread, nor something you could depend upon having the time to do whenever you really needed it. (That's one reason I decided to create VisiCalc, when I learned that my "much better than average" programming skills weren't sufficient to respond fast enough to the needs of answering questions in MBA class.) Will the normal person's HTML skills be good enough to express themselves as fast as they use Powerpoint? I don't believe so. When you're thinking about your content (or problem) you don't want to be distracted by how to express it in HTML (or BASIC) unless you can find it second-nature.
If you learn the technology, you probably also have to do the design, organization and navigation all yourself. This can be very tedious, and is not something most people have the skills or time to do unless as a hobby. It's like darkroom work with photography.
People who learn this technology, and get proficient with it, can end up making quite extensive web sites. Others see the sites these people make and understand the potential of the web, but don't see it for themselves because of the technical and design barrier.
Use a page-oriented tool
Another option for building a "real" web site is to use one of the many page-oriented tools along with a tool for managing the files on the web site. FrontPage is popular for this, but so are other tools like Dreamweaver, often in combination with an FTP tool. Most of these tools are client-based, though some, like Homestead, go half-and-half by using Java on the client along with a server-based file manager. The strength of all these tools is the ability to very carefully craft pages and take advantage of all HTML has to offer.
These tools make creating single pages relatively straight forward. They often come with "themes" or templates to help with the design. A few have wizards that set up an initial organization and navigation. Problems occur mainly during maintenance of the web site, when it gets hard to do reorganization or changes to the navigation. In most cases, the creators of these tools assumed that the users understand the file organization of web sites and other things related to HTML and HTTP.
Using site-oriented tools
For people more concerned with their content than the look of single pages, site-oriented tools are common. Sometimes this is done with HTML output from non-web-oriented applications like Powerpoint or Printshop, but more commonly from whole-site applications. There are client-side applications like Trellix Web and NetObjects Fusion, and server-based applications like Vignette's StoryServer and Userland's Frontier/Manila.
These tools take care of mixing user-created content with professionally-created templates, they help with organization and with keeping navigation updated. Some are for large organizations that customize the templates themselves. (Trellix Web is for regular users working by themselves.)
The difference to an author between site-oriented and page-oriented tools can't be minimized. A site-oriented tool lets you concentrate so much more on just the content yet still always have a complete, multipage web site with appropriate navigation. With page-oriented tools, the author must always be concerned with the housekeeping of the site, or they are forced into seeing their site as just a relatively fixed collection of pages with each to be edited independently.
Client vs. server
Many of these tools are client-based for the authoring. A browser environment encourages "click-click-click" to interact. A client environment is more conducive to the contemplation and trial-and-error of deep content. Typing "Happy birthday from the Smiths and a bark from Rover!" is different than 500 words about how you felt when your child went off to school for the first time. Also, mixing media, like pictures and sound with text, works better on your PC where you can cut and paste between applications, use specialized tools like sound and picture editors, and have peripherals like scanners connected.
One other differentiator is the ability of client-based tools to be used off-line. Since most people connect to the web by phone, staying connected for long periods of time is not always the way to operate. Deep content takes time. The delays while you upload material like pictures can break your train of thought. When traveling, even getting your laptop connected for a short time is a challenge.
On the other hand, being able to just use a browser with no application to install, and without even the need to use your own machine, can lower the threshold for many people and is appropriate for many simple types of web sites.
I think that both types of authoring tools will be necessary, as will the different types of environments: "Hello World!", page-oriented, and site-oriented. When you go to create a web site, understand the differences between them and choose the one best suited to your purposes.
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