The World Wide Web seems to be everywhere these days. Businesses are scrambling to promote themselves on the Web. Corporations are building internal Webs to let employees share information. And just plain folks are rushing to create their "personal pages" on online services.
Until now, you needed to be half artist and half programmer to produce professional-looking pages. But this is changing, and fast. Adobe Systems Inc.'sPageMill andSiteMill (http://www.adobe. com) for the Mac could do for page design what the company's PageMaker did for desktop publishing--make it accessible to nonexperts. And with Microsoft Corp.'s Jan. 16 acquisition of Vermeer Technologies Inc. and its FrontPage Web design and management program, the computer giant (http://www.microsoft.com/ msoffice/) made it clear that it will be a major player in the field.
IMAGE MAPS. PageMill is a completely visual product that lets you design your pages without complicated programming and allows you to see how they will appear on the Web while you build them. If you use Netscape Communication Corp.'s popular Navigator browser, your pages will very closely resemble what you see. Users can enter text on a page or drag it in from another application. Drop in backgrounds, graphics, clickable buttons, and blanks for entering text onto a page. And it's very simple to turn text or images into links to other Web pages. Image maps, those complex graphics where clicking on different parts of the picture takes you to different pages, are one of the Web's coolest features, but creating them has been pretty difficult. The $125 PageMill greatly simplifies the process.
Designing pages is only half the struggle of running a Web site. Keeping track of the complicated links among pages and sites--there's a reason they call it a Web--is tricky and tedious. The $400 SiteMill offers a combination of PageMill and easy-to-use tools that would be invaluable for managing even a small Web site. It provides a visual guide to how pages link to each other. And if a page is moved or renamed, SiteMill will automatically update all of the links to it. Both products are currently available only for the Mac; Windows versions are planned by midyear.
FrontPage brings a similar combination of power and simplicity to Windows (and a Mac version is in the works). While I thought the page editor wasn't as slick as PageMill, FrontPage adds one very powerful feature: Automated "WebBots" that allow a Web server to process fill-in forms and handle other common interactive chores without any programming. The main drawback to FrontPage is its $695 price tag. But I expect Microsoft will separate the editor from the site-management tools and either sell it for under $100 or incorporate it into the next release of Office.
If you want to experiment with Web page design on Windows but don't want to spend a lot of money, there are a couple of options. WebAuthor from Quarterdeck Corp. (http://www.qdeck. com/) is a $45 add-on that turns Microsoft Word 6.0 into a Web editor. InContext Corp.'s Spider (http://www.incontext.com/) is a $99 free-standing editor that is more powerful but somewhat more difficult to use. Demo versions of both can be downloaded from the Web.
A word of warning: No matter how good your tools are, designing Web pages remains an art. Only study, practice, and some talent will make you good at it--as I learned from my own pathetic efforts. But the great software programs that are now available can speed the process greatly by letting you focus on the content while the computer worries about the mechanics.