The World Wide Web is a powerful tool for business communications--a great way to get information to customers or to co-workers. But the technology has one huge drawback: creating and maintaining a Web site still requires the skills of an expert.
One of the pioneers of personal-computer software aims to change that. Daniel S. Bricklin helped launch the PC revolution by co-authoring the first spreadsheet, VisiCalc for the Apple II, in 1979. Today, he has turned his attention to the clunky tools used to create Web sites. Current choices are Web- site management programs too complex for ordinary users, or word processors that were designed for printed documents.
WHAT TOOL? Bricklin, who is chief technology officer for Trellix Corp., says his new program eases Web site creation the way using VisiCalc was an improvement over writing a BASIC program--at the time, about the only way to do any numerical manipulation on a PC. "BASIC was fine, but too cumbersome for daily use," he says. "In VisiCalc, you could do in a few minutes what took hours in BASIC, and you could do it without thinking about it. We want to do the same thing with Trellix: Make the tool disappear, so you can concentrate on the writing."
Trellix ($99, trial version downloadable from www.trellix.com) isn't in the VisiCalc class of breakthroughs, but it makes assembling online documents a lot easier. The power of a Web site, whether it holds product information for customers or training materials for employees, is the ability to use hypertext links to jump around at will. Setting up those links, however, is anything but intuitive. And maintaining the links when a page is moved or deleted can be a mind-numbing chore.
Strictly speaking, Trellix doesn't create true Web pages but instead produces documents in its own formatting system. The results can be displayed on a Windows 95 or NT computer using a free Trellix viewer. Or the creator of the file can, with a single mouse click, convert the pages to the Web-standard HTML to be uploaded to a site and read by any browser.
The key to Trellix' simplicity, both for creators and users, is the "map," a chart at the top of each page that shows all of the site's pages and the links among them. To open a page, click on the square representing it. The program also makes it simple to arrange logical paths through groups of pages, called sequences, which readers can follow simply by clicking "next" and "back" buttons. You can create links and sequences simply by clicking on the map. And you can move pages around just by dragging them from one place on the map to another. All of the links are automatically updated.
BUG PATROL. Trellix' graphics capabilities are limited. You can't, for example, wrap text around an illustration on a page, as you can with simple Web page editors such as Adobe PageMill. You can, however, place a picture between two blocks of text. A more serious failing is that Trellix can't handle tables. While it retains most formatting when importing text from Microsoft Word, it ignores embedded tables. Trellix says it will fix the deficiency in the next version.
What Trellix does best is business communications that are mostly text. The program is ideally suited for many of the uses of internal corporate networks, such as training materials and human-resources information. It would be a great way, for example, to create a hyperlinked employment manual with much less effort and better results than using traditional Web tools.
The full power of the Web will only be unleashed when it's as easy to post information online as it is to write a memo. Trellix is a welcome step in that direction.