In the old days of computing, when managers wanted a new report from a corporate database, they had to send a request to the data-processing department, then wait for it to get done. The rise of PCs destroyed that centralized system.
There is one corner of information technology, however, where it lingers on: making a change to a Web page. Whether it's updating a price on a public Web site or posting a memo on an intranet used for internal communications, any little change requires a Webmaster, who will get to the job in his or her own good time. Web authoring is so complicated, and the havoc that can be wreaked when attempting to change pages is so great, that Web editing has remained the province of a computer priesthood.
Macromedia (MACR ), a publisher of high-end Web software tools (macromedia.com), wants to change that. It has designed a program called Contribute that makes it easy for people without expertise in Web editing to update and even create pages. Meanwhile, a startup called Homestead Technologies (homestead.com) is making it easier for small businesses whose employees have little or no technical expertise to create smart-looking Web sites.
Contribute, at $99 per user, with volume discounts available, allows an administrator to give individuals or groups access to specific Web pages. By sending a small file called a connection key to authorized users, the administrator automatically configures copies of Contribute for appropriate access to the site.
Compared with Dreamweaver, Macromedia's professional Web authoring tool, or even Microsoft's (MSFT ) ubiquitous FrontPage, Contribute is a very simple Web-page editor. It limits you to the bare necessities: creating or editing text and placing images, tables, or links on the page. Most Web pages are fragile--a small mistake in placing an image or adding text can cause the whole page to collapse into a jumble. Contribute protects you with the ability to undo multiple changes. More important, it ensures that all work is done on copies so that no damage can be done unless you deliberately upload a messed-up page to the Web server.
Not surprisingly, Contribute functions best when working on a site created with Dreamweaver. It understands the structure of Dreamweaver pages, particularly Dreamweaver templates that a Webmaster can design to leave some areas of a page open to editing while ruling others, such as banners and menus, off-limits. Contribute works with sites created with other software, including FrontPage, but it's not as slick or easy as with Dreamweaver designs.
Contribute works best for businesses that have a skilled Webmaster to create the site and do any heavy-duty maintenance. Homestead is aimed at those who want to create a site without investing in a lot of training, yet don't want the same cookie-cutter look that comes from using Web tools offered by service providers such as America Online (AOL ).
Homestead uses a combination of software on the server and a program loaded on your PC to create and edit Web pages. And its latest version overcomes one of the nastiest problems that bedevils people trying to learn HTML, the Web's layout language--the tendency of images, text blocks, and other objects to go where they want rather than where you want to put them. Homestead features a ton of tools to create items such as checkboxes and selection lists that would normally require some programming. There are things it doesn't do particularly well, though. There is no easy way to get text to flow around a picture, for example. But on the whole, it offers remarkable flexibility and power for such a simple tool.
Homestead is a subscription service starting at $7.99 a month for a simple site, with a variety of options for bigger sites, such as more storage, e-commerce support, and site hosting, which allows you to sport a Web address like www.some-company.com rather than www.some-company.homestead.com.
The programs are intended for different audiences, but each is a big help in making Web- page creation accessible to anyone in a company who has content to offer rather than just those with technical skills. They are welcome additions to the world of software tools.
By Stephen H. Wildstrom