It’s been a heady few months. The updates to iWork ’09 and iLife ’09 have, for the most part, been as impressive and inspiring as we’ve come to expect from Apple (s aapl). I upgraded both suites the very second I could. I can’t tell you how much I love these products.
Except…iWeb ’09. (Liam looks to the ceiling, gathers his thoughts…tries not to get agitated.)
If you didn’t already know, iWeb is a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) website authoring tool. It’s an end-to-end solution that makes it supremely easy to create a complete, sort-of-professional-looking website from scratch. Only, I have some issues with it. Where to begin…
I should begin by explaining something: I’m not a “lite” user. I’ve been developing websites and web applications for over a decade, and I’ve become accustomed to the power and flexibility offered by the like of Adobe (s adbe) Dreamweaver and (yes) Microsoft (s msft) Expression Web. (Although, given the choice, I’d rather use Visual Studio 2008.) So I understand — I really do understand — that iWeb is not supposed to be competition for those other solutions. iWeb isn’t really for me. Nor does it try to be. It’s supposed to be something very simple, very easy to use. It’s supposed to be intuitive and accessible. It’s supposed to provide a seamless experience for anyone with even the tiniest bit of creative vision. And you know what — it does all the things it’s supposed to do. It just doesn’t do enough.
So, before I get agitated again, let’s take a look at the new release and feel thankful for what it does do.
The interface hasn’t change much, save for the introduction of a vertical panel along the right-hand side of the window, called the Media Browser. This gives easy one-click access to Audio, Photos and Movies on your Mac. Nothing the Media Inspector didn’t do before, except for the final tab – Widgets.
Widgets make it quick and easy to add rich-media to web pages.
While the Gallery pages iWeb creates always have allowed users to hook-in to their .Mac or MobileMe galleries, this widget makes it possible to add a single, self-contained gallery-link to a page without the need to use iWeb’s more cumbersome “My Albums” section to your site. What you get is similar to the Events view in iPhoto; a square panel that shows thumbnails of photos in your chosen MobileMe Gallery. When you pass your mouse over the panel, you get different thumbnails of the photos that lie within. Clicking will open a new page that loads the original MobileMe gallery.
Exactly what you’d expect. You paste a link to a chosen YouTube video into a popup dialogue box. It embeds the video on your page.
I really like this Widget. It doesn’t move the earth, it does precisely what you’d expect, but it takes the hassle out of coding these things by hand. Drag this Widget onto your page and you are presented with a sheet asking for the address you want to display. You can set zoom level, and choose which user-controls are available (such as zoom controls or the Google Maps search bar).
Precisely what proportion of typical home-users are Google AdSense customers is an interesting question. I would hazard a guess it’s really not so many. In which case, this seems like a tip of the hat at providing something useful to more advanced users. Except I cannot see iWeb being used as a tool-of-choice by sufficiently advanced users (and by that, I’m referring to anyone who wants to create a truly decent, individual website — but more on that later).
You could have done this before using PhotoBooth. Only now it’s built-in to iWeb. This widget starts you iSight camera and allows you to take a photo for instant-inclusion in your web page.
Precisely the same as the iSight Photo option above. Only with movies.
I could see this being popular with websites announcing upcoming weddings and birthdays. In short — completely pointless and not exactly something the websphere was crying-out for. Still, it’s something new. Enjoy selecting your birthdate for next year and watching it automagically work out the number of seconds between now and then. And count them down. (meh)
Finally! A truly useful widget that was not previously easily-done. Except there is a catch — it doesn’t create an RSS feed from content in your page; it imports a feed from outside your site. If that’s what you want to do, this is a nice and simple way of making that happen.
Ironically, this is the most powerful widget of the lot. It allows you to construct your own HTML and generate pretty much anything you want. Of course, Apple expects you to be doing nothing more advanced than adding someone else’s banner, visitor tracking button or analytics script. If you want to embed anything more fancy than that – why on earth are you using iWeb?
Nothing to See Here…Move Along…
After the initial excitement with Widgets fades, you’ll realize there’s nothing else of any real added-value in this version of iWeb. There are only two new themes — “Leaf Print” and “Fine Line” — that would have been impressive in 1997. Today they look rubbish. Oh sure, they’re tidy and simple. But they’re not particularly exciting or fresh. Apple must know this — after all, they’re never gonna publish websites using those themes, so I don’t know why they imagine it’s alright to foist them upon the rest of us.
There I go being a power user again. I’m sure Aunty Mavis would just love Leaf Print (rolls eyes).
Going to Press
The publishing options have been expanded somewhat. As well as the option to publish to MobileMe, you can also publish directly to a third party hosting service of your choice using the FTP connectivity new to iWeb ’09. The process is simple.
Once you’ve entered and successfully tested your FTP login details, it’s business as usual.
I Do Facebook, Too!
Since iPhoto ’09 so nicely integrates with Facebook, it seems the iWeb developers felt they had to do something — anything — to get in on the action. Sounds interesting…what could they possibly do, though?
Imagine it — by hooking-in iWeb to a Facebook account, the possibilities are endless! You could scrape your Facebook Wall updates into your personal website, link your Facebook/iPhoto galleries with your iWeb site so changes in one propagate automagically to the others, synchronize your iWeb blog with Facebook’s Notes, synchronize your Applications to publish their updates to your iWeb site, synchronize your Facebook Status Updates with your iWeb home page…actually, the more you think about it, the more exciting it becomes! The possibilities just go on and on.
Unfortunately, it seems iWeb’s developers weren’t thinking about any of these possibilities, because the Facebook integration we get in this upgrade amounts to nothing more than the following line, published to your Facebook Wall, whenever you make changes to your website.
And here start the problems I find in iWeb ’09…
A perennial complaint (really — Google it — you’ll find a lot of people complaining about this for years now). Whether you publish to MobileMe or your own web server, iWeb still insists on creating bonkers-crazy long URLs. And there’s just no excuse for this, there really isn’t. For example, my personal website is http://www.liamcassidy.co.uk and my iWeb website was originally named “liamcassidy.co.uk”.
The effect this had on the final published site was a URL to a home page that looked like this:
I’ve since changed the site name to something shorter, but it’s still utterly ridiculous that iWeb doesn’t provide the option — just the option — to override this crazy URL structure/naming convention. Apple, I have a humble suggestion for you — not everyone wants to publish to MobileMe. Let your customers decide what’s best for them, and don’t make them suffer this laziness! A simple toggle in the Preferences ought to disable this kind of silliness so anyone more competent than Aunty Mavis will feel less embarrassed by the addresses iWeb spits out. This sort of thing is entirely avoidable. It’s simply shocking Apple hasn’t done anything about it.
No one with any kind of appreciation for contemporary design, or accessibility concerns, is going to use the pre-built Themes that ship with iWeb. A very tiny select few look beautiful — but they’re still lacking. iWeb ’08 shipped with some nice new themes but, unfortunately, they dated quickly. The stingy two new additions in iWeb ’09 are laughable.
OK, this is something only more experienced web developers will care about so I won’t bang-on about it too much. It’s worth mentioning because 1) other WYSIWYG editors manage far cleaner code, and 2) there’s nothing semantic about this markup. There aren’t even any helpful comments to guide the curious. The CSS markup is packed-to-bursting with redundant markup (example: “border-top: 0px”, “border-right: 0px”, “border-bottom: 0px”…you get the idea.)
It takes forever to publish pages. Whether you use MobileMe or your own FTP address, publishing a simple 6-page site can take five or more minutes. This is ridiculous, given that any other (free) FTP software can get your files published in much, much less time. Not the “…within moments…” promised by the happy voiceover in the iWeb tour video. Oh no.
The fastest way to publish your site is to not publish it at all — by selecting the confusingly-titled “Publish to Local Folder” option. This dumps all the relevant web pages and assets into a folder of your choosing on your hard drive. This takes seconds, but then it’s up to you to get those files to a server somewhere.
As a sidenote, this may be the best way to overcome the problem with the crazy long-URL’s. Publish the site to a local folder, then use another FTP solution to upload the files to your own web server. You’ll have to mess around with links here and there to make sure the whole site works as planned, but at least you won’t have to deal with six-mile-long web addresses.
Oh yes, and just a final word on publishing. If you don’t use MobileMe as your hosting platform, you can forget about your blog’s comments working properly. And kiss goodbye to your blog’s Search functionality. That’s gonna go, too. Seems Apple really wants you to use MobileMe.
It might sound like I’m bashing iWeb, but if I am, it’s only in the way a pushy parent might berate an under-achieving child for not doing as well as they could. iWeb could be, and should be, a far more powerful and impressive tool than it is today. I was expecting some interesting and exciting things with this upgrade — as it turns out, what I got wasn’t worth the wait.
I know Apple is not trying to compete with other more professional web authoring solutions, but that doesn’t excuse sheer laziness when it comes to upgrading this software. iWeb has the potential to be a killer-application. Seriously — plenty of professional web developers would be happy to use it if only it didn’t suck so bad. And, in truth, there aren’t so many fixes required, either.
Obviously, the Themes are a joke. Where Apple could shine here is build an iWeb Themes gallery, much the same as the Web Apps gallery that countless iPhone owners (myself included) practically lived-in until native applications could be installed on that device. Apple already features third-party developer software on its own website — why not showcase the best iWeb themes, too? Or, better still — why not create some really breathtaking themes worthy of that lugubrious (and indelible) credit, “Made on a Mac”?
As well as vastly-improved themes, add a long-needed fix to the crazy URL issue, CSS editing and the ability to fine-tune the (cleaner, semantic) HTML markup, and you have a web creation tool that is still simple and intuitive, yet doesn’t try to compete with the big-kids already dominating the playground. If that means releasing a standalone “iWeb Pro” package that does for my websites what iWorks does for my documents, I’d gladly pony-up the cash.
In the end, “simple and easy” doesn’t have to mean “crude and clunky.” Apple proved that with Pages and Numbers in iWork. The updates to iPhoto and iMovie (evolutionary and revolutionary, respectively) are nothing short of breathtaking. In this company of Kings, though, iWeb is an embarrassing, backward cousin.