Web Informant #388, 5 October 2004:

Notepad is still the best HTML tool



When I first began working on my personal Web site nine years ago, the HTML coding tools were in their infancy. (Not to mention that the whole concept of a personal site was virtually unheard of.) I taught myself enough HTML to be dangerous, hired a couple of kids to do the coding, and Strom.com was born. Over the years, I kept the site updated using Notepad and some cheat sheets taken from a few books at the time. Since then, I have resisted all attempts at making things fancier, and have continued to use Notepad and then Microsoft Word to update the pages on my site.


This week I launched a new professional site as part of my day job at CMP called AutomotiveDesignLine.com. I hope you have a chance to check it out; the site is geared towards automotive electronics engineers and has a nice clean and lean look to it. But that isn't why I am writing to you today.


The new site was built using a variety of sophisticated tools including Interwoven's Team Site content management system, Jive forums, and JavaScript. It is a beautiful thing, if I do say so myself. Many parts of the site, thanks to CMP's IT department and a very savvy team of Web producers, are automated so there is little need to manually update pages. Content is catalogued in a database so that stories entered on one of CMP's other sites can populate my site without too much fuss and bother. That's the good news.


The bad news is to have stories appear the way you want them you still need to know enough HTML coding to be dangerous, and still have to use Notepad and other crude tools to do it. So much for technical sophistication.


That being said, there are several differences between Web 
technologies then and now, and it is interesting to see what exactly 
has changed when you want to launch a new site. First off, the cheat 
sheets have gotten better, and that is a sad testimony on the state 
of Web coding that you still need cheat sheets at all. Back in the 
day, I had books to consult when I needed to enter special 
characters, like &#937 for the Greek symbol Omega (which is used to 
display an electrical unit of measurement called ohms for those of 
you that care). Now I can quickly go to the Internet and Google a 
character table within a few seconds and cut and paste the 
appropriate character string.


The same thing is true for constructing HTML text tables: back then it was a laborious manual process that required a great deal of mental energy to keep the rows and column codes straight as I input the values. Now there are any number of Web-based tools that can help you generate a table quickly that you can cut and paste together using Notepad. (There's that pesky Notepad again!)


Certainly, some of this has to do with the artifacts of Team Site, and the limitations that it has in terms of handling content that is uploaded into its system. But I would dare say that is true of most any content management system, which is designed to organize content into a database rather than define how a page will look in a browser.


A second technical difference is that the browser population has changed, but not necessarily for the better. Back in the day, we had to worry about the many different versions of Netscape and a few people using Internet Explorer, and even some people who were running command-line browsers that didn't display any images whatsoever. Testing a new site was a pain, because you had to have all these different browser versions available on your desktop. Today's sites don't have this particular challenge, but a somewhat different one: the browsers and sites have to be IE-compatible, and sometimes they diverge with IE functionality in odd ways. The trick now is knowing what IE does and making your site work the same way in non-IE browsers.


A third technical difference is that today's Web sites are much more than just an HTTP server sending out pages. Back in the days of yore it was all we could do to keep our Web servers up and running (especially if they were Windows-based). Now the site begins with a Web server and adds database, Java servlets, discussion forums, blog servers, ecommerce engines, metatagging and indexing servers, and more.


This brings me to my last point. All these technical changes have brought about a large collection of sub-specialties of experts to help birth a site. Keeping all this technology together isn't easy, and will require much closer coordination and more staff than the lone guy uploading a page of HTML to his site.


To launch my automotive site, I have been working with a large group of experts. But this means that figuring out how to solve a problem isn't easy sometimes, although having all this support is wonderful and makes for a terrific-looking site once it all gets put together. Plus, if I get stuck trying to do something, it is a simple matter of picking up the phone or walking down the hall and finding the right person to tweak our code.


Still the tools should be better by now, and Notepad shouldn't be the default development environment. Maybe by the time I launch a site in 2014 (boy does that seem like a long way off) we'll be using something that can finally make Notepad obsolete.


Entire contents copyright 2004 by David Strom, Inc.

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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