Beyond HTML ASPects
With the latest version of Dreamweaver, Macromedia has not only done away with the incremental, version-numbering system, but it has also taken the application in a new direction. The previous versions of Dreamweaver were already industry standards, well-respected for both their powerful web design functions and maintenance capabilities. Dreamweaver MX however, pushes the envelope well beyond HTML and takes the program into the realm of advanced development for web applications, an area previously reserved for professionals and techies with software like Macromedia’s own UltraDev, a technically enhanced version of Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver MX now incorporates a lot of UltraDev’s functionality, as well as some of the code editing features found in HomeSite, another Macromedia app. Perhaps one of the Help Menus within Using Dreamweaver MX summarizes the version upgrade best by stating simply: ‘Dreamweaver is a big application?’
Now I’m sure some of you may be wondering: ‘Has Dreamweaver gotten too big for the rest of us?’ I actually found myself asking the same question when I first read the new and somewhat intimidating specifications. Rest assured however, the application remains true to its roots and definitely within reach for designers. Only now, it encompasses a vast amount of options to keep up with the increasing demands placed on web technologies. The new version continues to make it easy to visually design web pages and the new backend features can now develop dynamic, data-driven applications. So the question you should be asking yourselves is: ‘Do I need all that extra functionality?’
The New Stuff
Dreamweaver MX has a new stage design with some familiar players in the way of reorganized tools and panels. The application offers two views for the Windows platform: an all-in-one view that includes the workspace along with all of the panels within one structure; and the old, Dreamweaver 4, floating panels look. (The Mac version only offers the latter viewing option). MX also protects customized, configuration options for multi-user environments with Windows XP and Mac OS X. I’ll work with the new, integrated look for Windows throughout this review – deemed MDI by Macromedia: Multiple Document Interface. (Please reference my Dreamweaver 4 Review for more about that version’s interface and the split-screen design view; as well as some information about the application’s evolution).
The biggest interface differences you’ll notice with the MX structure are the new Insert and Document Tool Bars along the top edge, just below the chrome Menu Bar. The Insert Bar inserts objects and works a lot like a browser, allowing you to ‘navigate’ to the other MX components through exporting options. I was impressed with the nimbleness of the tab structure, due in large part to its simplistic design.
The dockable Panels Group along the right-hand side contains everything from the Answers Panel, which is a mini-browser of sorts that offers links to Macromedia content like articles and extensions; to the O’Reilly Reference Guide in the Code Panel, which is a tremendous resource for both novice and experienced coders alike. The dockable panels option makes the workspace seem smaller initially, but a handy tab can quickly close and reopen the entire group. You can also drag each panel onto the workspace to get those nostalgic, floating panels back if you so desire.
The Properties Panel is now firmly anchored along the bottom of the screen and I found the placement to be ideal. It too is easily collapsible and the end result of the new layout means quicker access to everything, including a larger workspace when you need it.
The WYSIWYG design aspects in MX basically offer the same great features found in version 4. There are lots of new page design and template choices available and the initial prep work is done for you right out of the gate. When you create a new document in Dreamweaver, the application gives you a choice of page types, everything from basic HTML to Dynamic stuff with ASP or Coldfusion. Dreamweaver then prepares the initial code for you. The new template features also offer secure ways to give contributors the ability to make changes to web content without tampering with overall design integrity.
The CSS Panel has been updated and is easily accessible via the Properties Panel, but I found the added option a bit redundant. Incidentally, Dreamweaver MX does offer support for CSS2 constructs.
And kudos to Macromedia for seriously addressing accessibility issues. MX offers an Accessibility Compliance Checker in the Preferences Panel for reminders on everything from ALT tags to screen reader optimization. There’s no excuse now for your website not to conform to both U.S. and International Accessibility Standards.
Application Development and the Coding Arena
The ability to create and manage web-based applications is where the new version of Dreamweaver makes its mark, keeping the program on top of its game within the marketplace. Application Development is an umbrella term that has come to include a variety of technologies, but it all comes back to the raw communication of data. MX allows you to build things like user queries while actually viewing the overall structure and contents during the building process. You’ll be able to construct everything from Customer Update Forms to User Authentication communications. There is a new Applications Panel for Database and Server behaviors too. You can even drag-and-drop your applications onto the actual page in much the same way the feature works in the visual design mode.
Then there’s that mysterious and all-encompassing technology buzz-phrase known as ‘Web Services.’ Web Services essentially boil down to application services based on XML. Dreamweaver MX now gives developers the server technology options – like Macromedia ColdFusion, Microsoft ASP or ASP.NET, JavaServer Pages (JSP), or Hypertext Preprocessor (PHP) – needed for the development of those applications. Obviously, Dreamweaver also provides the means for users to interact with those applications by building a web interface. And understandably, MX focuses on a very capable ColdFusion environment, but all of the above technologies are supported.
It all begins with Site Definition, and defining dynamic sites and choosing server technology is now easier than ever. The Edit Sites and SetUp Wizard features now make negotiating ISPs a snap.
The Macromedia Exchange comes in handy if you’re interested in adding things like basic e-commerce. The Exchange offers downloadable extensions like a PayPal eCommerce Toolkit or a PHP Shopping Cart feature to begin selling stuff online. Yes, you’ll even be able to turn Aunt Lois’ imitation-llama-fur lampshade business into an e-commerce tour de force! But be forewarned, as some third-party authors charge for their goods with little to no support.
The strict coding aspects of MX have also been revamped and purists will be pleased. If you’re accustomed to coding within HomeSite, you can set Dreamweaver to resemble that familiar environment (Windows only). There is also extensive coding support found within the Tag Library Editor, as well as nifty pop-up menus during the coding process. A new Snippets Panel allows you to save your hard work separately so you can ultimately recycle your code down the road.
Means to an End
With web technologies and their inextricable ties to data becoming more and more complex, there will probably come a point when Dreamweaver’s attempts to be everything to everyone will come up short. Perhaps we’re already seeing some of that corporate, contingency planning in action now with Macromedia’s introduction of Contribute – a program targeting non-technical users who need to update web content.
My advice for those of you wondering whether to spend your upgrading dollars is this: If you need the advanced application features, definitely upgrade to MX. Otherwise, a solo app upgrade from Dreamweaver 4 to MX without the rest of the Studio MX lineup – which is highly recommended as a whole – may not be worthwhile.
In short, Dreamweaver MX remains, for the most part, within technical reach for non-professionals. The new development features probably won’t factor into usability problems because most designers won’t use the added horsepower anyway. It’s almost like having a great sports car for everyday use: you know the power is there if you need it. On the other hand, developers will love the integrated features and the ability to ultimately work with designers in one, large environment. After all, Dreamweaver is a big application.
Windows 98 / NT / 2000 / Me / XP – Macintosh
Includes solid, web development features and an enhanced coding environment. Unprecedented compatibility between the other Studio MX components.
You’ll need the rest of Studio MX to jump back and forth between applications and take full advantage of Dreamweaver.
If you have Dreamweaver 4 and find yourself in need of development functionality, get MX. Otherwise, a solo Dreamweaver 4 to MX upgrade may not be worthwhile. However, if you’re looking for an all-encompassing solution, Studio MX is the only real choice