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September 7th, 2008:

On Being a Webfossil

Carol and I bundled up the puppies and took Otto (our Bigfoot RV) down the road about 100 miles to Buena Vista, Colorado, and we’re kicking back here amidst the mountains for a few days. We’re not doing much—that’s the idea!—but reading and gathering our thoughts.

I’ve been tearing at what I call my “Webfossil” problem for some time now without saying much about it here. I’ve been posting content to the Web since 1995, and way back then I tried all kinds of things. However, for the past seven or eight years I’ve been using basically the same toolset: Dreamweaver 3/Fireworks 3. These were released in 1999 and are pretty creaky, but they work and the content gets posted. Periodically people message me and tell me that my HTML is a little bizarre, and it is, because I don’t write it—that’s what software is for. (Newcomers here should keep in mind that I’m the Visual Developer Magazine guy, and that WYSIWYG design, whether for code or for content, is one of my major fetishes.) I’ve become a bit of a Webfossil. Yes, I know, I need new software.

But if I’m considering new software, shouldn’t I be thinking about entirely new approaches to the basic challenge? I keep a blog, and I write Web articles on various topics, both using 1999-era tools. LiveJournal has been a useful mirror, and I adopted it almost entirely to provide an RSS feed for Contra. (The comments have been fun, and were something of a surprise.) I don’t really need LiveJournal for that anymore, as hosting services with preinstalled and house-supported instances of blogging tools like WordPress are common and cheap. (I just got an account with one and am testing a few things. More on this in coming weeks.)

CMS packages are one alternative approach that I’m looking at very closely. Blogging is either built-in or supported by plug-ins, and management of static articles is basically what CMS systems are for. It’s an embarrassment of riches out there; my biggest question now is which one to choose. Drupal is more secure than Joomla, but from what I’ve seen it takes a lot of work to change anything, most of which is hand-coded PHP or CSS. Now I’m no expert at either, but I’ve played with both and I’m a quick study when I know it’s worth my while. What I barf on is what I always barf on: Too much work per unit result. Hand-coding is fun (and addictive—definitely been there!) but it wastes my time, and at 56, you reluctantly start counting the years you have left.

I know less about Joomla, but it looks like it has more visual tools, more plug-ins, and more available themes. The themes are CSS and thus easily altered by a very cool sort of object-oriented programming for content markup. CSS is fun, if you don’t get deranged about seventeen-box fluid layouts. I tried it back in 2001 or so, and set it aside because the spec was twenty miles ahead of the rendering engines. There are still some weird little issues—the CSS greasy eminences do not like the HR tag at all, and deprecate it mortally in favor of peabrained hacks like making the lower edge of a paragraph box visible—but b’gosh and begorrah, you can render the same code in the major browsers these days and it all looks pretty much the same. I guess I really should abandon table-based layouts.

My fundamental objection to CSS remains: There’s no reason not to drag text boxes around on a display and then have the software compile your design to XHTML and style sheets—except the software to do this doesn’t exist yet. I still have a couple of things to test, primarily Style Master and especially iStylr, but even the formidable Dreamweaver CS3 is still basically an HTML table-basher. I’ve been doing that for seven years now and it’s a nuisance.

I may hand-code a fluid equivalent to my canonical table-based Contra layout for practice if nothing more, but the ultimate solution is probably an all-purpose turn-the-crank Web content management system, even if what I want doesn’t quite exist yet. Sooner or later, it will. Time to crack the mold (as venerable and useful as it’s been) and stop being a fossil.