April 7, 2004

A first look at the Nvu Web authoring application

Author: Barry Smith

I have been an increasingly reluctant user of Microsoft FrontPage for many years, so I was looking forward to testing Nvu, a fully Open Source program that is designed to effectively replace FrontPage. When Nvu turned loose its beta release for public consumption in February, I instantly downloaded copies of both the Linux and Windows versions. The verdict? Nvu holds promise, especially in its user interface, but FrontPage won't be going away soon.

I wanted to make a realistic comparison of the two programs and try, as much as possible, to eliminate my personal bias against Microsoft. I wanted to compare FrontPage and Nvu under the same OS. Since FrontPage does not offer a Linux version, I decided that running FrontPage in Linux under Wine would not be a fair test. Nvu offers both Linux and Windows versions, so for this comparison I decided to run Nvu and FrontPage under Windows ME, which I happened to have available.

The preliminary release of NVU is beta version 0.1. Considering that this is actually a continuation of the existing Mozilla Composer code, it might seem strange to call it a beta, but the Nvu project intends to make some fairly significant changes. Nvu intends to be fully compliant with all Web standards, and incorporates JavaScript editing and debugging, CSS, and other standard tools. But Nvu has a long wish list of features that will be added later as well. A quick comparison between NVU 0.1 and FrontPage 2000 gives a clear picture of where the project is aiming.

The Nvu interface

Anyone who has ever used Mozilla Composer will be at home in Nvu. The toolbars and menus have been beefed up slightly, and an Nvu Site Manager has been added to the left side of the screen, but overall it still feels like Composer. Frankly this suits me fine. Icons are comfortably large and clear, and menus are logical and intuitive. (Screenshots are available at the NVU Web site.)

The bottom of the Nvu main screen displays the traditional tabs for viewing pages in various modes, including Normal, HTML tags, HTML source, and a Preview mode to let you see what the finished product will look like. These viewing options are nothing new for Web editors. But Nvu does offer one major advantage -- tabbed editing. Just as Mozilla allows tabbed browsing of multiple pages, Nvu allows tabbed editing of multiple pages. This is a big help for casual users like me. I find it challenging to keep all the links and themes consistent when working with half a dozen pages. Being able to have everything right in front of my eyes while I am tinkering fits my work style perfectly. It is a small difference, but to me it is a significant one.

FrontPage also allows opening multiple pages, but requires a user to access each page separately via the Window menu.

While the ability to add new toolbars is common to both Nvu and FrontPage, I find the drag-and-drop interface in Nvu friendlier than wading through FrontPage menus. However,
I did notice one bug. The FrontPage toolbars automatically wrap to fit a shrunken window. If the Nvu window is made smaller, the toolbar simply runs off the right side into oblivion, in both the Windows and Linux versions. This will likely be one of the minor glitches that get dealt with among the general bug fixes.

The emphasis that Nvu puts on simple convenience also applies to the new Site Manager utility. This innovation takes the Composer publishing utility, adds a file manager/FTP-type interface to it, and parks the whole arrangement neatly at the edge of the editing screen, allowing a user to view the entire structure of a Web site in a single window.
For me this is a godsend, especially when I am in a hurry to make a quick adjustment to an existing site and then get on with my life.

The equivalent FrontPage version of the site manager utility consists of icons along the left side of the editing window. Clicking the icons allows you to access hyperlinks, folders, and other site elements. But once again, as it does with browsing multiple Web pages, FrontPage presents the information one screen at a time.

There is only one way that I know of to make a side-by-side comparison of anything at all in FrontPage. You must open another, separate, copy of the program. Aside from cluttering the screen, opening multiple instances of the same program clogs up Windows RAM pretty quickly.

Nvu's toolkit

Nvu genesis

Last fall Lindows CEO Michael Robertson discovered to his chagrin that some of his people had been consorting with the enemy (Microsoft). Specifically, part of the LindowsOS Web site bore the telltale traces of FrontPage. Robertson immediately launched a campaign to do something about it.

Further inquiry into the situation revealed there was no Web design application in the Linux market that could provide both ease of use and functional equivalence to FrontPage.
Of course there are a multitude of HTML editors for Linux, but a simple WYSIWYG editor for Linux that would let a non-tech user handle the basics, or make simple changes on the fly without pain was nowhere to be found. The closest available option turned out to be Mozilla's Composer, and Composer did not come close to FrontPage's sophistication.

In an ironic twist of fate which proves that Somebody Up There likes OSS, the Mozilla team was charting a new direction at the same time Robertson was beginning his investigation and had recently decided to break out the development of Composer into a separate project.

Lindows immediately swooped down upon Daniel Glazman, coordinator of the Mozilla Composer project, and offered to sponsor continued development of the project as a standalone, full-featured WYSIWYG application.

Thus Nvu (N-View) was born.

Beyond the user interface, both products pack similar capabilities, but given that FrontPage has been around for more years than even Nvu's predecessors, Nvu has some catching up to do. I looked at several main features Web authors commonly use.

Graphics -- This is one area where the beta status of Nvu shows up. For now the graphic manipulation options in Nvu are limited to inserting existing images and adjusting their size, position, and borders -- basically the same functions Composer supports. Nvu had no difficulty importing the GIF, JPG, PNG or BMP files that I tried, but all the editing has to be done beforehand. Nvu also provides a snap-to-grid function as well as layers to keep things nice and neat.

FrontPage is equipped with a long list of graphic tools. Its membership in the Microsoft Office suite gives FrontPage the advantage of direct, fully compatible access to the output of PowerPoint, Draw, Word, and so forth. Nvu still has a long way to go in this area to catch up.

Forms -- The forms tool in Nvu is a bit rough for us ignorant types. All of the necessary tools appear to be in place, including a JavaScript debugger, but the user interface is a bit confusing. For now, FrontPage shows Nvu how it is done. Nvu needs to polish this tool to make things a little more user-friendly.

Tables -- Nvu seems to have tweaked the old Composer table editing abilities. The new table manipulation interface is slightly more sophisticated and seems a little smoother. Table manipulation options in Nvu are still not up to FrontPage standards, but they are getting there.

Frames -- Nvu hasn't done much with frames yet. I couldn't find any frame tools in Nvu release 0.1, but it is on the wish list at the Nvu site. I haven't seen too many new pages using frames lately, so it's not a top priority, but no doubt the tool will be included eventually.

Templates -- Nvu lacks any templates upon which to build a site. It does provide an example widget (a calendar) and obviously plans to add more widgets and templates later on. For now, I just use the FrontPage templates. So far they have all worked fine.

Conclusions

FrontPage has been on the market longer than some of its users have been alive, whereas Nvu isn't old enough to be potty-trained yet, and it shows. For instance, the Nvu properties menu includes an option to install "Extensions" which are supposed to add extra features to the editor. Clicking this icon takes you straight to the Mozilla project home page, where no mention of Nvu or Extensions are to be found. Obviously, this is one of the items that will be added later.

For quick, basic editing the general usability of Nvu is superior to FrontPage, in my biased opinion. For those functions that Nvu does handle I think it presents a simpler, more intuitive interface. New bells and whistles are in the works. Reading the Nvu FAQ and background documentation tells me that ultimately the Nvu team intends to include every option that FrontPage offers, and a few more besides.

However, if you need a full featured Web editor Nvu is simply not there yet. I can certainly wait; Rome was not built in a day. For a preliminary beta release Nvu looks promising. I personally estimate one, maybe two years at the outside, before Nvu starts displacing FrontPage as the Web editor of choice for non-technical users. But I am afraid that until that day finally arrives, FrontPage will have to stay on my hard drive.

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