Taking the fear out of Web programming

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While tackling Internet technology can be daunting, for marketing departments and small offices that want to keep their Web sites current, HTML authoring tools can make the process painless.

HTML authoring tools are software programs that can be installed either on a company network or individual desktops. Ranging from $20 to upward of $300, these products, which generally don't require any more training than a word processing package, can create new Web-ready copy as well as change the text and graphics that may already be on your site.

Start with first site

"A small business or ad agency should think about using HTML authoring tools the moment they build their first Web page," says Scot Hacker, online managing editor of Ziff-Davis Publishing's InternetUser Web site.

HTML, hypertext markup language, is the code used to mark text, photos, drawings, icons and other features so these elements appear the way you want when your site is viewed on a Web browser. HTML tools can also help you build links to other sites without having to learn arcane HTML commands.

Although some authoring tools are sold on CD-ROMs, the most common method of obtaining one of these programs is by downloading it from the manufacturer's Web site.

Typically, you either purchase the program outright via secured online commerce or use it free for a trial period. **

Most of these tools run in conjunction with your Web browser. In fact, both Netscape Communicator and Microsoft Internet Explorer have their own built-in page creation utilities. So does Microsoft's Word 97, which is included in the latest version of Microsoft Office.

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Each of the more than 20 programs on the market has its own nuances, but most work by accessing the site as it's stored on your server or PC and then via several pull-down menus, allowing you to change the content as you wish.

Before you download and deploy an HTML authoring tool, you have to decide which one is right for you.

"There are so many to choose from, almost all of which include 30-day free trials, that you can try out another the moment you find yourself dissatisfied with one tool or another," Mr. Hacker says.

Generally, this software comes in two types -- text-based editors and WYSIWYG.

An acronym for What You See Is What You Get, WYSIWYG authoring programs show you what the page will look like as you execute each command. For example, you will be able to see what a new feature, such as an added icon, will look like on the page before you install it. The icon won't actually appear on the actual site until you send the Web page revisions to your staging server.

Most WYSIWYG tools are easy to use, but some are limited when it comes to advanced features, such as the ability to build frames or activate streaming JavaScript.

If you want multiple windows for your site or wish to run a Java-enabled ticker to tout your company's current stock price or a special promotion on a product you're selling, you'll probably want a text-based editor.

Rather than depend only on the simple pull-down menus of their WYSIWYG cousins, these programs generally split editing functions into two windows.

The left window may have project-tracking capabilities, while the right is where the current editing takes place.

Take time to choose

No matter what tool you choose, it may take you or your staff several hours to learn its intricacies, but the benefit of having your whole organization vested in creating and maintaining a timely Web presence for your company will be a good tradeoff for the inevitable learning curve.

As Mr. Hacker says, "You need to find a tool that thinks like you do and, like falling in love, you can't say exactly what that is, but you'll know it when you're in it."

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