WEB WHILE YOU WAIT: A LOOK AT THE LATEST SITE DESIGN TOOLS THAT LET YOU DO ALMOST EVERYTHING YOURSELF BEFORE THE NERDS HAVE TO COME IN AND TAKE OVER.

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If there is one trait that distinguishes the top-rated Web sites these days, it is their functionality, more so than their appearance or even their content. The lesson, plainly, is this: If you want to design sites, or even specify them, you need to think about functionality above all.

To conceive of a Web site that offers genuinely useful features nowadays means having to show where they will fit in or how they will appear as the creative foundation of the site. When sites were simply online brochures with snazzy graphics, that was easy. Just give your storyboard, a simple Quark layout or the brochure itself to your Web designer or local hacker, and they would do the rest.

But now that it is functionality-and not content-that is perceived as king, a Web site must capture the drama of functionality from the ground up. Fortunately, you no longer have to compete toe-to-toe with the Web diehards hacking out HTML with favored tools like BBEdit 4.0 or WWW WebWeaver. Both are essentially text editors that assume you know HTML, and they are optimized for laying out pages in markup language and popping in tags.

Fortunately, the programs that let you cheat have just gotten much better. While they have been with us for over two years, Wysiwyg drag-and-drop layout programs have taken several leaps forward-it is possible now to stop talking to your Web people and start showing them what you mean.

Granted, the functionality does not arrive automatically, but at least you will be able to show where things go-even design what they look like-and let them write the CGI (Common Gateway Interface) scripts or other programming code like JavaScript to make it work. Some even offer bits of code to help you write your own.

While designers have often turned to PageMill 2.0 and Claris Home Page to build starting layouts, a new generation of programs offering increased power, design flexibility and site management tools has arrived in the past year. At the head of the pack are NetObjects Fusion 2.0 and GoLive Systems' GoLive Cyberstudio 1.1. PageMill and Claris have grown considerably-both are at version 2.0-but they are limited in the options offered for layout and image manipulation, and they provide no site management features (PageMill can be teamed with another Adobe product, SiteMill, for this functionality). Claris Home Page is a little cleaner to use and more powerful than PageMill, though the differences are more in style than in substance. But they quickly pale when pitted against the much more pricey GoLive Cyberstudio and NetObjects, which make the spec'ing, building and maintenance of a Web site a real treat.

Both products offer ways to introduce and manage programming, including Java and JavaScript, and both offer ways to oversee the entire site using a kind of visual outline system. As a site grows in complexity, these programs show all the links and a hierarchy of pages at a glance, along with an inventory of all the graphics and other assets.

Since all the programs output the pages in HTML code, you can move the pages from program to program without much trouble. Previewing the pages, however, means having to call up your browser on the desktop. Switching between applications to view your page and update it is a small nuisance that has become the occupational reality of all Web designers, so it's nice to be able to view the preview incrementally without having to do the switching all the time. Ultimately though, it is the flexibility and control of NetObjects and GoLive that give them a considerable edge over Home Page and PageMill, which tend to force you into more or less generic page placements.

In order to test the various products, I developed a model site to promote and handle online registrations for an annual summer barbecue. I found that, as advertised, all products let you whip up a site in a matter of minutes. All graphics must be loaded in the form of GIFs or JPGs, so, as most designers have found, they either need Photoshop handy or one of two other products that are the staples in the Web design community, GIF Converter or DeBabelizer 1.6.5. Both products enable the conversion of TIFF or EPS files into much smaller GIFs, which load faster because they are at a screen resolution of 72 dpi vs. the typical 300 dpi of the more sophisticated desktop print publishing formats. DeBabelizer, as its name suggests, opens many more formats than TIFF and EPS, and boasts that it can open them automatically after it has been installed.

DeBabelizer has emerged as the leading product in this special niche, because it can further compress the GIFs by allowing the selection of just the colors needed for the appropriate browser. This is the fine-art touch that designers have long used to get images looking just right but with the shortest possible download. The product helps select the palettes best supported by the browsers of choice.

Because the summer barbecue site reflected a live event, I used the new Sony DKC-ID1 digital camera to introduce photographs to the site before, during and after the event. To discover if the camera is indeed as intuitive as promised, it was handed over to a professional photographer who had never used a digital unit before. The camera proved to be as easy as advertised, with a through-the-lens preview capability, great zoom functions and the ability to view the pictures captured on flash cards. The autofocus worked fine, but wide outdoor shots tended to get washed out in the sun; manual exposure was required for several of those shots. The JPG pictures are stored on flash cards-29 in normal mode on the 2mb cards and 158 on the 10mb flash cards.

Loading them onto our site proved to be a snap once we were set up. Using Sony's Espresso software, we dropped the INIT file in the system folder, hooked up the flash card reader to the SCSI port and popped in the flash card. (These cards can also be read through a PCMCIA slot common in laptops.) All the pictures appear on the desktop folder as 65k JPG files. The quality in normal mode was so good that we were able to e-mail the pictures to a local newspaper that covered the event. While it is true that a camera and a scanner can accomplish much the same quality-at less cost-the immediacy and flexibility is extraordinary, and, coupled with Photoshop (the camera is shipped with Photoshop LE), it enables an art director to apply instant magic to any product shot.

The virtues of the advanced layout products became especially noticeable when we began experimenting with frames and fancy submission options in an effort to coax people to register online or seek more information through our site. GoLive Cyberstudio enables a page to be laid out in frames, and it has several palettes that allow the automatic building of forms, tables and the placement of code including Java, along with extensive comments so a designer can remember what each part signifies. NetObjects does many of the same things, although it has a slightly simpler layout.

Be advised that none of these products makes up for the need to write code, and unless you are a working programmer, these simple-looking programming codes just will not work exactly the way you expect them to. NetObjects does provide templates for programming as well as layout, and even throws in Java applets that can be useful. But you'll still have to code if you want to get things done. We tried to set up a page counter, and our AOL server simply wouldn't recognize the CGI script even though we had cut-and-pasted it so as to minimize errors. Nevertheless, you can still build your site and proceed as if you are coding-especially with the higher-end products-and then let the programmers pick up where you left off.

If there is one major flaw in all these products, it is that they cannot create dynamic pages-sites that are constructed on the fly from a database of text, graphic and data assets. Nor do any of these tools have built-in databases or easy links to databases. Perhaps these features will be in version 3.0; at any rate, these useful products indeed work as advertised.

BBEdit 4.0: $119,

Bare Bones Software;

617-778-3100

PageMill 2.0: $99,

Adobe Systems;

408 536-6000; www.adobe.com

GoLive Cyberstudio 1.1:

$349, GoLive Systems;

415 463-1580;

www.golive.com

Claris Home Page: $99,

Claris Software; www.claris.com

NetObjects Fusion 2.0:

$495, NetObjects;

888 449-6400;

www.netobjects.com

Sony DKC-ID1 digital camera:

$1,795, $395 for Card

Reader; www.sony.com

WWW WebWeaver: $25,

Miracle Software;

miracle@miracleinc.com

DeBabelizer 1.6.5:

$195, Equilibrium

Software;

415 332-4343;

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