By Published on .

Three-dimensional worlds streaming live video, and smart online agents may be the cool topics of the Web cognoscenti, but in the real world ad agencies and developers are forced to be much more conservative. Great effects are often simulated with low-level tools, and a lot of creativity has been going into "cookie" technologies where the site learns about the user and adjusts accordingly.

The reality is that bandwidth for most users has stayed constant at 14.4 or 28.8 kb over the past few years, and that has put a crimp on development. "We tell clients not to get too far ahead of their viewers, or they won't reach them," says Greg Bender, president at Port Chester, N.Y.-based Web developers BDInteractive. Even the introduction of the 58 kb modem is not likely to revolutionize this business for at least six months or more because of standards issues and the lag in penetration among users and service providers. The result is that designer tools have been relatively stable, with incremental advances and nothing that has shaken up the industry. The big money is going into server software, tracking tools and programming language.

It is a paradox of sorts. Says Clay Shirky, chief technology officer at Site Specific, a New York-based Web developer, "The tools are almost always guaranteed to be behind the state of the art in design." As a result, only the basic but most extensible tools have survived; for the most part, the tools that were hot at the dawn of the Web age are basically the same as the tools that are hot today. However, they're now being used in new ways, and the software companies have been quick to provide the right kinds of new features. The biggest change, says John Ronga, president at Coolcode, a New York software developer, is that "serious players are not designing static pages any more." At least not if they can help it. Developers often try to build Web sites that configure dynamically to meet the needs of the user logging on. That can mean a site like C-Net, which reads viewers' environmental information, determines their computer and browser type and then serves up a version of the site to fit their needs. That way a Mac user with Microsoft Explorer 3.0 will see a site with frames and Java applets, while a PC user with an old version of Netscape will be spared the broken icons that would otherwise appear. It can also be a dynamically built page like the personal newspapers offered by The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times online.

The Mac remains the tool of choice for Web designers, but no shop today can afford to be without a Windows NT machine to test their sites or to use tools that are increasingly appearing first on the PC. Because of the pressure on sites to generate revenue and large audiences, the industry is being seized by a "push" mentality: technologies that go out and find the user, instead of waiting for them to appear at their site. The result is not only an interest in products like Pointcast, which "broadcasts" a constantly updated stream of information to viewers, but to the DART site management software from New York-based Double Click that reads the cookies of users, makes inferences from the address and configuration information and then follows them around trying to serve up the right banners.

In approximate order of popularity, here are the top products gracing the desktops of Web developers today:

1 Photoshop 4.0, $895

Adobe Systems Inc.

345 Park Avenue

San Jose, CA, 95110-2704

Phone: 408-536-6000

This stalwart byproduct of the desktop publishing world, which offers designers control of images to the nth degree, has emerged as the leading tool of the Web revolution. What PageMaker and Quark were for print's ancien regime, Photoshop has become for the Web. It has an interface designers love and effects that techies drool about. The built-in Netscape palette support and GIF89 export features make it a dream for designers, says Rich Abronson, art director at the Santa Monica-based Internet Outfitters. Photoshop users also have access to plug-in filters like Kai's Power Tools from Metatools and Alien Skin's Black Box. "It is important not to overuse these filters or use them as a substitute for creativity," says Abronson. Nevertheless, "I could not do what I do without Photoshop," he notes, "and total mastery of it is an absolute requirement for Web designers."

2 BBEdit 4.0, $119

Bare Bones Software

P.O. Box 1048

Bedford, MA, 01730-1048

Phone: 617-778-3100

BBEdit is the HTML editor of choice for most Mac-based designers. The reason the Web hasn't attracted its version of PageMaker is that specs and requirements change too fast.

As a result, this product, which is still available off the Net, though in a professional package with specialized search, replace and command tools, is, as BDInteractive's Bender says, "the best. It's Mac only. Turner broadcasting uses it and so do we." PC designers often use HotMetal Pro, ($158 SoftQuad, P.O. Box 2025, Toronto, Canada, M4R 1K8. Phone: 416-544-9000) but not without envy of their Mac brethren because it is not as easy to use. "Still," says Bender, "HotMetal has a very good display of color and backgrounds of the page within the HTML code window without having to go to the browser to view the document."

3 GIF Builder

Freeware by Yves Piguet

Institut d'automatique

EPFL, 1015

Lausanne, Switzerland

For all the talk about animation with Macromedia Shockwave and 3-D worlds with VRML, the sad reality is that few viewers have either the plug-ins (the software modules downloaded and added to their browsers) or the raw memory to run them. So the lowest common denominator in animated graphics are compact moving images, notably the animation feature in GIF Builder-a program you can download for free. "It makes the best banners," says Bender, "and even when we create an animation in Macromedia we like to export the PICT version of each frame, convert it into GIF files and begin creating a GIF animation."

4 DeBabelzier

DeBabelizer Pro

for Windows, $595

DeBabelizer ToolBox (v1.6.5) for Mac, $399

DeBabelizer Lite (v1.1)

for Mac, $129


3 Harbor Drive, Suite 111

Sausalito, CA 94965

Phone: 415-332-4343

DeBabelizer was originally designed to make all graphics files readable to all applications, and it still is used for that purpose. But Web designers found that it has another important value-it has a way of shaving graphics files down to the barest minimum GIF sizes, making them the fastest possible for downloading. Many designers will take a graphic from its original creation package, like Illustrator, Painter or even Director, use Photoshop to retouch it, generate a GIF and then use DeBabelizer to make it anorexic enough for the narrowest bandwidth.

5 Adobe Illustrator, $595

Adobe Systems

Illustrator is still the most popular product for line art, logos and curved text, says Internet Outfitters' Abronson. Other art packages following in its wake are Macromedia Freehand and Fractal Design's Painter. In general, these two packages have been sidelined because the layered Freehand interface is complex and appears out of place in a Photoshop and Illustrator world, while Painter, with its many realistic brush effects, can be slow.

6 PageMill, $99

Adobe Systems

Even though professional developers code with HTML, they often like to prototype a page in a Web layout package-especially for client pitches. When they do, the lead program is PageMill. Claris Home Page and AOLpress' Navipress (free download from AOL) are other popular choices. On the PC, Microsoft Front Page is popular.

7 Macromedia Director, $929


600 Townsend Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

Phone: 415-252-2000

Director is still the No. 1 multimedia and animation development product. The learning curve is steep and it risks alienating new webbies without a background in multimedia design. The biggest problem is that even for designers who work in Director and save their work in Shockwave so that it can travel over the Net, there just aren't enough users out there with the Shockwave Player plug-in. "The balkanization of the Net is driving us crazy," says SiteSpecific's Shirky. Until Netscape and Explorer bundle plug-ins, they only expect to use these features in specialty sites like Duracell's, which offers viewers free games.

8 NetObjects Fusion, $695


2055 Woodside Road

Redwood City, CA 94061

Phone: 415-482-3200

On paper, NetObjects Fusion looked like the next PageMaker, but says, Shirkey, "If we'd had it in December 1995, we would have been ecstatic. It would have solved static page problems. By the time it came out in December, we were on to other things. Pages were being served on the fly from CGI requests or databases." In this quick-moving world of the Internet, adds Shirky, "just about any time anyone comes up with a tool that automates things, they are automating last year's problems." The Net result is a product that doesn't go far enough for the pros, even though it has good site management features, and it may even appear overpriced when so many tools exist at under $200.


Server versions start at $295

Progressive Networks

111 Third St., Ste. 500

Seattle, WA 98101

Phone: 206-674-2700

If you are going to add sound and hope the user either has the sound plug-in or is willing to download it, then RealAudio is the product of choice. Even at 28.8, the quality is quite good. On ISDN and T1 lines it is close to CD quality. Free sound editing tools come with the server software, but other audio editing software like Macromedia Sound Edit can be used.

Programming and Site/Server Management Tools. Increasingly, developers are being asked to add programming to their sites. At the same time, the big tool money is going to the server developers and site management products-even though there are often freeware and shareware products available. A company like SiteSpecific maintains several active servers: a Sun computer running a Netscape Enterprise server; a DEC server running Apache; a freeware server operating system; and a Microsoft Internet Information Server and NT 4.0 on a Pentium server.

At BDInteractive, in-house programmers have evolved their own site management and Web page development tools, according to Greg Bender. "We have developed active pages using CGI scripts, so that a page is served up according to the user's specific needs, and our suite of Java-based features like rollover buttons, elements that disappear or timeout or do special kinds of verification or processing on online forms."

For developers getting under the skin of the site, the preferred language is Java, and though new and still raw, it has spawned two leading tools in design studios: Visual Java++ for Windows users ($99.95, One Microsoft Way, Redmond Ave., WA 98052. Phone: 206-882-8080) and Symantec Cafe for Mac users ($119.95 Symantec, 10201 Torre Ave., Cupertino, CA 95014. Phone: 408-446-8955). Both offer icon-oriented, WYSIWIG programming with underlying program scripts.

Real programmers, of course, go straight to code, but designers have become a

Most Popular
In this article: