Posted Monday, June 05, 2006

Exploring iWeb 1.1.x

iLife doesn't stand still, but the printed page does. That's why I've been publishing this site for the last several years: to provide updates on the iLife scene as an ongoing complement to my book.

It's a good thing, too, because no sooner had the presses stopped rolling on the latest edition than Apple released an update to iWeb, the newest member of the iLife family. You can grab the latest iWeb through Mac OS X's Software Update function, or download it yourself.

What's New
Let's cover the highlights of the latest iWeb first. If you haven't fallen asleep after that, I have a little rant that will definitely put you out.

New page designs. iWeb 1.1.x includes six new design themes. You can choose between 1.1 themes and 1.0 themes using a pop-up menu at the top of the template chooser.

Blog comments. It's common for blogs to allow readers to post comments to a blog posting. (I don't do it here because I prefer to hear from you via email.) The initial iWeb releases didn't allow for commenting, and a variety of workarounds appeared. These workarounds still have their place in some circumstances, but the easiest way to commenting to your blog or podcast is this: visit iWeb's Blog & Podcast inspector and click the Allow Comments check box.

You can even enable people to attach files to your comments -- something many blogging systems don't permit. To take this slippery slope (who knows what someone might post, and whatever it is will take up space on your iDisk), check the Allow Attachments box in the Blog & Podcast inspector. An attachment can be up to 5MB.

Blog searching. Your visitors may wonder exactly when it was that you ranted against the latest plot twist in Lost. To let them find that rant and others, add a Search box to your blog. In the Blog & Podcast inspector, check the Display Search Field box.

See for yourself: Watch a QuickTime tutorial on Apple's site.

Note: For commenting and the search box to work, you must serve your site through Apple's .Mac service.

Phaster Photo Albums. Here's a convenient addition. To quickly create a photo album page in iWeb 1.1.x, simply drag an album from the Media browser into the Web page canvas. iWeb displays its list of templates, with the Photo Album page style already selected for you.

See for yourself: Watch a QuickTime tutorial on Apple's site.

Publishing Enhancements
Apple has improved the way iWeb creates graphics, and the enhancements are very welcome: they yield faster-loading Web pages.

There's still room for improvement, though. For example, if you add a drop shadow or other effect to a JPEG image, iWeb turns the JPEG into a PNG image that takes longer to download.

Tip: On Apple's discussion boards, one user shared a slick workaround for this: create a screen grab of the effect, then save that image as a JPEG and add it to your iWeb page.

See for yourself: Watch a QuickTime tutorial on Apple's site.

Now, the Rant
This JPEG-to-PNG conversion business leads to my rant -- and explains my mixed feelings toward the current incarnations of iWeb.

On the plus side, there's no question that iWeb insulates you from the technical underbelly of Web publishing: writing HTML code, preparing graphics for fast downloading, dealing with JavaScript and Cascading Style Sheets and all the rest.

But too much insulation isn't necessarily a good thing. I've been helping to produce a Web design conference for nearly ten years now, and if there's one thing I've learned from the masters of the Web design world, it's that creating a Web site that downloads quickly and works on as many browsers and platforms as possible is a thorny technical challenge that requires a lot of skill.

When you insulate someone from a highly skilled task, quality and control can suffer. Automatic transmissions eliminate the need to learn a clutch, but they cost you in performance. Automatic exposure modes eliminate the need to master a camera's manual controls, but they don't always get the correct exposure. Shake 'n' Bake might get some chicken on a plate quickly, but it isn't going to be coq au vin.

And iWeb's operating philosophy -- "design whatever you like and let me worry about the technicalities" -- often forces iWeb to do things that yield slow-loading Web pages.

For example, simply adding a shadow to some text causes iWeb to turn the entire text box into a graphic: a "picture of text." And if that shadow happens to be part of a large block of text? You're about to create a page that loads slowly and sucks up your monthly .Mac bandwidth allocation like a Hummer sucks up unleaded.

From a technical standpoint, I can understand why iWeb does what it does: Web browsers don't know how to create shadowed text. (And while I use shadow as an example here, this "text into graphic" problem occurs in many other circumstances, too.)

But iWeb shouldn't simply force your formatting to work no matter what the bandwidth cost. It should either limit what you can do in the interest of creating an efficient site, or it should warn you when you perform a formatting task that will force iWeb to render text as a graphic.

My criticism of iWeb is that it often chooses form over function. That's almost always a bad thing.

Pure function, great form. There are iWeb details aplenty in the latest edition of the world's top-selling iLife book. It's off the presses and just beginning to ship now; order your copy of The Macintosh iLife '06 for just $22.04: 37 percent off the cover price.