Friday, April 18, 1997 by Dave Winer.
Next week at the Seybold show in New York, we'll be talking about authoring tools for the web.
Like all software developers, I want to have something new to talk about, so we've been working on Frontier 4.2.3, and yesterday it shipped. Just in time!
There are three areas of improvement in 4.2.3. First, we added preliminary support for Microsoft's CDF "push" format. We also completed the implementation of Fat Web Pages, and with this release we are ready to start distributing object database "parts" using the new scheme.
But most of the effort in this release went into bringing our site automation features to websites managed using BBEdit and the network file system.
BBEdit has become a standard among web developers. Remembering that the web is a big network that connects all kinds of machines, if a web developer wants to use a Macintosh, it's usually not a problem.
FTP and HTTP and email are cross-platform standards. And many websites are just LANs, like mine, where you find Macs and NT machines that can store stuff on each others' disks through file sharing.
That's why it's now a network file system and not the Mac file system.
Even though BBEdit is a standard in the web world, it doesn't get enough respect in the press. WebDeveloper covers VRML tools on SGI machines, but I've never seen them write a review of an add-on for BBEdit, or even BBEdit itself. What a mixed-up world.
Do an experiment for me, if you're a journalist, go down the hall and ask your webmaster if he or she uses BBEdit. The chances are pretty good that they do.
I know that BBEdit is a hit. It shows up everywhere. People are proud of it! So a couple of weeks ago I cleared some time and learned what the web looks like from a BBEdit user's perspective. I did it by building a modest-size website just using BBEdit and the Mac Finder
I wanted to see if we could do anything to increase the flexibility of these sites by adding some of the framework features we have when websites are built entirely in Frontier's object database.
For me, the main issue in managing a website is getting the structure out of the way, so I can write when I need to, and not worry about the look of a page. And then when it's time to upgrade the look of a site, I want to be able to change one file and rebuild the site.
This mode-flip is essential for preserving my sanity when working on a site. Either I'm writing or I'm designing, I hardly ever do both at the same time.
So I looked at how this works for BBEdit users. When it's time to create a new page, here's what you do: open up your template file, select-all, copy it to the clipboard, open a new window and paste.
We have a parallel to this in the software world. Doing websites this way is analogous to cribbing code instead of creating subroutines. When you copy-paste, it's hard to move forward. When you create a layer of abstraction, if you did it well, you can change the lower level without breaking the upper level stuff.
With a good framework in place, you have all the flexibility to manage sites that grow and change as your needs change, and as you get new ideas and learn.
We've had this kind of stuff working in Frontier since version 4.0 shipped almost a year ago. But -- we wanted more! We didn't win the hearts and sites of most of the people who do BBEdit-based websites. We want to bring them into the family, to empower them, and earn their respect and support.
Here's where the magic of the Mac development community comes in. Rich Siegel, email@example.com, the lead developer of BBEdit is a friend of mine. We talk on the phone, I ask for a feature, he does it, we build on it, and we go forward. That's how it works.
It's the relationship that counts! People never get that. Mac developers tend to work together. I don't know about Windows developers. We'll find out I guess. Anyway...
Rich and I did a lot of that kind of work last year. BBEdit supports menu sharing, and that means we can add commands to their menu bar. And BBEdit also gives us hooks to find the file you're editing in the Finder, and to get the text of the frontmost window.
This means that we can render pages for you. We can flow your stuff thru a template, we can look up glossary items in a database, and we can help flow images thru pages.
We can move your site work up a level. Much of this is new for people who do BBEdit-based websites. And we owe Rich and his team a hearty thanks for allowing us to do it. No sarcasm! Collaborative cross-company development is a rare thing. When it works so well, it's appropriate to be grateful.
Finally after years of urging them to let us have the wheel, Apple is doing it. It might be the last minute, but so what? Let's have fun! We have the support of the people at Apple. That's just plain cooool.
I want people to know that developers don't have to cut each other's throats. Like the rhythm guitarist in my high school band, I don't need to hit the bass string because Rich and his buddies do it so well. And he doesn't have to do what I do, because I am happy to invest in the happiness of his users.
And finally Apple can say yes to us too. They're focused on the health of their business, and not focused on doing our business. A patch of blue sky opens. Man if the Mac is the Titanic in its final hours, so what? If someone asks me to dance, I say yes, unless I have something better to do...
So, right now, we're focused on web developers on the Mac. It's OK to create new software. Even Apple says so!
Switchin gears... there are three kinds of people that collaborate on websites, and three different kinds of tools that are essential to a smooth-flowing site.
Designers dig products like BBEdit because it gives them control of every bit of HTML text. That's its purpose. Fusion allows them to view a page at a very high level. We view these tools as complementary, as the best ways to build templates and to manage the front page of a site.
We make software for geeks, the people who keep the sites flowing, write the scripts and dynamic pages, do the backups, build the sites, and create systems to manage the workflow.
Writers are a whole different breed! Writers use writing tools. Duh! Hey an email program is a great web writing tool. Word processors and text editors like BBEdit are great web writing tools too. Wizzy web tools like Home Page, Page Mill, Front Page are helpful too (but they need the hooks, like BBEdit, and generally, they don't have them).
There might be two or three geeks and designers on a site, but hundreds of writers. If you run a site, look at how it breaks out. If you've got thirty HTML people and ten writers, it's out of balance. Two geeks, two designers and thirty writers is totally possible if you have the right system in place.
To make a website really work well, it's important for the people to work together without getting in each others' way. Details can be hidden. If a writer has to fuss with HTML, something's wrong with the system. And the editor in chief, the person who owns the front page, needs a powerful easy to use workstation. I think that Fusion has basic stuff, with the right hooks, to be the ideal EIC workstation.
Next week the focus is on web publishing. We're going to talk about automated sites with BBEdit and the file system as the user interface. I want this story to resonate because many people doing real-world websites are using BBEdit.
My belief -- when a market like web publishing is growing and transforming so quickly, you don't have to hire a market research firm to find out what's going on. Just watch a few mailing lists and newsgroups, listen, ask questions, do what the users do, dream, then iterate, get feedback and loop back around. You get there sooner with a better answer.
I've been doing increasingly complex websites since late 1994. I've learned that, like software, web development is a dance, not a head-trip. Short steps that you're willing to retrace with no regrets. Go with the flow, that's what I say. To go with the flow you have to be *in* the flow. So here we go...
Now I can say to anyone using BBEdit that our tools are relevent, the investment is appropriate, even for small sites, and the technology works. I know it works because I built a beautiful site that explains how it works. It's easy to check out, the software is still free, and I hope all serious BBEdit-based webmasters will check it out.
PS: These sites should be cross-platform within a couple of months. Our Win32 port is going well. I think every Mac-based webmaster wants insurance, even if you aren't planning on switching, it's important to know that you *can* switch if you need to.
PPS: If you're in New York next Wednesday, 4/23, come to DaveNet Live, 7:30PM, Room 1E04-5 at Javits.