Originally published in the March 1995 issue of Advanced Systems.


comparative first impression

Spinning your own Web (page)

By Amy Graf

As the World Wide Web (WWW) boom continues and Mosaic and NetScape users flood the Internet, individuals and companies increasingly consider setting up their own WWW homepage. In turn, vendors are scrambling to offer products that simplify this task.

The WWW is a part of what makes up the Internet and is accessed through graphical point-and-click browsers, such as Mosaic and NetScape. Nearly every WWW page has hypertext links to other WWW pages within the same document, as well as links to other documents both on the same web server and at different sites. Web browsers such as Mosaic are designed to view documents written in hypertext markup language (HTML) -- a simple markup system used to specify the structure of hypertext documents.

An offspring of the ISO's venerable SGML (standard generalized markup language), HTML uses pre-defined tags to format text and to interlink images and WWW documents. Rather than, for example, selecting a font and point size within a word processor or inserting an image via a page layout program, HTML publishers add codes that indicate which text is a headline format, which is a footnote, etc., and go a step further than traditional document publishers by creating hypertext links between various document components and among multiple documents.

Two approaches
Although HTML is not terribly complicated, it can be a bit tedious and cryptic, and thus seem rather difficult to start using. Two products that help users who are not (and don't care to become) HTML experts set up Web pages are HoTMetaL Pro and Cyberleaf. SoftQuad's HoTMetaL Pro is an HTML text editor in which you can create original WWW documents and add the appropriate tags and links; Interleaf's Cyberleaf is essentially a translator that converts standard documents to HTML format. Cyberleaf also provides some mechanisms for managing documents and modifying links.

Fancy editor
A fancy text editor with a flair for HTML, HoTMetaL Pro 1.0 (release 3.17 tested) can prove difficult for a novice user because it requires at least a basic knowledge of HTML. But once users grasp the fundamentals of markup languages (see the sidebar For HTML newbies), they'll appreciate HoTMetaL Pro's markup tracking, editing features, and strict attention to rules. HoTMetaL Pro adds distinct tag icons (rather than simple angle brackets) to help distinguish HTML labels from content, and includes a preview command and several templates that help get you started.

To create a document with HoTMetaL Pro, users first must have a goal Web page in mind. Then with or without the aid of a template, users create the document, keying in or importing text within the editor just as one might within a word processor or layout program, and inserting tags where necessary.

When the rules-checking feature is on, HoTMetaL Pro lets you write only true HTML by giving you a choice of only those elements that can be inserted legally. It also complains whenever you do things that violate HTML rules, such as trying to write within elements that aren't supposed to contain text. In essence, HoTMetaL Pro keeps you in line -- and keeps everything in order. It always puts a start and end tag upon inserted elements. It is comparable to a C programming tool that keeps track of all the open parentheses and closes them for you, but goes a step further by using distinct icons to make the tags stand out.

A few characters, such as the ampersand (&) and the left angle bracket (<), have a special meaning in HTML, and thus cannot be directly entered as text. Typically, to use one of these characters in an HTML document you must manually enter its escape sequence (for example, < is the escape sequence for <). HoTMetaL Pro, however, has a special "Insert Character Entity" dialog box that lets you point and click on the desired special character rather than type its escape sequence.

Editing features are another plus. HoTMetaL Pro boasts a dictionary, thesaurus, and a tool that makes sure your document adheres to HTML rules. Font styles, point sizes, and color can be changed. However, these changes are not obviously reflected in the editor; you must employ the preview option to see what your document will look like on the Web itself.

HoTMetaL, a less robust, freeware version of SoftQuad's commercial HTML editor, is available via ftp from sites such as ftp.ncsa.uiuc.edu. Functionally similar, HoTMetaL lacks the support of HoTMetaL Pro, as well as such features as a dictionary, thesaurus, macros, and the ability to interpret invalid HTML documents for cleanup and validation.

Converting to HTML
HoTMetaL Pro can open up text that was written in other editors, but because it is not designed to convert existing text files to HTML, it doesn't always recognize paragraphs.

Interleaf offers a product designed to solve this tedious conversion problem. Cyberleaf is a translator that takes the files you already have (ASCII, WordPerfect, MIF, GIF, and more) and creates a Web document based on their content. The interface is pleasant to look at but not highly intuitive. A quick tutorial deals with the essentials.

(We tested a late beta version of Cyberleaf to include it in this issue; version 1.0 should be shipping by press time.)

Cyberleaf lets you design a Web based on templates or from scratch or work with an existing Web page. You select source files (text, images, etc.) that will make up your Web, run them through Cyberleaf, and define links in the Hypertext dialog box. Cyberleaf builds the specified links in your Web document.

This slick software handled a variety of different files and set me up in a short time. However, there were certain things I wanted to do that are not possible using Cyberleaf. Embedded images are hard to configure. If the original file being converted to HTML has an image within it already, then Cyberleaf can handle it, but otherwise inline images are not supported, and can be viewed only in isolation, not as part of a bigger document with text and other images.

Also, Cyberleaf will not let a PostScript file or an already-created HTML file contain links to other documents, but HTML files created in Cyberleaf can contain links that point to PostScript files and other HTML files. Cyberleaf also does not assist in the creation of interactive HTML forms.

HoTMetaL Pro and Cyberleaf both have advantages and disadvantages. For the creative and those needing custom designs, HoTMetaL Pro does the trick, but for those who have no desire to work with raw HTML codes or who want to quickly get existing text files converted to HTML format and on the Web, Cyberleaf can do the job.

SoftQuad, 56 Aberfoyle Crescent, #810, Toronto, ONT M8X 2W4, 416-239-4801, 239-7105 fax, mail@sq.com. Interleaf, Prospect Place, 9 Hillside Ave., Waltham, MA 02154, 617-290-4990, 290-4943 fax,

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For HTML newbies

If you are new to the World Wide Web (WWW), here are a few helpful hints.

First of all, using a browser such as Mosaic or NetScape, find a homepage that you like, take a look at the formatted HTML document, and compare it to its source document, which contains HTML tags, such as <HEAD>, <TITLE>, and <BODY>. Observe how the source tags correspond with the formatted document.

Some Web pages that will prove useful to those interested in learning about HTML:

A Beginner's guide to HTML.
http://www.ncsa.uiuc.edu/General/ Internet/WWW/HTMLPrimer.html

Introduction to HTML.
This page has links to a lot of HTML documentation. http://melmac.harris-atd. com/about_html.html

HyperText Markup Language (HTML).

U of T Instructional and Research Computing.
Points to various HTML guides and tools. http://www.utirc.utoronto.ca

WWW & HTML Developer's JumpStation.
Includes information about HTML editors and converters/translators. http://oneworld.wa.com/htmldev/devpage/dev-page.html

World Wide Web Frequently Asked Questions.
And answers -- see especially section 5.3, ‘Producing HTML Documents.'http://sunsite. unc.edu/boutell/faq/www_faq.html

W3 and HTML Tools.
Includes resources for generating, checking, editing, and maintaining HTML documents. http://www11.w3.org/hypertext/WWW/Tools/Overview.html

Related Usenet newsgroups.
comp.text.sgml, comp.infosystems.
www.providers, comp.infosystems.
www.announce, comp.infosystems.
www.users, and comp.infosystems.

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[Copyright 1995 Web Publishing Inc.]

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Last updated: 1 March 1995.