Official Netscape Composer Book
By Alan Simpson
Don't be put off by the chunkiness of Alan Simpson's 634 page guide.
It hits exactly the right level. It is light enough in style to be very readable, yet doesn't patronise or pull its punches. Although this is primarily a guide for Composer users, there's plenty to interest anyone who is beginning to build web sites.
After the basics of what a web site is all about, and why you might want one, Simpson leads the reader through Composer's abilities. Netscape Communicator, the latest suite from the Navigator folk (reviewed in PC Week, 27 May), includes this easy-to-use if limited web page design tool. About a third of the book covers Composer itself. Generally this is a good introduction, lacking only a reference to Composer's bundled plug-ins, which probably weren't available in the beta that Simpson must have worked with to get this book out so close to launch.
In itself, though, there's limited need for a manual simply to show you how to use Composer. It's an uncomplicated program with good on-line help.
Where this book comes into its own is moving beyond Composer's capabilities.
First comes image editing. On the CD-ROM included with the book is a copy of the excellent shareware editor Paint Shop Pro, and the image editing section introduces the essentials to avoid producing a boring site. I would have liked more on the elements of design - use of colour, why background images should be used with caution - but there's plenty of meat.
Other fancy features covered are animated GIFs, clickable image maps, frames and layers. If these had been supported directly in Composer, the information would be less useful, but as you have to stray outside and edit HTML directly or use a utility (plenty on the CD-ROM), this becomes a valuable route to good looking pages. I particularly liked the way the book recognises the existence of other browsers. There's plenty on supporting Internet Explorer, and on coping with ancient browsers that haven't discovered frames.
The final sections of the book are geared towards business applications.
There's a good piece on promoting your site - I was less impressed with the "doing money on the Internet" chapter as this is too big and complex a topic, but I guess it had to be touched on. All-in-all an excellent read for the wannabe web master, and an essential for the serious Composer user.
Price #29.50 (634 pages)
Publisher: International Thomson 0171 497 1422.
Web site: www.thomson.com
Introducing Microsoft FrontPage
By Kerry Lehto and Brett Polonsky
Like Simpson's book, this introduction to FrontPage (unfortunately, I didn't get sight of the larger version for FrontPage 97) is couched in friendly language. In fact, for me it's a bit over-friendly, occasionally getting so laid-back it falls off the table, but it is certainly readable.
The book is clearly designed, with plenty of tips popping up all over the place. It does, however, suffer from the real drawback of not saying much beyond FrontPage itself.
Where Simpson spends most of his time on what you can't do with Composer, Lehto and Polonsky stick pretty firmly to FrontPage's capabilities. As it's a rather more complex product than its Netscape rival, doing significantly more to organise and manage a web, there's some justification for this.
Nonetheless, at the price I would have liked to see as much again on the wider world beyond FrontPage.
My only specific moan on content concerns webbots. FrontPage uses these handy little inserts for no-brain programming. The problem is, there are two totally distinct forms. Some webbots, like the one that lets you include another page, or the one that shows the date of the last update, are local.
They operate independently of the server.
Others, such as the search bot, depend on your web server carrying the FrontPage extensions. It would have been very helpful to make a clear distinction between these two classes of bot. If you can't cope with FrontPage without a guide, this is a good buy. What would make it so much better, though, would be much more on the application of FrontPage - on how to design a page, on how to incorporate extra features.
Perhaps Lehto and Polonsky should read the introduction to Microsoft's more recent manual: "Historically we've focused on documenting our products - that is explaining how they work, often in intricate detail. However, you've told us that your primary focus is on getting your work done, not learning our products!" How true.
Price: #22.99 (277 pages).
Publisher: Microsoft Press 0345 002000.
Web site: mspress.microsoft.com
Computer books: who needs them?
There's something worrying about seeing shelf after shelf of books on using computer software. The fact they're there in such large quantities implies they sell - but why? Many such books play on historical problems and the fear of the unknown. In the bad old days of DOS, where no two programs acted alike and you needed a course in shorthand to remember the commands of a word processor, it was often necessary to provide a replacement for the manual. This was not surprising since many seemed to have been written by a computer and were as readable and friendly as a set of council minutes.
Fear came from the unfamiliarity of PCs. The whole environment was entered with trepidation, and a comforter like a good, solid book with friendly words in it was attractive. They might not have gone as far as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in having "Don't Panic" inscribed on the cover in large, friendly letters, but they came close.
While it would be exaggerating to say that Windows has made the difficulty of picking up applications go away, a combination of user interface standards, better interface design, good help files and well written, attractively laid out manuals should have made most of these books redundant. There were always exceptions, of course. Even though Visual Basic comes with good manuals, the serious VB programmer is likely to lash out on a copy of a book on using the Windows API, and perhaps one of the "secrets of the masters" type titles. The sheer breadth of the application makes such books valuable.
What's less obvious is why guides to web editors such as Composer and FrontPage, designed for "less sophisticated developers", should be worth buying. With many other applications, I'd say it was a worthless exercise, but two arguments do justify these purchases, particularly the Netscape tome. Firstly, the Internet mindset militates against printed documentation.
You are unlikely to get a lot with products like this. Secondly, where such books do become valuable is the opportunity to go beyond the product to associated applications and actions. In the end the message is simple.
If you want to get real value from a book, make sure it's about using a product, and the context in which the product is used, not about the product itself.
VERDICT: Official Netscape Composer
Recommended for all Composer users
- Very readable
- Multiple levels of information
- Much more than just Composer
- Backup from web site
- CD-ROM of useful shareware
- Nothing on plug-ins
- Could have more on design
VERDICT: Microsoft FrontPage
Very much a beginner's guide
- Easy style
- Plenty of tips
- Not enough context
- Doesn't distinguish webbots
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