The Microsoft Frontpage 2002 Experience

 

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People don't spend very long looking at web pages so I'll get to the most important point first - DON'T BUY MICROSOFT FRONTPAGE 2002!

For anyone who's interested in knowing why I say that, read on.

Absolute Cheddar

I've used some pretty crumbly software in my time. Windows 3.1 for instance. And Groupwise, email software so bad that it makes writing on parchment with a quill pen and then delivering the letter by hand seem preferable.

I suppose I've been lucky, but I've never wasted a lot of time because of rubbish software before. Of course, I've had to re-type the occasional email when Groupwise has crashed but generally I've never lost any significant amount of work. So Frontpage 2002 was a new experience for me - I spent the majority of a weekend trying to produce an updated website. As websites go virtualtraveller.org is a pretty simple one, so I didn't expect it to take very long to update it with Microsoft's new all-singing-all-dancing web creation tool.

The first version of virtualtraveller.org was cobbled together very quickly using the free trial version of Macromedia Dreamweaver. It does the job, but it's very tedious to add new photos, as each photo has its own HTML page. I just wanted to be able to add new photos more easily. And my Dreamweaver trial expired so I couldn't add any new photos at all. Dreamweaver is expensive (nearly 300). Frontpage 2002 is expensive too, at 150, but I thought seeing as I was only producing a very simple site it should do the job.

Problem 1 - no trial version

So I tried to download a free trial version of Frontpage. You can't. You can, however, order a free CD, if you spend about 10 minutes filling in forms, telling Microsoft everything from your address and telephone number to what sort of petfood your dog prefers and your top score on Space Invaders. I reluctantly filled in the forms and waited for the CD. 2 weeks later, and after having filled out the forms again just for luck, I had a rare free weekend. The Frontpage demo CD still hadn't arrived so I thought I'd go and buy the full version from the local PC World. I was sure it would be OK. I'd read a few reviews on the web and although they were somewhat mixed, and Dreamweaver was clearly the better option if you could afford it, the general consensus seemed to be that for doing something simple like setting up photo galleries Frontpage 2002 was quite adequate.

So I went and forked out 150 for it.

Problem 2 - it doesn't load

Put the CD in the computer. For once I'd checked the side of the packet to make sure it would work on my operating system (Windows 98). Usually my approach is that you should buy the software you want without looking on the packet, and if it doesn't run, upgrade the computer accordingly. But I wasn't too desperate for Frontpage - it just seemed to be the best of a bad bunch for the price I was prepared to pay, so I made sure it was compatible with Win98 before buying.

Up comes some screen saying that my computer was a bit hopeless and out of date, but not to worry it would update my system files for me.

A couple of minutes later the computer restarts, Frontpage 2002 setup continues, but then crashes down to earth with a bump and some incomprehensible error message about a .DLL file being the old version.

Tried again. Different window this time - now I was being offered the exciting options of un-installing the system files update, or automatically repairing the update. Tried both, neither worked.

Tried some of the usual things - un-installing the whole lot and starting again etc. Re-installed Win98. Tried again. Still didn't work.

I've never called technical support before, but thought this might be a useful time to swallow my pride and admit that I haven't got the time I used to have for fannying around with dodgy computer software. In the Frontpage box there was a list of Microsoft numbers. They were the numbers to call if you wanted to dob someone in for pirating Microsoft software. No technical support numbers - just a reference in the manual to the Microsoft website.

So I logged on to Microsoft's website. Found the relevant support number straight away. Turned out it's only open during working hours. I was quite tempted just to take Frontpage back to PC World and get a refund but thought it would be worth trying the "online help" option.

Found the answer in the Frequently Asked Questions part. To summarise, the FAQ section said something like:

Question: I try to load Frontpage 2002. It doesn't work. What do I do?

Answer: You're using Win 98. Although it says on the box that Frontpage 2002 works with Win 98, it actually doesn't unless you start fiddling around with obscure system files, manually updating them to the latest version. Do this, and it will work.

Strikes me this is a bit like having a new car delivered to your door and it not starting when you turn the key. You ring Ford, but they're only there on weekdays from 9 to 5. So you log on to Ford's website and look on the FAQs.

Question: I just bought a new Ford Focus. It doesn't start. What do I do?

Answer: Although we said that the car would start when you turn the key, it actually doesn't unless you open the bonnet, connect a laptop to your engine management system ROM and update the firmware to a new version. Do this, and then it will start.

Anyway, absurdity aside, I got it working.

Problem 3 - it's incredibly slow and tedious to use and bug-ridden

Tried to create some photo galleries. It was a bit tedious, and quite extraordinarily slow, but I did it. Sometimes I would try to change the caption for one photo and the thumbnails for the whole series would suddenly take on a random shape and size. This happened quite a few times but I soldiered on, just deleting and starting again each time weird things like this happened.

I tried the "Preview in Browser" option, and thought my newly created photo galleries looked quite cool. Much easier than manually typing hundreds of pages of HTML. Then I noticed there was always one deformed thumbnail in each gallery. Another bug, and no work-around this time. I was getting sick of working around the software's bugs by this stage.

Problem 4 - it doesn't create HTML

This is not so much a defect as a disappointment. I thought Frontpage was taking the tedium out of creating HTML. In fact it doesn't create much HTML. I switched to HTML view on one of my newly created photo galleries, expecting to see a page full of automatically generated code. There were only a couple of lines - launching things called "Webbots". I was disappointed by this - I had hoped Frontpage would create script for me and then I could amend the script to get greater control over the look of the pages. And how would search engines see any of my captions? They would read the HTML and just see this one line referring to a "Webbot". Not happy.

Problem 5 - can't publish the site

This was the clincher. I was slightly worried that my lovely new photo galleries, although perfectly fast running off my local hard-drive, would be terribly slow to download from the web on a slow modem. So I thought I'd upload the site to my web host (Half Price Hosting) and see how fast it was. Might have to re-think the whole site if it wasn't fast enough.

So I selected the "publish site" option from the menu. Typed in my server's http address and password, and waited. And waited.

And waited.

For quite a long time.

Before I decided that I'd obviously come across another bug. You could cancel the upload, but then when you selected "publish" again it went straight back into hibernation, with no option to change the address you were publishing to. I thought I'd try www.virtualtraveller.org instead of just virtualtraveller.org. But I didn't get the chance to make the change.

Re-booted, and now it gave me the original requester, and I tried virtualtraveller.org instead of www.virtualtraveller.org. Same thing happened.

Re-booted again. This time I tried ftp:// instead of http://. Success! It didn't just hang this time. But two seconds later I got the worst shock, something along the lines of:

"Your host does not support Frontpage 2002 extentions - so you can't publish your site without completely re-designing it again".

Buggery! I was sure Half Price Hosting had said they supported Frontpage extensions.

Went to Half Price Hosting's website. It said they supported Frontpage extensions. But then with a bit of further investigation, it turned out that Frontpage 2002 extensions were not compatible with Frontpage 2000 extensions.

Bottom line - I couldn't upload the site without re-designing it again. Half Price Hosting's explanation was that they didn't want to put un-tested Frontpage 2002 extensions on their server until the technology had become tried and tested. I have to say I have some sympathy for that view. The rest of Frontpage 2002 seemed patchy and unstable, so why should the web hosts trust the extensions? I also had a degree of sympathy for their other point - they were going to wait and see how many people actually wanted to use 2002. I would hope most people have got more sense than I did and wouldn't touch 2002 with a bargepole.

Problem 6 - Galleries are corrupted when not using Internet Explorer

Fed up now after wasting more than a day's effort, I was slightly cheered up when I tried previewing one of my newly created galleries using the "Opera" browser. It was completely distorted and useless. So if I had managed to publish the galleries to the web, it would have been a step backwards from the existing virtualtraveller.org site which works fine on any browser due to the simple HTML pages. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise that I hadn't been able to publish the new version of the site.

Conclusion - Frontpage 2002 - probably the worst software in the world?

 

Epilogue - the PC World experience.

Just tried to take 2002 back for a refund. They wouldn't give me one. I argued that, whatever their returns policy might be, the products they sell have to be fit for the purpose they are sold for and this rubbish wasn't. For one thing, it didn't work at all without a level of fiddling with system files which most consumers wouldn't even attempt.

I'm sure I'm legally entitled to a refund under the Sales of Goods Act. In fact maybe I should have argued the point - would have been quite amusing to take PC World to court and get a judgment that Frontpage 2002 is not of "satisfactory quality". It wouldn't have been Microsoft's first adverse judgment, but in a sense it's more embarassing to have a judge say your software's crap than to say you're engaging in evil anti-competitive behaviour. But I might have lost - which would have been odd, given that if I'd bought a car that didn't start as in my example above I'd have a clear-cut case... But I haven't got the time to argue.

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