Originally created 07/12/98

First web page doesn't have to be frustrating



It's been quite a while since I published my first Web page, but I have a good memory for frustration.

In principle, I understood exactly what I was supposed to do, but in practice ... let's just say I wasted the better part of a week. Think of the first time your rode a bicycle: You're all shins, elbows and heels, but then you get the hang of it, and it becomes automatic.

What is a Web page? It's a collection of files and pointers to other files. The main files generally reside on one computer (occasionally on your PC, more often on your Internet service provider's server), and the pointers (called links) can point to files on any computer in the world. The pointers may remind you of shortcuts in Windows 95 or aliases in a Macintosh, both of which serve as stand-ins for underlying files.

In Web publishing, you create a page and associated files on your home computer, then upload the material to a special directory that's usually provided to you as part of your regular Internet account. The Web page is then displayed on your ISP's computer.

A Web page follows a format called HTML, or hypertext markup language. If you've ever looked at a Word or Works document with a plain text editor, such as Notepad or SimpleText, you'll note there are a lot of extraneous and wacky characters embedded in the file. When the file is displayed in its original program, these odd characters are invisible, serving only to tell the computer what typefaces to use, where and how to indent and other neat stuff.

HTML works the same way. Most of the time you never see it. But if you look at a Web page in plain text, you'll see all sorts of weirdness in between content. And we would show you an example, but it messes up our computer system's typesetting. It's the job of the Web browser to take the weird information and translate it into formatting information, links and the like.

You can learn HTML, and it's probably the best way to exercise the most precision and control in designing Web pages. But I'm lazy and a little too old to learn yet another obscure batch of pagination commands. So I'm glad to note that there is a middle ground, a way for even the lazy among us to do their thing on the Net.

Basically, technology has come to our rescue. There is a large number of programs available that allow you to create HTML formatted pages by pointing, clicking and dragging -- the last refuge of the lazy, if you will. Think of it as "WYSIWYG" programming -- What You See Is What You Get.

Most word-processing programs allow you create and edit files as you normally would, then save the files in HTML format, just as you might use Works to save a file in Word format. There are other programs specifically designed for editing Web pages.

Netscape has included a WYSIWYGHTML editor (don't worry, after a while this stuff just rolls off your tongue) in the last few Gold versions of its flagship product, Navigator. We're going to look at the most recent of these, Communicator.

First, let me tell you there are some significant differences among the various Communicator versions, so if you plan to follow us in detail, we'd suggest you download the most recent, version 4.05, from the Netscape Web site at http:www.netscape.com/products/platform/index.html. You should also get yourself an FTP program called WSFTP LE, which is a freebie you'll find at http://www.tu cows.com.

You also need information unique to your service provider: your account name and password, the FTP directory to which to send Web pages and the browse-to directory for your Web pages. This should be posted on the company's Web site, or you may need to call your tech support line. Please be aware, as well, that some providers may expect you to pay an additional fee for Web space.

The FTP directory will probably look something like mine at ftp://li.net/export/users/disk6/dolinar/www. The browse-to directory -- where you actually point your Web browser to look at the finished product -- will look something like http://www.li.net/dolinar.

You don't want to have to remember all those complicated path listings, so, not too surprisingly, a decent editor will let you save the relevant locations permanently. After you've started up Netscape Communicator, go to the Edit menu and choose Preferences.

Under Composer highlight Publishing, and you'll be able to set the relevant options. When you type in the listings, just remember that UNIX is exquisitely sensitive to formatting, so watch for typos, for whether letters are uppercase or lowercase and put the darn slashes in the correct direction.

Be sure you've checked both boxes beneath "When saving remote pages." "Maintain links" means you'll be able to grab a copy of a Web page, save it to you disk and run it from there, speeding up its responsiveness wonderfully. "Keep images with page" makes sure that the pictures that belong to the page are loaded to your disk.

Difficult Downloads

If you don't already have a copy of Netscape Communicator 4.05, you can get one for free at its Web site. That is, if you have a lot of patience.

It took me the better part of a weekend to grab the latest version. Since the file's a big one -- 10 megabytes or more depending on which options you choose -- downloading can take more than an hour.

Maybe it's their overloaded site, maybe it's my phone line, or maybe it's the weather, but my connection blew up anywhere from about 10 minutes into the download to a frustrating hour. Which, of course, meant I had to start over.

After about six futile efforts, I went shopping for a piece of shareware I'd heard of but never used. Called GetRight from HeadlightSoftware, the program sits on top of your Web browser and helps it download software from cooperating file servers. The main benefit: If you lose a connection in mid-download, when you reconnect, GetRight will resume the download where you left off.

I got the program at the Tucows site. It has many other features to let you manage downloads -- you can, for example, select software from various sites, then schedule the download for late at night when you're not using the computer.

The help system and instructions on GetRight leave much to be desired, but once you're up and running, it works fine. Just remember that not all shareware sites support the technology. Oddly, the Netscape Communicator download at Tucows didn't, though Netscape's own servers did. You can try before you buy it online with your credit card, and for a mere $17 it is definitely worth purchasing.