Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle So You Wanna Build a Web Site

By Louisa C. Brinsmade

MAY 17, 1999:  These are the moments when I wish I hadn't failed calculus due to behavioral problems. I also wish I'd gone to law school to learn logic so I'd intrinsically understand this is not my home language, therefore I shouldn't waste time trying to learn it. But HTML is easy, you say. But that's because you got your degree in computer science and built code instead of Lego cars to impress your little sandbox friends. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here trying to build my Texas Rock Climbing.com Web site using a 1,000-page Everything You'll Never, Ever Know About HTML and Java Script book that weighs 15 pounds. The learning curve gets steeper every day.

Enter the r.e.d.d. System, a new Web building tool coming out this month from our homeboys at Mediatruck, who have taken pity on the poor liberal arts majors who are still so paralyzed with existentialism that they'd try to build a Web site to write about rock climbing as a way to postpone a real career. Mediatruck understands, and they're here to help poetry majors such as myself look like professionals.

Paul Pugh, the former Web director of Texas Monthly's Web site, and Paul Bonner of the now-defunct Internet publishing company ideaMarket founded the Austin-based software company. Their small two-room office is housed downtown in the Scarbrough Building in the heart of a growing Congress Avenue cache, including Human Code, Digital Anvil, Dazzle, and Frog Design, to name a few. Pugh and Bonner had this ideal in mind when they started the company in 1997: "Nontraditional" Web builders should be able to build dynamic Web sites that not only look snappy, but act smart too. Mediatruck is marketing their product to the underserved "middle-level" of the Internet economy -- small businesses, individuals, and busy Web developers who might speak code but who want to spend less time punching out gobot lingo and more time designing content on their cool, competitive sites. "I use to write every bit of code at Texas Monthly, and then I realized my time is too valuable," explains Pugh. "There are more important long-term solutions than to learn the next level of interpretation of HTML, like connecting your database to your Web site."

It's not just HTML that we, as liberal arts majors, are sick of not dealing with. Try learning about SQL, DHTML, RAD, NT servers, ODBC, API, and proprietary dbs, just for starters. All of which you'd have to know about, in painful detail, to do your own database programming correctly. As Pugh notes, finding a more efficient way to deal with technology -- say something along the lines of prepackaged software that does it for you -- is a good solution to the computer information glut. "The number of major concepts and decisions are not getting simpler, they're getting harder," he explains. "You'll end up saying to yourself, 'I'm spending so much time inside the Web page trying to figure out those intrinsic details about how to make this Web site work that I'm not being productive.' "

Current "off the rack" Web development software, like Frontpage or DreamWeaver, do a bang-up job of designing static "Web book" pages for the technically undereducated, but most require you to download or purchase supplemental database programs for active pages. If you really don't want to deal with figuring out how to configure the new software and would rather outsource it to a Web development team, that will cost you plenty. Outsourcing can run anywhere from $125/hour for an individual developer to $50,000 for an entire team. Getting someone else to do your dirty back-end work on your Web site is not just cost prohibitive in the short term; in the long-term you'll find yourself growing ever more dependent on outside talent since you can't fix inevitable problems. And you can't keep up with changing technology without the help of your expensive database therapist.

Say you want to boost your Web site, like I did for the rock climbing site, with bright, active, and interactive features, such as membership or visitor tracking, instant updates on projects, changing photos, etc. Mediatruck's product combines the design tools and database programming to let you create it on the spot using a simple drag-and-drop method in a wsyiwyg (what you see is what you get) environment.

Certainly, after trying to learn Russian with the big, fat HTML book, anything would have been a relief in building my own Web site, but when I compared Mediatruck's product, available in a demo version at http://www.mediatruck.com, and DreamWeaver, Mediatruck won easily. Photo layout and layering was a breeze compared to DreamWeaver, and there was no checking back and forth with 3.0 and 4.0 browsers to see how it looked. The r.e.d.d. System works on an active server mode, so the database and design features are updated right on the server.

Best of all, the code is hidden in the back, so you don't have to see any of it. You just see results. Browser compatibility is built in since the software creates three workable versions of your Web site to fit Netscape, Internet Explorer, or any older version. It automatically recognizes which version to use when visitors click your home page.

The active server feature means your in-house data techie doesn't have to dork around with a separate database application on the server to translate new data into HTML code, then post it on the Web site. Short for "rapid episode development and delivery," the r.e.d.d. System's database application updates the data immediately on the server for you. No code to memorize, no delay in updated information, and maybe, no data techie. It's practically Walden Pond for the Web world.

Despite all these friendly features, the r.e.d.d. System doesn't wholly please everyone. Jeff Maxwell of Data Tomato, a local Web development firm that does a custom designing and database programming, points to a major downside to using a pre-packaged programming software such as the r.e.d.d. System. "You have to work within their constraints," he explains. "If you want to create common database applications that have a common use, Mediatruck makes it easy to do that. The downfall is when you want to do something unique or uncommon. Sometimes they don't let you go in and do the code because they're trying to make it easy for those who don't want to do the code. And that's not just Mediatruck -- my comments are for all the software of that size."

Bret Starr of Data Junction, a database management company, points out another limitation with the r.e.d.d. System. "Their product supports Microsoft Access and Microsoft's Sequel Server, rather than some of the bigger databases like Sybase or Oracle, which holds 40% of the market," he notes. "It's just not robust enough to handle a bigger company."

Asked to address these two concerns, Pugh says "those are criticisms we're willing to accept. Those concerns are coming from certain types of high-end developers. Most of our customers are going to be using Sequel Server and Access. And we use those because they're easy to integrate in an ISP (Internet service provider) environment."

Mediatruck is planning on releasing the first version of their software in mid- to late May with a pricetag of $895. They will have to distinguish themselves from at least three main competitors: Drumbeat from Elemental Software; Visual Interdev, a Microsoft product; and Tango, which was recently acquired by Austin's own Pervasive Software. Tango is being hooked up with DreamWeaver, perhaps to capture those "middle-level" customers Mediatruck is targeting. Up to this moment, Tango is tagged as "high-end" Web development product, and is used mainly for Intranet application, but if the DreamWeaver combination is a success, their market share will broaden. For the moment, at least, Pervasive is offering Tango for free as a download or CD, so you can try it out for yourself and compare.

The click-and-go efficiency in prepackaged software is part of a new trend away from individual code-building and perhaps even customized development. This trend has been romanticized as a "revolution of the small Web builder," but it's really a result of the mass marketing of personal computers and the application of the Internet as an economic tool. No real revolution there, unless you want to imbue it with the teary-eyed concept that, at least on the small screen, the "little guy" has as many pixels available to him as mono-giant ATT. The cost savings and sophistication of these middle-end database-driven programs grant the individual e-commerce site equal opportunity to market share. As one of those "little gals," I'm just happy I now have the option of just creating my colorful, cute boxes and photo galleries without studying any more textbooks.

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