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TUAW review: iWeb '09

Along with the other changes to iLife '09, iWeb was quietly upgraded to version 3. While the changes aren't as dramatic as those seen in iPhoto and iMovie, they do move iWeb further down the path to being a good web design tool for beginning to intermediate users.

I'm in the process of writing a new edition of an iWeb book, and I took a month to go through iWeb in detail during my research. Click the Read More link below to see what's new in iWeb '09.
Publishing

One of the major complaints in the past from iWeb users had been that publishing on any web hosting service except .Mac / MobileMe required a lot of work. With the first two versions of iWeb, publishing a site to a regular web server meant that you had to publish the site to a local folder, and then upload or sync the folder to the web server through an FTP application. Publishing to MobileMe, on the other hand, was as simple as pushing a button. If it was your first time publishing a site, all of the files and content were uploaded to the site, while subsequent updates just pushed changes to the MobileMe server and made the updates quite speedy.

There was another problem with the older versions of iWeb. If you wanted to publish one site to MobileMe, and several others to other web servers, you actually had to create separate iWeb "domain files" (the single file in which all of the site and content info is stored on your Mac).

Apple has finally resolved these problems with iWeb '09. Each individual site can now be published to any server you want, while still keeping all of the website info in one easy-to-backup domain file. There's a new Site Publishing Settings page for each site, with a pop-up to choose between publishing to MobileMe, an FTP server, or a local folder. When you're publishing to MobileMe, you still have the choice of publising to a MobileMe address (i.e., http://web.me.com/whatever) or to a personal domain hosted on MobileMe (i.e., http://mycustomdomainname.com).

Publishing your site via FTP is as fast and easy as pubishing to MobileMe now, thanks to Site Publishing Settings (see below) that take your FTP account information and use a built-in FTP client to publish the full website or just changes to your server.



During my research for the book, I found that a lot of iWeb users were having difficulties with FTP publishing. It appears that many iWeb users are taking the FTP server and directory/path information from their web hosting providers and entering it into the Site Publishing Settings as received:

Server Name: ftp.whatevermyserverisnamed.com
Directory/Path: /myhostingfolder

When you click on the newly added "Test Connection" button, this usually checks out OK if you've entered your FTP user name and password correctly. However, when iWeb goes to publish your site, this generally results in an error message that doesn't provide enough detail to tell you what's happening.

Apple, on the other hand, thinks that people should enter in that info in a slightly easier format:

Server Name: whatevermyserverisnamed.com
Directory/Path: myhostingfolder

The differences are slight, but enough to cause a lot of people a lot of grief. Making this simple change in the Site Publishing Settings fixed the publishing error for both me and my editor, and I hope it helps others who are having the same problem.

All issues aside, the FTP publishing capability and the ability to set up publishing for each iWeb site separately are a welcome addition to iWeb '09.

Widgets
iWeb '08 introduced the concept of Widgets to iWeb users, and now iWeb '09 takes them just a bit further.

Two of the four new widgets are designed to take advantage of the iSight camera built into most Macs. The iSight Photo widget lets the iWeb owner drop a graphics box into any page, then take an iSight photo that is immediately inserted into the box. The iSight Movie widget (below) does the same, but inserts a short movie that has been recorded by the iSight. The latter widget could be very useful for iWeb users who want to record a video podcast on a regular basis.



There's also a new RSS widget for dropping an RSS feed into an iWeb page. This can be handy if you want to add a news or Twitter feed to your site.



The last new widget adds a countdown timer (settings page below) to an iWeb page. This works very well for adding countdowns until a new movie opens at theaters, until a birthday or anniversary, or until your least favorite politician is out of office.



Facebook integration
OK, maybe that headline is a bit misleading. iWeb '09's integration with Facebook consists of one thing; the ability to have iWeb update your Facebook profile every time you publish the iWeb site. Since I'm apparently one of the few people in the universe who did not have a Facebook page until I started working on the book update -- I now have a Facebook page in the name of Joe Shlabotnik -- I'm not really sure I see why this feature is that important. Of course, I'm an old guy, so what do I know?

When setting up the Site Publishing Settings for either MobileMe or FTP, there's a checkbox to enable Facebook integration. Checking this box opens up a Facebook login page into which you enter your user name and password. After that, each and every time the iWeb site is published, your Facebook profile gets a single line entry telling all of your Facebook pals that the site has been updated (see below). That could get annoying for your Facebook friends if you're doing minor tweaking to the site and publishing repeatedly. If you're doing a blog via iWeb, however, it's probably just as easy (and more flexible) to have Facebook watch your RSS feed instead.



What's still broken
With these features and capabilities, you'd think that Apple probably fixed some of the big annoyances with iWeb as well. Unfortunately, that's not the case. For instance, adding ALT tags to images in iWeb is still impossible unless you publish a site to a folder, then open and edit the individual html files. ALT tags are used by many screen reader applications to help the sight-impaired to navigate websites. A simple way to do this would be to have a way to take the descriptions or file name from any photo in iPhoto and use those as an ALT tag. On the other hand, putting a text title next to the photo can be just as useful as having an actual ALT tag.

As mentioned earlier, many people are still having problems with FTP publishing, so that needs to be updated or fixed.

Some people who are using iWeb for business sites have complained that they can't enter keywords for Search Engine Optimization tools. Easy workarounds for this would be to simply use key words and phrases in the descriptive text on the web page, or to use the HTML snippets widget to add keywords to a page.

A lot of the issues that people seem to have with iWeb '09 are due to the fact that they're trying to push it beyond what it's intended to be; a simple tool for creating a single website that's hosted on MobileMe or another web server. When I talk to people who are getting frustrated with trying to something that is beyond the scope of iWeb, I try to talk them into using an alternative tool.

Alternatives
Of course, for the audience that iWeb is targeting, there are a number of good alternatives. When friends and clients ask me what tool they should use to create a website, my first response usually isn't iWeb -- it's WordPress. It's a powerful, extensible, cross-platform, and free content management system that is constantly improving, and most web hosts now install WordPress upon request. Since it only requires a web browser to configure and edit your site, WordPress doesn't add any extra software to your computer.

Google Sites
is another free alternative. While it's not as extensible as WordPress, Google Sites also offers one-click page creation, themes to change the look and feel of a site with a click, and a number of plugins to add other Google content (calendars, spreadsheets, Picasa albums, etc...) easily.

In the Mac world, RapidWeaver from RealMac Software is another of my favorites applications to recommend to website wannabes. This US$79 program is quite similar to iWeb in terms of how easy it is to initially set up a website, but it provides much more control over coding minutiae for those who prefer to tweak their pages.

Sandvox from Karelia Software comes in both regular and pro editions, with raw HTML editing and Google integration built into the pro version. The regular edition is US$49, while the pro edition costs US$79. Unfortunately, the prices just went up on March 1st.

If you want a path from a relatively easy-to-use web design app to one that has incredible power, then Softpress Freeway Express (US$79) is the way to go. When you have used Freeway Express to quickly design a site and expand on it, you can always upgrade to Freeway Pro (US$249) later to get all of the CSS layout and styling control you need for more professional design.

Conclusion
The new publishing options available in iWeb '09 are really the big improvement in iWeb '09, and for the first time it's actually quite easy to publish your iWeb site to some place other than MobileMe. While the changes in iWeb '09 are more evolutionary than revolutionary, it's good to see that Apple appears to be listening to the needs of iLife users and adding desired functionality (albeit slowly).

Of course, any short online review can't cover all of the features or issues of an updated application. If you have been using iWeb '09 over the last month and have discovered any undocumented features or workarounds, please let other TUAW readers know by leaving a comment below.

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