Designing your own Web pages has never been easier
Web publishing is this year's Big Thing. Everyone's doing it, from multinational corporations competing to produce the slickest Web sites, to home users who just want to share their (often quite bizarre) interests with whomever happens to be surfing by.

The pages of information that make up the World Wide Web are written in a programming language called HTML (hypertext mark-up language). HTML is complex, and until recently, the small circle of gurus who understood HTML had a virtual monopoly on designing Web pages.

That changed earlier this year, when Adobe Systems released a program called PageMill. This replaced HTML's programming codes with a graphical interface similar to that of a word processor or desktop publishing program. It allows you to format text by selecting options from a menu, and to position pictures by using the computer's mouse to move them around.

Even though it was only available for Macintosh computers, PageMill sold 30,000 copies within weeks of its launch. Now rival software companies are falling over themselves to produce their own graphical Web-editing programs.

Netscape, whose Navigator is the standard program for viewing the pages of the World Wide Web, has added an editing module to the latest version of Navigator.

Claris, the software division of Apple Computer, is rushing to finish its Home Page design program, while Macromedia has just launched a whole range of programs under the "Backstage" name. Half a dozen other editors from lesser-known companies are also due to appear by the end of the year.

Home Page is similar to PageMill, but has the advantage of being available for both Mac and PC. BackStage is currently available for PC only, but is available in four different versions. The basic BackStage Designer allows you to create simple pages containing just text and graphics, while the top-of-the-range BackStage Studio can add interactive features such as discussion groups, e-mail and forms that can take sales orders by connecting to company databases.

These basic editing programs are aimed at home users or designers who simply need to lay out a few pages for their corporate clients. Most of them cost under pounds 100, which keeps them within the budget of home users as well as big businesses.

Not surprisingly, the HTML specialists have had something to say about all this. The main criticism is that these programs have led to the creation of thousands of badly designed Web pages. This is true, but it is a criticism of the design skills of the users rather than of the programs themselves.

The other criticism is that graphical editors are easy to use, but can't match the complex design abilities of traditional HTML editing tools. This argument does carry some weight. In their rush to jump on the Internet bandwagon, software companies have been releasing programs that lack a number of useful features. "It's planned for Version 2" has become something of a mantra among marketing executives at these companies. This means that choosing an editing program is a matter of finding out which one has the features that are most useful for your particular needs.

PageMill cannot create frames and tables - although an upgrade with these features in due for release next month - but in conjunction with SiteMill it does provide very useful site-management tools. One of its best tools is "link management" - the ability to update automatically links and references to other pages whenever you make changes. BackStage Designer doesn't have link management, but is much better for creating Web pages with multimedia content such as sound and animation.

Whatever HTML designers say, these graphical Web editors are here to stay. Eventually, they will take over as the main tools for Web page creation, just as DTP software replaced traditional typesetting.

If you're interested in creating Web pages, try some programs for free. Visit these demonstration Web sites:

n Claris - http://www.claris. com

n Macromedia - http://www.

n Netscape - http://home.

Backstage Designer (pounds 80) and Backstage Studio (pounds 499) are available from Macromedia (01344-458600). PageMill (pounds 80) and SiteMill (pounds 300) from Adobe Systems (0181-606-4000).