WYSIWYG Editors - Pros and Cons

For beginning Web designers, WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) editors sound almost too good to be true. You can quickly design and post a Web site without writing a line of HTML code. That method often works great for small or uncomplicated sites. However, a WYSIWYG editor is often surprisingly difficult to use for more sophisticated page designs.

Your decision to use a WYSIWYG editor - or not - should depend on your skill level and project requirements.

WYSIWYG Editors Offer Broad Benefits

FrontPage is probably the most popular WYSIWYG editor. Other popular editors include: GoLive, Dreamweaver, and HoTMetaL Pro. Other code based editors like HomeSite and Dreamweaver also have limited WYSIWYG modes too.

Inexperienced Web designers love WYSIWYG editors. The software is easy to learn, making possible to quickly design and post a site - sometimes in just a matter of hours. The visual interface lets you concentrate on design and layout without getting intimidated by the underlying HTML code.

In spite of their bad press, WYSIWYG editors aren't just for HTML dummies: experienced designers use them too. It's usually much quicker to design and populate a complex table structure with many rows and columns using a WYSIWYG editor. Most editors let you alternate between the HTML code and page view mode. Use that capability to quickly evaluate the effect of your changes without opening a browser.

As these editors evolve, they're getting better at handling complex tasks that used to always require hand coding to work properly. Web novices can now include JavaScript and DHTML effects on their Web site. Dreamweaver is especially useful for this, but most other editors offer similar features.

But There Are Downsides

Of course, there are downsides to virtually every coding technique and WYSIWYG editors are no exception. Here are some things to consider when using a WYSIWYG editor:

HTML Isn't WYSIWYG: All editors try to map WYSIWYG metaphors into HTML code - with varying degrees of success. WYSIWYG editors often make mistakes: many are notorious for failing to close FONT tags or misplacing other tags on the page. Since browsers resolve HTML problems according to different rules, you can encounter unexpected problems when you test the pages.

Use a good html checker to verify your editor-generated HTML. It will alert you to illegal tags and potential cross-browser display problems.

Editor-Specific Tags: Be wary of using editor-specific tags on your Web site because they can cause you problems later. For instance, you can develop forms in FrontPage by filling in the blanks in FrontPage's popup menus. FrontPage then generates the HTML code for form handling and verification and places the information inside a FrontPage component called a "webbot." If you use the webbot feature and plan to move your site to a new hosting company, make sure the company supports FrontPAge extensions.

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Illegal HTML Tags: Some editors build pages using illegal HTML commands or tag placements. That will confuse some browsers and definitely confuses HTML repair tools. For instance, FrontPage will often put a CENTER tag between TR tags. To "fix" that error you need to rewright the table or split your table into two parts. No matter what editor or repair tool you use, it's always a bad idea to use illegal tags!

Limited Functionality: HTML itself isn't a precise language and you often have to wrestle with your code to produce the exact result you want. A WYSIWYG editor is less precise than editing by hand because it adds a layer between the designer and the code. There are just some things you can't do with a WYSIWYG editor, so you have to edit your code by hand.

Editing Difficulty: You may have problems if you load a page you coded by hand into a WYSIWYG editor. They often reformat your code according to their own rules, which makes it difficult to go back and edit the page by hand afterwards. Some will even break the page entirely. Netscape Composer doesn't handle nested pages well and often breaks a page that uses them correctly.

Working Around The Problems

The difference between WYSIWYG and code based editors used to be quite pronounced, but has blurred recently. Most of the major editors offer both HTML code and WYSIWYG page view modes. That option lets you take advantage of the strengths of both methods. You can easily do initial layout in WYSIWYG mode and then get into the code in edit mode to resolve problems and refine your pages.

Avoid becoming dependent on a single editor though, because this limits what techniques you can use on your page. You may also find yourself "locked in" to a editor if you let it include special tags or techniques that other editors can't interpret.

You need to have at least a basic knowledge of HTML when you're working with Web pages. WYSIWYG editors are a great way to get started in Web design - just make sure you don't stop there!

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