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Web Sites are Programs

Web Sites are Programs (2/10/97)
Digital Data Handling (2/25/97)
Geosciences, the Web, & GIS (8/5/96)

Recently, I was told how easy it is to make a web site. Get an application like PageMill or HomePage, then write your text, drop in your graphics, drag in your links, and voila a web site. A year ago, I was there. I put together my first web site in less than an hour using PageMill.

And then, I started working with the site, adding new links, new pages, etc. Each new page had to be built from scratch. Each link and graphic had to be dragged in. Any change required fiddling and I had to hope that external links wouldn't change or die on me. It was clear that the tools that I had were not up to the task of building or maintaining even a moderately complex web site.

In the process, however, I learned an important fact about web sites, and a principal shortcoming of WYSIWYG html editors. A web sites is a computer program, not a document. A web site is an interactive computer program that has similarities to a static word processing document. In fact, once a web site or page is downloaded and printed out, it becomes a document. But as long as it up and available on a server, it is a computer program.

So what does this mean to you & I and why is it important? The key point here is that if you are serving your web site, you should view it as a program that needs to be developed. This means that you have a concept, develop the code to execute the concept, and then test the code to make sure that it all works properly. If you are developing a web site, drum this into your head.

A problem with WYSIWYG html editors is that they make you believe developing a web site is equivalent to producing a word processing document. Enter the text, drop in the graphics, set the formatting, upload the file to the server, and your done. While the concept and coding may steps may receive sufficient focus. The testing step does not. How often do you test print a report?

Testing is probably the most important step in developing a web site. You should make sure that all the links work properly and point to the right location. You need to check that all your graphics appear as you want them to and that they can be found once the document is uploaded to a server. If possible, access the page from a number of web browsers to see that your site is adequately rendered by each browser.

You should also make sure that your coding is sufficiently robust so that most browsers will not choke on it. Consider providing alternate coding for browsers that do not support graphics or newer html elements such as tables. In reality, web sites are not just programs, they are cross platform programs that may be run from a variety of machines or browsers. You will never know how the site performs on these systems without testing it.

It is important to realize that web sites are programs. That simple realization expands your potential. Your site can be as simple static document, or it could be much more. You should not limited by the tools that you use to generate the site. You should only be limited by your imagination and programming ability.

A final note, writing an essay like this is a risky venture. As soon as it is released, people will critique your work more carefully. This is fine because my web sites and coding abilities will improve through scrutiny. In the future, however, I may add a standard beta disclaimer to my sites, "I have tested this site and it works on my system".

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Web Sites are Programs | Digital Data Handling | Geosciences, the Web, & GIS

by Tom Clifton, © 1997 ES Designs