Netscape Composer

by Joe Gillespie — Oct 1, 2002

Netscape logo

When I started designing Web pages way back in the early '90s, there were no special Web page editors and I had to use a text editor. In those heady days, you couldn't do very much with a Web page, the HTML was fairly simple, so it didn't matter.

The first WYSIWYG editor I encountered was Adobe PageMill and it made the process of Web page design so much easier - even if some of the code it produced was questionable. Shortly after that, Claris brought out HomePage, which was considerably better, and I used it for several years. The early editions of WPDFD were produced with Claris HomePage and there are probably some leftovers lurking in the darker corners of the site even today.

Today's batch of WYSIWYG editors is so much better. They produce cleaner mark-up and don't inexplicably change any hand-coded modifications you make. Although they are great timesavers for experienced designers, they can be daunting for newbies.

There are just too many 'features' making them seem complicated, intimidating and expensive and anyone who wants to dip their toes into Web page creation on a casual basis, can have serious problems making that first step.

Netscape Communicator has always had a Web page creation facility built-in called 'Composer'. Now that its market share has fallen back to a few percent at the expense of Microsoft Internet Explorer, people are probably unaware of just how good Netscape 7's Composer has become. It is an ideal 'first-step' Web creation program - and it's absolutely free.

There are a few things that Composer can't do. It has no facility to embed Flash or QuickTime, it has no 'actions' for producing instant JavaScripts but for basic page layouts, it is hard to beat.

If you go to Netscape's File menu and select New-Composer Page, a blank page opens up in a new window. Along the top is a toolbar with icons to access the most commonly used <features> such as inserting images, tables and links.

Just below that, the basic text formatting buttons let you set the headings, paragraphs, colour, size and alignment to selected text.

Four tabs at the bottom of the window let you flick between Normal (WYSIWYG editing), another WYSIWYG view with flags for the 'HTML Tags' beside the various elements, a HTML 'Source' mark-up window and a clean 'Preview' that shows the final result.

The main menu bar at the top of the screen give access to dialog boxes for manipulating tables, more precise text and image formatting and a few interesting other features that I'll cover later. In several of those dialogs boxes, there are 'Advanced Edit' buttons giving even more control. The user is never overwhelmed with choices and the hierarchy of control is very well thought out and implemented - a much better idea than throwing everything onto the screen at the same time or in confusing, ever-changing, context sensitive 'inspector palettes'.

Using the tutorial in the Help menu, anybody should be able to put together a simple Web page in Composer - a personal home page, an educational or business document. There is nothing wrong with simplicity, in fact, the greatest mistake that beginners make is that of trying to be too clever.

Composer has some other goodies up its sleeve that will be of use to any Web designer, not just beginners.

In its 'Tools' menu there is a 'Validate HTML' item. This opens a page that lets you upload your new creation to the W3C Validator to be checked. As Composer writes valid HTML from the outset, you shouldn't have too many problems here unless you have introduced the errors yourself.

Also in the Tools menu are two other items of interest under Web Development - JavaScript Console and Java Console. Netscape has always had a good JavaScript debugging window but this one is even better. If you create, or open, a page with JavaScript in it and there are errors in the JavaScript, the console tells you where and what the errors are. It can also issue warning about other potential problems. I don't know of any other JavaScript checker that does such a good job - and as I said before, it is free! The Java Console is less useful, in fact, I can't get it to do anything on my Mac, and it doesn't even open a window. It's probably something to do with the version of Java installed on my machine, but then, I never use Java anyway.

There is one other item in my Mozilla 'Tools' menu but you won't find it in Netscape just yet - CSS Editor.

With a lot of free stuff you get on the Web, you don't expect very much. Netscape 7 and its built-in Composer are not perfect, there are still a few bugs lurking around but nothing serious. If you tried Netscape 6 and were very disappointed, as I was, try again. 7 is a whole different story. It is fast, slick, looks good and its free Composer Web page editor has a lot going for it.

Netscape 7 Composer
Features red bar80%
Ease of Use yellow bar85%
Value for Money green bar100%
'Must Have' Factor blue bar100%
Manufacturer Netscape
Price Free - Mac, Windows, UNIX and all the rest.
Summary Easy to use for beginners and with some useful features for any Web designer.
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