Web publishing tools from $ to $$$

Rex Baldazo
Builder.com

July 13, 1998

I have a love-hate relationship with trade shows. I love seeing all the latest software and hardware in one place and at one time. It's so much more interesting seeing how people react to a product instead of just sitting in some boring product demo here at the BUILDER.COM offices.

But I hate slogging through the crowds and dealing with marketing dweebs who can't deviate from their prepared spiel about this or that new product. Luckily, the Web98 trade show held recently here in San Francisco wasn't too crowded, and it was reasonably free of the lower orders of marketing types. There were even a couple of interesting products to see.

Talking 'bout a Resolution
One product was a cool new Web publishing tool from NCompass Labs called Resolution. The company had originally developed a plug-in that let Netscape Navigator 3.0 use ActiveX Controls designed for Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.0. But the demand for cross-browser ActiveX Controls on the Web isn't exactly exploding, so NCompass decided to move into a new market--Web content management.

Resolution is definitely not for the average Web builder. It's a competitor to the Vignette StoryServer system used here at CNET (Note: CNET has a financial interest in Vignette), and it's priced accordingly--around $40,000 for the base install.

The product is built around Microsoft's Active Server Pages, dynamically pulling content from a database and publishing it using templates that you create in the template designer. I especially liked the separation of duties--you can give designers the client tools for building templates, while the content producers can only enter new content into the database.

The high-end database world has boiled it down to a couple of big competitors and several niche players, and I think the same will be true for high-end Web publishing systems. So the big question is whether NCompass Resolution will be one of the survivors. I think it's got a reasonable chance.

Web forms for dummies
The other cool product I saw at Web98 was at the other end of the price range. You could buy 400 copies of Booma WebForms from BoomaSoft for the price of a single Resolution installation. Expected to retail for $99 when it ships in August, WebForms is a clever way to incorporate forms processing on your Web site.

You create your forms in a nice drag-and-drop environment called FIB Designer (FIB stands for fill in the blank). Behind the scenes, WebForms creates a database schema to store all the fields on your form. When you publish the form, FIB Designer produces both a Java-based forms applet that you put up on your Web site and a database that WebForms uses to store the forms data.

Best of all, the only application you need to run is on your desktop PC--there is no CGI, no special server software, no nothing. When a user visits your site, they get the Java applet form. They fill in the data and then click the Submit button, which sends a specially formatted message to your email account. The WebForms software running on your PC retrieves those special messages, sends back a customized response to the sender (if you've included an email field in your form), and then stores the data in the database created with the FIB Designer.

This server-less approach means you can even use WebForms on a hosted site that doesn't allow you to use CGIs. The hosting company's servers do need to be configured to deliver Java class files, but that's fairly standard nowadays.

While I am really impressed with what WebForms delivers, it's missing at least one important piece: encryption. The current version sends all the forms data as open text inside a standard email message. That's fine for mundane stuff like a user's name, but it's completely inadequate for sensitive data such as credit card numbers. I think encrypting the data before sending it off would be nice. BoomaSoft says it's working on adding encryption to future versions of WebForms.

Best Tchotchke Award
You know how some movies are so bad they're good, like Plan 9 from Outer Space or anything with Pauly Shore in it? There's a corollary for corporate tchotchkes--there are some gimmes that are so tacky they're actually cool. Microsoft's Windows 98 plaque falls into that category.

You had to attend the Windows 98 launch event held here in San Francisco to get one of these beauties. It's a Windows 98 CD-ROM encased in an acrylic plaque for all posterity. There's a little hook on the back to hang it on your wall, and a hand-penciled number on the front indicating it's a limited edition (I have number 316 of 1,000). I've never really thought of Windows 98 as something I'd want to hang on the wall next to my diploma or my original movie poster from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. But the Windows 98 plaque is so...unique, I just might do it.

Rex Baldazo is senior technical editor for BUILDER.COM.

Copyright 1998 CNET Networks, Inc.