Web Development on the Cheap
With the right tools, climbing onto the World Wide Web can be easy -- both on your pocketbook and on your brain
Ready to bring your business onto the World Wide Web but worried about the expense? Wish you had the technical know-how to put up a site yourself?
Take heart. You don't have to learn hypertext markup language (HTML), the special programming and formatting language for Web pages. You don't have to be an experienced computer programmer or have a crack management information system staff or hire an expensive consultant. You don't even have to lay out big bucks for complicated software packages.
To build a site on the Web, you do have to do two things: you have to create the "pages," or screen-by-screen displays, that will be presented to people who visit your site; and you have to make your presentation available on a computer that's linked to the Internet through your Web server.
The good news about your first task: many software packages today do HTML coding automatically. With those Web-authoring tools, you can start from scratch, or you can convert documents written with word-processing programs like Word or WordPerfect into HTML. The good news about your second task: you can pay an Internet service provider (ISP) a small monthly fee to display your Web pages on its server.
In 1995 hundreds of companies introduced software and services to help you set up your Web site. Fierce competition among them is making prices plummet, and some of the tools they've developed are designed to enable even the most technologically challenged businessperson to develop impressive Web pages.
If your goal is to create a usable Web business site quickly -- without learning HTML -- a few of the new tools stand out. The most helpful I've tried are HTML Transit and Internet Creator.
HTML Transit (InfoAccess Inc., http://www.infoaccess .com, Bellevue, Wash., 800-344-9737, $495) converts documents that are created in Microsoft Word or WordPerfect -- or any other word-processing program that supports the popular RTF (rich text format) style -- into Web pages and allows you to build links between them. HTML Transit isn't the only tool that converts documents created with popular word processors, but it is one of the most thorough. It controls document conversion through templates that categorize each style being translated. For example, you could specify that all italicized text in your word-processed document be displayed in red on your Web pages.
I found that the most difficult part of using HTML Transit was setting up the conversion templates initially. But a new Quickstart feature now walks you through the set-up process -- a good alter-native to slogging through Transit's manual. Transit also comes with several sample templates that can be used without modification. And you can sample HTML Transit for two weeks at the InfoAccess Web site.
The other top performer, Internet Creator (Forman Interactive Corp., http://www.forman.com, Brooklyn, N.Y., 800-299-9638, $149), prompts you to describe your business and the basic information you want to display on your home page -- after which it automatically generates your first Web document, complete with lines, borders, "buttons," and other stylish graphic elements. If your site is intended as a basic billboard -- or as a placeholder for future development -- your work is done.
In addition to Internet Creator, Forman Interactive offers the Web Site Startup Kit ($599). Fill out information on printed templates, and Forman will set up all graphics, order forms, and other elements of your Web page. It will also host your site for the first month.
If your site is intended as a crafted, comprehensive information source, however, there's plenty more you can do. With Internet Creator, you can develop every element of a Web site -- including hypertext links to other pages, search indexes, and E-mail order forms -- by filling out on-screen forms. And "detail" graphics, like colorful lines, small arrows, and button-type images, are automatically included, adding a professional look to your pages. Inserting images (say, pictures of your products) is a matter of clicking on an "image" button and filling out a simple form -- so easy that the hardest part of designing your Web page may be scanning in the image you want to display. The program also takes audio clips. Still, a form-based development system is necessarily standardized: every page Internet Creator generates has the same general style. So it's not the best tool for designing artistically innovative sites -- no really spiffy graphics here.
On the other hand, if you want to publish a catalog or provide other on-line information, it's hard to argue with the value of a tool that has no learning curve. Richard Green of Greenstone Productions Inc., in Dunn, N.C. -- which sells consumer products -- used Internet Creator to develop Greenstone Catalog Warehouse. "Internet Creator is a walk in the park when it comes to creating an on-line catalog store," says Green. "And it's saving me thousands of dollars in the time required to maintain the site."
Two other nifty features of Internet Creator: a secure bankcard transfer capability for placing orders by credit card and a shopping-basket feature. (Shoppers click on those items they want to order, and each item is held "in a basket" until they finish browsing. Items are totaled up and shoppers "check out" by placing an order.)
Two other programs that work well are WebAuthor for Word for Windows (Quarterdeck Corp., http://www.qdeck.com, Marina del Rey, Calif., 800-354-3222, $49.95) and InContext Spider (InContext Corp., http://www.incontext.ca, Toronto, Ont., Can., 800-263-0127, $99). WebAuthor (current version is 2.0) is a handy Web-development application for Word users: it lets you painlessly convert Word documents for Web use, and it has toolbars and menus for formatting that closely resemble Word's. When I used it, WebAuthor didn't provide much help in creating or managing hypertext links to other HTML documents, but the newest version has a tutorial that walks you through the process.
InContext Spider (the current version is 1.1) is a combination page-authoring application and Web browser. It's suitable for people with some Web-development experience because it assumes that users know the difference between such things as a "listing" and an "unordered list" -- different ways to organize a paragraph of text -- and have a working knowledge of other HTML elements.
Regardless of which tool you choose, once you develop your Web pages, you'll need an inexpensive way to make them available to Internet users. For just $50 to $100 a month, you can have your Web site hosted by an Internet service provider. The alternative is to spend $25,000 to $40,000 for special software, communications equipment, links to an ISP, and data-security protection to set up your own server -- and that doesn't include the cost of hiring a full-time Web master to mon-itor or maintain the site.
An ISP is an outfit that has established a direct link (usually through a dedicated line leased from a telephone company) to the "backbone," or primary communication infrastructure, of the Internet. The ISP then attaches file servers and modems to its network link and sells Internet access to users, who connect through the modems. The ISP's computers can communicate with the Internet using multiple identities, thereby appearing as independent Web servers to browsers. And if your Web site is hosted by an ISP, you don't have to worry about the technical issues and security concerns of managing the site. That's partly what you pay the ISP to do.
How to find an ISP? A good place to start looking is in your own backyard. Service providers usually advertise in local computer publications or in the business section of newspapers. (See "On-Line Entrepreneur," Inc. Technology, 1996, No. 1., [Article link]) And if you're able to browse the Web, you can find a comprehensive list of ISPs throughout the country at several sites, including http://www.thelist.com; http://www.clarinet.com/iap/ iapcode.htm; and http://www.commerce.net:80/directories/products/isp.
Having your own Web site might be a new source of revenue for you or just another, albeit unique, marketing vehicle. In either case, developing your own Web pages and contracting with an ISP to host them are the fastest and cheapest ways to launch your business into cyberspace.* * *
Joe Rudich (email@example.com) is an advanced-technology analyst with Northland Insurance Co., in St. Paul, Minn.* * *
The Web-authoring tools discussed above are among the most innovative on the market. If you want a package with a longer track record, consider one of the following:
Cyberleaf (version 2.0) Interleaf, Waltham, MA, 800-955-5323, $495ñ$995 (http://www.interleaf.com)
HoTMetaL PRO (version 2.0) SoftQuad, Toronto, Ont., Can., 800-387-2777, $169 (http:www.softquad.com)
HTML Assistant Pro (version 2.0) Brooklyn North Software Works, Bedford, Nova Scotia, Can., 800-349-1422, $100 (http://fox.nstn.ca:80/~harawitz)
A WORD TO THE WISE
The most inexpensive way to create Web documents is with your word processor. These free add-on utility programs help ease the way:
Internet Assistant for Microsoft Word 6.0 for Windows (version 1.0) and Internet Assistant for Microsoft Word for Windows 95 (version 2.0) Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA, 800-426-9400 (http://www.microsoft.com)
Internet Publisher (for Word-Perfect 6.1 for Windows) Corel, USA, Orem, UT, 800-451-5151 (http://corel-usa.com)