Microsoft Seeks to Reinvent FrontPage

By Thor Olavsrud

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Microsoft is seeking to completely reinvent its FrontPage Web site design software with the release of Office FrontPage 2003 this summer.

The new face of the software is an effort to bring it more firmly into the enterprise sphere as a fully WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) Extensible Stylesheet Language Transformation, or XSLT, editor which brings the power of XML to Web site design.

The new tool allows users to create XML data-driven sites connected to XML files, Web services and OLE DB data sources -- a process which in the past has required server-side scripting tools like the Visual Basic development system, Visual C#, Visual Basic Scripting Edition, ColdFusion or Java.

The new XML capabilities turn Web sites into dynamically updating outputs for XML data. "When the data gets updated at its source, that automatically updates on your Web site," explained Melisa Samuelson, product manager for Microsoft's FrontPage Product Unit. "It's really powerful because if you have a whole page that's fully data-driven, you'll automatically get a new page if new data is added."

The application supports a set of WYSIWYG tools for creating and editing XSLT data views, including support for styles, sorting, filtering, grouping and conditionally formatting data. The conditional formatting capabilities will allow users to do things like pull data from an ERP or CRM application, specifying that sales numbers above a certain number appear in green and below that number to appear in red. Also, users can connect multiple data sources and use the results of one database query to filter the data supplied by an XML Web service.

"We have made a big investment in supporting XML throughout the products in the Microsoft Office System to unlock customer data," said Jean Paoli, XML architect at Microsoft and one of the 11 co-creators of the XML 1.0 standard at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). "An important component to the Microsoft Office System, the FrontPage 2003 WYSIWYG editor lets you define how XML following customer-defined schema should be formatted on a Web page. This is done by authoring XSLT, a standard defined by the W3C. The XML data-driven functionality makes it easier to transition content from internal systems onto the Web. Data-driven solutions in the past took days or even months of hand-coding, but these can now be accomplished in just hours with FrontPage 2003."

Samuelson said Microsoft has worked hard to provide functionality for more sophisticated users while not adding to the complexity of use. "We're making this technology available to anyone who understands data and understands the paradigm of creating a Web site. You don't have to be a programmer," she said. She added," We've also made it accessible to those who don't know server-side programming."

Microsoft has already landed a customer for FrontPage 2003 in the form of EDS, which is using the application to build Web-based applications that can exchange XML documents with legacy engineering change control systems and information repositories.

"We are very excited about the XML support and the ability to build data-driven Webs in FrontPage 2003," said David Tucker, system architect at EDS. "We have been building Web applications based on XML Web services for some time, but have had to do all the user interface work by hand. The WYSIWYG XSLT editing and integrated ties to XML data sources now give us a very flexible and elegant way to build rich Web-based user interfaces."

The product offers new design features including Layout Tables for "pixel-precise layouts," Dynamic Web templates, increased compatibility with widely-used graphics and applications, and browser and resolution reconciliation to target specific browsers and screen sizes.

Coding tools included in the new version include Split Screen view, allowing designers to see the code and the design simultaneously; the Quick Tag Selector and Quick Tag Editor, helping developers select, edit and manipulate tags; Advanced Find and Replace, which uses complex rules to search the code site-wide and even at the tag and attribute level; Behaviors, which provide built-in scripting; and Microsoft IntelliSense technology, drawn from the Visual Studio development system coding engine.

FrontPage 2003 will not be included with any of the Office 2003 product bundles. Instead, it will be sold as a stand-alone product. It is scheduled for launch in summer 2003 along with Office 2003.