Macromedia Studio MX 2004

Dreamweaver MX 2004 Along with Flash, the other major part of Macromedia Studio MX2004 is Dreamweaver, the market leading web development tool by a wide margin. But unlike Flash MX 2004 which is clearly a full bodied update (see our upcoming review) , the

take on Dreamweaver 2004 might be ... is this upgrade half full or half empty ? Now some Dream fans may take exception to this assessment citing Dreamweaver's new Start Option page (see figure above), much enhanced CSS tools, secure FTP support,Word or Excel direct paste with all formatting attributes retained and automatic cross-browser validations (Dreamweaver 2004 checks HTML pages for compliance with various browser versions - IE5.x or higher, Netscape 6.x or higher, etc. This has been enabled in Adobe's competing GoLive for several versions). But there are several important MIA-Missing In Action features including still no Linux desktop developer support, not providing a well integrated debugger for either JavaScript or PHP, still limited support for Perl and XML (still does not validate an XML file for well-formedness against a DTD or schema, plus no XForms, XQuery, XPath or XSLT support and only CSS formatting support). Also missing is more uniform text editor support for colored syntax, code completion and coding hints across all the scripts supported. For example, HTML, CSS (new and welcome), ASP, and Cold Fusion get very robust support for all these features while they fall off with major gaps (no debugger, limited coding hints, or limited tag support, etc) for JSP, PHP, XML, Web Services and JavaScript while still ignoring such major web technologies like Perl, Python, XForms, XQuery and XSLT. Oh but these specialized tools must be supplied over in the Dreamweaver Exchange. No such luck. Despite the Exchange's 800 extensions (about 2/3 for free and the latter 1/3 for sale); the extensions are concentrated in menu, GUI interface building, shopping cart apps or other specialized categories. There are some PHP and JSP apps but over 200 extensions are really geared for UltraDev and earlier versions of Dreamweaver. Since it has not covered these important upgrade requirements - the Dream development team leaves the product vulnerable to incursions from Adobe's GoLive, ActiveState's Komodo, Sapien's PrimalScript or Zend's Studio.

Half Empty or Half Full ?

Readers and developers are best positioned to answer this question about Dreamweaver 2004 and their specific needs. First and foremost, the Dream team continues to refine and redefine the MX interface. Fortunately, the wholesale overhaul to MX has seen significantly less change in this upgrade. There is the new Start Options page, and small changes to the Property inspector including a handy CSS style pulldown plus a group of 4 buttons for directly editing images in Dreamweaver including crop, brightness, sharpen and rotation along with 2 added buttons which take the image over to Fireworks for editing or image size optimization.

There are a number of other small GUI changes - the file tabs which used to be at the bottom of the edit window are now at the top and the insert bar has a choice between the old tab layout and a new menu layout - you pick 'em for these last two improvements. But now a right mouse click on the file name tab includes Close All as well as Save All - a small improvement appreciated in this quarter. As well the layout design tools for layers have been extended to work with tables. Just click on the Layout option in the Layout menu/tab of the Insert bar. And finally, a right mouse click becomes better at producing a context sensitive popup menu depending on what code is highlighted or object pointed to in the source or design views respectively. In sum, as noted at the outset, most of the work on GUI interface is incremental and positive. However there are a few disconcerting exceptions.

Dreamweaver is rapidly approaching Microsoft Visual Studio or Borland JBuilder for the sheer Rube Goldberg complexity of the interface - and there is an awful lot of duplication if not triplication of functionality. To edit a HTML (but not XML or PHP or JavaScript code snippets), developers have their choice of using the Tag Inspector, the Property Bar, the Edit Tag popup the Tag Chooser or the Tag Editor plus making direct changes to the design or HTML source code. I am not complaining that they don't work; but rather that a lot of tools lie fallow - and may be inhibiting the addition of stronger features for XML XForms, PHP, SQL, JavaScript DOM and XSLT editing, code hints, and/or dynamic debugging. This happens because a)the triplicated features take up precious GUI real estate and coding and/or b) they incur developer design overhead(if we do support JavaSCript DOM code hints what GUI mechanisms do we utilize - Tag Inspector or Tag Editor or Popup Window or... ??). As we shall see below, the Dream Team has done some of the thankless tasks of internal code cleanup for better reliability and improved performance; this party was looking for some rationalization in the GUI interface features. Occam's Razor - if you have the choice between 2 or 3 paths to the same end - choose one and let it be the simplest and shortest - could well be applied here.

Some Thankless Work

As just noted, the Dream team has done some of the often thankless work of improving integration with other Studio products(Cold Fusion, Fireworks and Flash notably), external programs (ASP, CVS and version control - important for large web projects) and runtime performance. In the latter case Macromedia has definitely improved response time for context switching, file opens, file saves, and start-up including switching to other programs in the MX Studio line. As well, our testing also showed much fewer hang-ups of Dreamweaver MX 2004 than before where our constant switching among MySQL, IE, and Mozilla, JavaScript debugger, Dreamweaver 6.x would hang the system sometimes in an hour or less of work. In sum, the Dream team's performance improvements are notable and appreciated.

Cold Fusion and ASP coders will also appreciate the enhanced integration and new capabilities in Dreamweaver 2004. This includes better CF tag support and code hints in the editor. As well Dreamweaver now allow for direct introspection, editing and/or creation of Cold Fusion Components including CFC as Flash App Server gateway components, Web Services or standalone CFML. There are a number of detailed enhancements such as RDS database connection support, easier CF Site setup, more server side behaviors, and better CFML tag edit functionality. But the biggest improvement from an integrated edit-debugging point of view is the addition of a CF debugging panel directly in Dreamweaver. These features go a long way towards making Dreamweaver the Cold Fusion Studio replacement developers have been looking for. They also beg the question why not equivalent debug panels for JavaScript and PHP ?

The improvements on the ASP side of development are not as broad as in the case of CFMX; but nonetheless mark Dreamweaver as an easier to use alternative to the huge and complex Microsoft Visual Studio. ASP.NET DataGrid, DataList and DataSet objects can be setup and utilized much more easily in Dreamweaver 2004. Ditto for ASP.NET webforms which now can not only be visually displayed but also edited directly. This includes support for the latest ASP.NET 1.1 definitions. Even custom ASP.NET tags are known to the Tag Chooser, Code Hints and Tag Inspector for easy change and edits. Finally as in the case of CFMX, ASP Server Objects and Behaviors have been tuned up.

For other web development languages and tools the offerings are more mixed. JSP support is largely the same with the ability to read JSP TagLibs from several sources and then make the tags available in Code Hints, Tag Chooser and the Tree view. JavaBeans for database connect and control appear in the DataBindings panel while the Server Behaviors display all the methods and properties of the JavaBeans. But there is no integrated debugging and the best bet is to use Dreamweaver with Borland JBuilder (free Personal edition is okay; but Developer edition has full integrated JSP support) or NetBeans with full JSP including Tomcat Servlet engine for free. Meanwhile PHP has two new server behaviors and a new more complete O'Reilly PHP Reference (but it still does not match's helpfile extension. ) or the range of tools and support seen in Sapien PrimalScript. True, Dreamweaver's Server Behaviors and data connections vie with and even surpass capabilities in other IDEs - but inconsistency of support and very weak debugging capabilities still mar an otherwise powerful and general Web development environ.

Your Verdict

Essentially, this upgrade and its worth come down to your verdict. I can see ASP.NET and Cold Fusion developers who would regard this as an essential update. At the same time, HTML and JavaScript and PHP coders may want to take a pass on this version unless they are experiencing performance or reliability problems - in which case Dreamweaver 2004 delivers clear improvements in those areas. It is interesting to note that between Flash and Dreamweaver, Flash is making a much more decisive turn towards becoming a complete IDE-Integrated Development Environ for smart graphics/rich media - with enhanced source code edit, visual design, debug and testing capabilities. The Dream Team is going to have to come to terms with three important questions on future directions: 1)a what languages and scripts will get full support in Dreamweaver (not the halfway house that is currently JavaScript, XML, JSP and PHP); 2)will Dreamweaver become a full IDE with strong testing and debugging tools and features and 3)will Dreamweaver re-energize the third party tools/extensions support in the same fashion that Flash is apparently pursuing new components and extensions for its product. As regards the latter point, one of the critical success factors for VB and Adobe Photoshop was and continues to be the strong 3rd party support in the form of add-ons (VBX/OCX in the case of VB components/add-ons, Adobe plugins in the case of Photoshop). In sum, is the Dreamweaver upgrade half empty or half full - I would argue it all depends on your point of view.

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