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Macromedia Contribute Box

Macromedia Makes Contribute-ing to Web Sites Easy

by Jim Bray

Webmasters have enough to do without having to constantly convert other people’s content to html and upload it to the remote site.

But unless you spend oodles of bucks on a content management system, there hasn’t been a lot of choice for Webmasters. Macromedia, with its “Contribute” application, hopes to change that.

I put Contribute, version 1, through its paces and found that it works pretty well as advertised. In the end I decided that our Web site is better off without it, but not so much because Contribute doesn’t work but that it’s designed for sites where there are many people contributing to it, and the TechnoFILE site doesn’t have enough independent contributors who need direct access to the site to need Contribute’s features.

Besides, our editor is a control freak...

Oh, wait. That’s me. On second thought, our editor is a very fine persion...

Anyway, Macromedia says about Contribute that “Now anyone can easily update, add, and publish content to existing Web sites - without knowing HTML.” And they’re right. Once the Webmaster has installed Contribute and/or enabled Dreamweaver to work with it (and they do work mostly seamlessly, though Contribute can also function as a standalone product), contributors can add documents (complete with graphics) to a site using a Web Browser interface.

Contribute doesn’t only allow a user to add pages, however; it also allows for the updating of existing pages, which could be a nice way of spreading around the work of keeping innumerable Web pages current. With Contribute, a company can assign different people to monitor different parts of the site (for example, someone could be in charge of a “news” section, or just have a job description to go into a particular section once a week - or whenever - and make sure the information is still valid)

For the Webmaster, Contribute is a real boon for the most part. It doesn’t require substantial modification of the existing site (it adds some functionality and features, but doesn’t really change the basic site), and Macromedia says it’ll connect with any site via ftp or LAN protocols. Besides Dreamweaver, it’s also supposed to function with sites that use FrontPage, GoLive, or even simple, hand-coded text.

Setting it up is a piece of cake. All you have to do is set up the administration functions (which the Webmaster should already know), and then - just as if it were a LAN - add users to it along with any restrictions you might want for any particular user (for instance, someone may be allowed access to the “press releases” section of the site but nowhere else, or they may only be able to edit text itself and not anything else that might be on the page). You can also specify the look of new pages for any user or group of users, the size of any images they may upload, styles, templates, etc.

This is very good flexibility, and it not only restricts “amateurs” to doing only the type of task of which they’re capable, but it lets more advanced contributors take more control over their work - if that’s what you want.

Contributors can use the software’s Browser-like interface to surf to a particular page, live over the Internet, load that page to their local machine, make whatever changes are deemed necessary, and then publish it themselves. Publishing the page is as easy as clicking on a button.

And if trust isn’t easily found in your company (or if your Web editor is also a control freak), you can ensure that any changes are monitored by the Webmaster before they actually become live on the site. It’s pretty neat.

Those contributors don’t even need to have basic typing skills: a Word document, for example, can be dragged and dropped into a page, and it’ll retain the Word formatting. If the user screws up, the page can be rolled back, and if it’s time for that union-contract-mandated coffee break, the page can be saved for finishing or publishing later.

You can also enable check in/check out capability if more than one person is working on the site, to prevent someone overwriting some else’s changes and causing World War III in the office.

You also get such tools as a spelling checker, table editing, multiple undo/redo, and image editing via whatever image application you use.

It’s all very easy to use, for contributor and Webmaster, and it’s about time there was a product like this that works for mainstream Web sites.

Of course, it isn’t perfect. For one thing, we had some quibbles with the interface. You can’t set a default directory for images, for example, and this meant that every time we wanted to add pictures to a page we had to re-direct the program to that directory rather than it remembering from the last session - or being able to set that default in the configuration. This isn’t a big deal; it’s just a minor irritant.

This is the kind of thing one might expect from “version 1” of a software package and we wouldn’t be surprised to find it addressed in subsequent updates.

One thing we found more serious was that once we decided not to use Contribute on an ongoing basis, it was virtually impossible to get its tendrils out of Dreamweaver MX so the latter would function as it had before enabling Contribute. We ended up having to uninstall Dreamweaver, delete the folders from the local hard drive, and then reinstall Dreamweaver from scratch. This probably won’t bother most people, however, because there’s no reason for them to take Contribute off the systems once it’s up and running.

And since Contribute lets users work on the live site, Webmasters who mirror the site on their local computers won’t always have the most up to date version, either. This isn’t a big deal, of course, but Webmasters need to realize this fact so they can synchronize the local and remote versions if they need to be current in both locations.

So it isn’t perfect, but it’s sure a great start.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006