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Friday, July 12, 2002

Database-driven features that work on any website

Adding forms and dynamic lists to a website doesn't have to require complex programming skills. There's been no struggling with HTML, Javascript, PHP, ASP or any other language to set up features on this site such as the comments section and the weekly email newsletter. Instead, it's all been done in the user-friendly editing console of Xara Online.

[We like Xara Online so much that we've become an affiliate, which means that if you decide to become a Xara customer, we get paid a commission. This isn't going to affect what we write about Xara — we'll still say exactly what we think. It's just a way of helping to fund the costs of publishing the AppSwitching Diary. If you disagree with it, simply delete the referral code from the end of the link before you visit the Xara site.]

Xara has two uniques that stand out in contrast to other systems:

  • A remarkable graphical editing system that allows you to set up complex forms and tables without knowing a single thing about HTML
  • Its groundbreaking concept of creating each piece of functionality as a connectable module, which you're free to connect up to other Xara modules to create your own applications. This is component software assembly for the common man — without ever having to touch a single line of code.

The Xara system is completely hosted, so there's no bother about installation either. Once you've finished creating your modules, the system generates a single line of HTML that you embed in your web page, which retrieves the module from the Xara system each time someone visits the page.

The other amazing feature of Xara Modules is the price, which is pitched to reach a mass market. A form and mailer combination, which lets you set up a variety of forms and automated response emails, costs $4.95 per month, or $49 if you sign up for a year. The full set of database modules — which includes the form and mailer but also adds database storage, query, and reporting functions — costs $24.95 per month or $249 yearly. There's no setup fee, and there are free trial versions where you can test out the functionality with up to 100 database records or monthly emails.

In later postings, I'll be explaining how we've used Xara Modules to create features for the Loosely Coupled family of sites. It does take a bit of figuring out to get started with the database-driven modules — fortunately Xara is building up a catalogue of ready-built applications so most customers won't even need to do that — but once you get the hang of it, the possibilities are almost endless.

posted by Phil 12:56 PM (GMT) | comments | link

Thursday, July 11, 2002

Content editing without HTML

It's often desirable to edit or add new pages without having to go back to the original HTML, especially when you want to delegate content creation and editing to non-technical people in your organization.

Tools that allow you to do this are given the grand-sounding title of 'Content Management Systems' (CMS), and top-of-the-range examples will set you back upwards of $1 million (and that's before you've even started setting them up!). But smaller sites can also now get much of the same functionality from around $20 to $30 per month.

On a recent visit to the InternetWorld tradeshow in London — where there were at least 30 CMS vendors of every type — I came to the conclusion that website CMS is settling down to a guideline price in the range of $1 to $3 per page per month. If you have a 1000-page website, budget about $30k a year for the CMS functionality; if you run to 50 pages, budget about $1.5k a year — but remember you'll have to pay on top of that for design, hosting and other functionality (PS: when I first put this page up, I was quoting figures of $20k and $1k, but that was pitching them near the the bottom end of the price range rather than the median).

Since prices are falling, probably the most important advice is to avoid getting tied into solutions that bind you to a specific provider. Unfortunately, most CMS offerings do just that; they put your entire site into a single container that serves up pages to visitors on demand. So if you want to add a weblog, you're dependent on whether they offer that functionality — and if they do, it may well cost a lot more than the $35 per year it will cost you to sign up today for Blogger Pro (which we use for this weblog).

For that reason, I prefer to use services that allow you to host your published pages on a separate server of your choice. It requires a little more organization on your part, but I believe the effort is amply repaid in the flexibility and choice you gain as a result.

Providers that give you this option work in one of two ways:

  • They write the content to a file on your server each time you make a change (marker tags in the HTML separate the changeable content area from the rest of the page). This method is best for document-style content, such as press releases and product instructions, and it has the advantage that, even when the provider's service is temporarily offline, your content is still available to visitors. It also means the content is visible to search engine spiders.
  • They store the content in a database, and a line of HTML embedded in the page retrieves it using Javascript each time a visitor views that page (but search engine spiders won't see it). This method is best for list-style content, such as events diaries and product catalogues (especially if you want to offer visitors the ability to sort and filter the information). The disadvantage is that the information isn't available if the provider's service has a glitch — but it's still better than losing your whole site and being totally dependent on a third party to bring it back up again.

The best example I came across at the show was iBlurbs, which in fact offers a choice of either option. This British firm's service is designed to be ultra user-friendly, and its pricing is very attractive too, starting at £2 (approx $3) per page per month for sites with up to 9 pages, falling to £1 (ie, $1.50) per page per month for 100 pages or more. Plus, you only pay for the service while you're using it, so once you're done with changes to a specific page, you can remove it from the iBlurbs system, but still leave the final version sitting on your web server.

This is a screen shot of the iBlurbs editing window (click to enlarge). The friendly face shown in the sample story belongs to iBlurbs co-founder Ruth Arnold, who gave me a full demonstration of the system at the show.
posted by Phil 4:56 AM (GMT) | comments | link

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