Real Content Management, As Easy As Blog

by Eric Grevstad

It's called Contribute, but it should be called Delegate — Macromedia's $99 program lets Webmasters and HTML designers focus on important site- and page-design jobs, while enabling nontechnical users to make minor changes or even add new pages and links to Web sites, as easily as they'd work with a word processor.

Web developers are skilled professionals. So are proofreaders and typists, but the latter are usually paid less — so Webmasters who are constantly called away from their top-level, site-design or page-creation work to perform every little update or editing chore will be eager to tell their bosses about Macromedia's new Contribute 1.0.

Contribute is a $99 program that lets users who don't know HTML from HDTV update and manage existing Web sites. "Existing" is the key word, or key to Contribute's nifty niche — it's not a full-featured HTML editor or site creator like Macromedia's Dreamweaver MX or Microsoft's FrontPage, still less an enterprise-class, giant-site content management system like Vignette.

But when it's time to change a phone number on the "Contact Us" page; freshen some info on the company intranet; or add a catalog page with specifications and a picture of your new Royal Blue widget alongside the otherwise identical Bordeaux Red model; Contribute makes the job easy enough for the humblest temp worker, with no risk of wrecking the design or trashing the site.

Indeed, though it must be installed on a client PC rather than accessed as a Web service, Contribute resembles ultra-easy, browser-based Weblogging tools like Blogger. You use its built-in browser to surf to the site and page you wish to edit; click an Edit Page button; and the browser window — accompanied, unless you turn it off, by an omnipresent, handy help window — becomes an editing pane with intuitive, word-processor-like tools ranging from multilevel undo and font styles (bold, italic, or HTML headings) to bulleted or numbered lists and a spell checker.

Using Contribute's toolbar or generic cut-and-paste functions, you can also insert images or excerpts from formatted Word and Excel documents (though the function works best for simple paragraphs or tables — for complex Word layouts or Excel worksheets mixing numbers and charts or clip art, it's best to let Contribute create a link to the document rather than trying to turn it into HTML content).

The program also shines at automating the HTML hassle of creating, inserting, and adding more rows or columns to tables. And dialog boxes walk even the least technical user through inserting a link to an existing or new page, the latter a seamless segue into Contribute's add-new-page options, which let you create a blank page or start with a copy of the current or another existing page.

When editing's done, you'll notice that the Edit Page button has changed to a Publish button. Click it, and Contribute updates your site with the new or edited pages — you don't need to know your way around an FTP client any more than you do an HTML editor. If you'd rather work offline, Contribute will refresh the site when you reconnect to the server.

Behind-the-Scenes Wizardry
To be sure, this newbie empowerment requires some back-end setup by IT managers or Webmasters. While it can browse any site, Contribute can't edit one without proper server access, whether via FTP or an office LAN. All but the most technophobic users should be able to walk through the wizard that prompts you for server location and login information and the location (folder or directory) used to store site content, but managers can spare them even that trouble by creating e-mailable, encrypted "connection keys" that bestow access to a specific site.

As a site administrator, you have extensive control over users' editing permissions. At one level, you can dictate whether they're allowed to create new pages, delete files, or add images (no larger than a specified file size). At another, Webmasters can protect page templates by locking out everything on a site except its text, or use Dreamweaver MX to create templates with specific editable and locked regions — letting a user change that "Contact Us" phone number, for example, but not "A Word from Our CEO."

Contribute also works with Dreamweaver's versioning system for team editing, so users won't make simultaneous or overwrite one another's changes, and lets administrators undo changes or roll back through as many as 99 versions of a page. For their part, users can save drafts of changed pages in temporary folders on the server and click to send e-mail requests for feedback with links to the temporary URL.

As HTML editors go, Contribute isn't very deep or powerful; it's best for relatively simple, static pages with mostly text content plus a few tables or images, not dynamic Web pages with plenty of frames and content feeds. (Apart from changing content, the program doesn't modify any existing code, and protects or locks out any scripts, includes, or server code.) But its remarkably easy and idiot-proof editing can give workers more ownership of more up-to-date, more frequently refreshed Web sites, while giving Webmasters and site administrators more time to work on major changes or enhancements. It's a win-win proposition.

Adapted from WinPlanet.com.

This article was originally published on Friday Feb 21st 2003
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