For a few years, Apple has been releasing a suite of programs called iLife. Strictly for Macs, iLife has grown over the years, from iTunes and iPhoto and iMovie to the recent additions of iDVD, Garage Band, and most recently, iWeb. Designed to allow beginners to create beautiful and function websites with ease, iWeb is a great tool as I recently found out, although not without quite a few built-in limitations.
I have no website, nor do I publish a blog, but a few years ago, more to satisfy my own curiosity than anything else, I decided to learn how to make a website. I had come across a few sites that didn’t load correctly, no matter what browser I was using, and so decided to see if I could figure out what was wrong and fix it.
Producing a web page by hand can be a long, exhausting process. It’s ultimately satisfying to see your vision appear in a web browser (even if the page is only for your own enjoyment), but as I said, it can be time consuming. There are quite a few graphic solutions available for Mac users, from professional packages such as Dreamweaver to shareware programs like Pagespinner. These programs (and iWeb is included in the bunch), make producing a page fast and easy, but often – especially with template-driven programs – do not produce the leanest pages possible. Similar to exporting a Microsoft Word document to a web page, these programs include a lot of “junk” in the page, unnecessary formatting that adds bloat to a page, without really affecting how it looks.
Because of this, I’ve never really found the need to play around with these types of programs. I maintain a personal “website” on my computer filled with stories and articles I find on the web, and it has all been coded by hand. Were I to have produced these pages via one of the aforementioned programs, it is likely the pages, while looking no different, would take up three or four times the amount of space. In my view, programs like this are great if you need to knock off a website in as little time as possible, but are not all that efficient. In dealing with websites, the amount of space a page needs is identical to the amount of bandwidth it takes to display it to a viewer, so as little space as possible should always be the goal.
Despite my predisposition against this type of program, I decided to take iWeb out for a spin.
The first thing I noticed upon opening iWeb was that it wondered if I was a .Mac subscriber. I don’t subscribe to .Mac (Apple’s self-hosted web email, online backup and storage and server package available for $99 per year), so I clicked ‘no’ although I felt a first stirring of misgivings. Apple often includes features in their programs that allow it to work quite well with other Apple services (such as .Mac), while not allowing the program to perform a similar operation with non-Apple services. I will return to this theme later in the review.
As I had suspected, building the website was a breeze. Apple includes dozens of full templates (often with six or more distinct pages included), for building websites. Some of these iWeb templates are fun, some are serious, some look like handwritten journals while others are designed for displaying images, movies or music, or blog posts. Upon opening a template, the user immediately understands what the site will look like, and where objects will look best. Like other Apple products (such as iDVD with its menu system templates), there are “drop zones” where pictures can be dropped, and automatically resized and rotated.
There are also pre-designated zones for text as well, filled with ipso lorum text(nonsensical latin text designed to look good as a placeholder). These text zones are completely flexible, and can be expanded or shrunk at will, as well as moved around. If you have ever used Pages, the word processor/page layout application Apple includes with its iWork office suite, you will be familiar with your options. Objects (pictures, textures or text) can be raised or lowered, so an image can either be the main attraction or used as the page’s background. Audio and video can be embedded in a page, shapes can be added, rotated, and anything with an alpha layer (for transparency effects), can have its color hues altered quite easily.
In short, iWeb is very well designed (in my opinion), for producing fast, snazzy looking pages with little effort. Of course, if iWeb usage skyrockets, there will undoubtedly be a glut of websites all sharing nearly identical themes, but since iWeb is template-based, third party programmers are already hard at work producing new and exciting templates for you to purchase and use (of course, some will be free of charge as well).
Not that iWeb is perfect, of course. The first shortcoming that caught my eye was that Apple has not provided any way to hand code at all. In some instances, when something just doesn’t look right on a website, it’s nice to be able to view the source of a web page. Sometimes programs designed to service the lowest common denominator make assumptions about a page that I don’t quite agree with, and I would like to be able to look at the source of the site (the actual code telling the browser exactly what to display). Not only does Apple not include a means for me to hand code portions of a website, it doesn’t even allow me to take a look at the source, other than opening the site in a web browser and using the browser’s ability to view source. Still, this isn’t a death blow to my using iWeb. There are plenty of free programs available with which I could edit the code by hand.
No, in my view, iWeb’s greatest deficiency is one built into the program by Apple. Although iWeb is able to update any websites you have hosted on .Mac servers, it is completely unable to do anything else with a page, assuming you don’t subscribe to .Mac or don’t have the site hosted with .Mac, aside from saving it to your hard drive. If you have purchased server space and a domain name with another company, iWeb can’t upload new or updated pages. If you have a blog with anyone other than Apple, iWeb won’t be able to update it.
In short, I feel iWeb, although a fine program, is intentionally crippled, in order to drive more traffic to Apple’s other products. While this would be regrettable in a freeware program, I feel it’s a bit more underhanded in a program such as iWeb. Although iLife is included free of charge with every new Mac purchased, anyone wanting to upgrade to the newest versions of these programs (other than small updates and bug fixes), needs to purchase the suite. Intentionally limiting the features of a commercial program just doesn’t sit well with me.
To be fair, it’s not as if it would be difficult at all to take the website iWeb saves to the hard drive and upload that to a server. It would be quite simple. But the fact is, that ability is already built into iWeb (it’s basically what happens when iWeb updates a site hosted with .Mac), Apple has, for whatever reason, chosen not to make this feature available to anyone but .Mac subscribers.
This doesn’t ruin iWeb for me, but it makes me a bit leery. Still, the web pages produced are quite lovely. I was impressed that the code seemed quite lean, although I would still like the ability to tweak it further. As mentioned, iWeb comes as a part of the iLife suite. If you’ve purchased a new Mac in the last year or so, iWeb likely came installed on your computer. If you purchased a Mac longer ago than a year (iWeb was first introduced with iLife ’06), then you’ll need to purchase the iLife suite. It’s not incredibly expensive (roughly 80 dollars), especially considering the six applications it is comprised of, but it would be nice to be able to purchase a license for programs by themselves. I was impressed with iWeb, but were it not for the fact that it came installed, I’m not sure I would rush out to buy it. It’s good, but not as good as it could be.