Dream package

Over the past two years, Dreamweaver appeared to lose ground to competing applications. The release of version 8.0, however, shows Macromedia hasn't lost its taste for innovation.

The open nature of Web standards has meant that it would always be difficult for any app to force itself onto the market as a universal standard for Web design. The quality of early releases of Dreamweaver led it close to being a de facto standard for Web development software. Innovation in later versions - which increased its popularity - culminated in the release of the glorious Studio MX suite.

MX 2004, however, was some­thing of a minor upgrade - at least for Dreamweaver. The good news, however, is that version 8.0 shows this program is still more than capable of taking on competitors such as Adobe GoLive. This column is not a repeat of the enthusiastic reviews that are already appearing for Dreamweaver 8.0, but rather a demonstration of the benefits you can derive from the two most important features in this release: enhanced CSS support and the ability to work visually with XML.

Design with style

For some time now, it has been standard to use Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) instead of embedded design elements such as tables and font tags. Not only do the latter generate ungainly code that can look awkward in different browsers, they don't allow you to make quick and extensive changes to the look and feel of your site in the way that CSS does.

Brought into version 8.0 is a unified CSS panel - see figure 1.

Previously, information on style sheets used in a document, as well as the options for making changes to such things as positioning, typefaces and colour, tended to be rather patchy and we often recommended third-party programs such as TopStyle Pro. The CSS panel, however, not only simplifies creating and editing style rules, but also provides additional information that will be appreciated by experienced Web designers.

It is possible to toggle between All and Current viewing modes. To edit any style, click on it and make changes in the Properties table beneath it. While dedicated apps such as TopStyle still have a slight edge, most Web designers will no longer have to move out of Dreamweaver to fine tune their pages.

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Visual XML

The most exciting development in Dreamweaver 8.0 is the ability to work visually with XML - see figure 2. Dreamweaver binds XML data using eXSL (eXtensible Style Sheet Language) so that information and design - as with CSS - are entirely separated.

Dreamweaver uses a subset of XSL and XSLT (XSL Transformations) to format XML data as HTML, an operation that can be performed on the server or within the browser. The latter is much easier; all you need is access to the server and you can create XSLT pages in their entirety or simply to insert a fragment into a page - for example, to stream an RSS feed or update daily menus.

Creating such a page is easy: first of all, design your layout as you would for a normal HTML document, then convert it to XSLT format. You need to create your XML data source beforehand, but once this is ready, the Applications panel enables you to bind that source to your page. As with creating other types of application, once data is attached, dynamic links can be set up and repeated as necessary, filling your page with information that is drawn from this external source.

Considering the importance of XML for displaying information across multiple platforms - such as on mobile phones - the difficulty of working with this in previous versions of Dreamweaver has been a major drawback. However now, by contrast, it will probably become the dynamic technology of choice for many Web development designers.

XML and CSS are the most important developments in Dream­weaver, but there are plenty of other tweaks and updates that improve the program considerably. Background file transfer enables data to be moved between remote and local sites with the minimum of fuss, while the zoom tool allows designers to focus on page layout down to the pixel level.

Code tools have been revamped to include a toolbar with common operations such as snippets and it is possible to collapse or expand blocks of code during design to focus on particular areas. Some previous management niggles - such as site synchronisation and comparing files across remote and local hosts - have also been ironed out. Finally, there is plenty of support for standards such as PHP 5.0, Coldfusion MX 7.0 and better authentication across secure servers. While Dreamweaver MX 2004 appeared to be treading water, the latest release not only implements eye-catching features but also improves the general workflow for professional Web developers.

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Studio 8.0 - should you upgrade?

Macromedia is promoting Flash 8.0 as its biggest release of the Studio to date, although the changes that have taken place in this version are much less significant than the division between Flash Basic and Flash Professional in MX 2004. This time, Macromedia has concentrated on building up image filters and video support - much of this is very welcome for creating broadband content.

Fireworks, which has always been a highly competent image editor, seems to be falling down the list of the company's priorities - not surprising when it has to compete against the all-powerful Photoshop. But it still remains a very useful tool in the Web developer's arsenal. Much more interesting inclusions in Studio 8.0 are Contribute 3.0 (a screenshot is available here)- allowing non-technical users to update and maintain Web sites - and FlashPaper 2.0, which allows developers to convert spreadsheets, presentations and other files into Flash or PDF documents. Along with Dreamweaver and Flash, these provide compelling reasons to upgrade.