Should You Use Expression Web and Adobe Dreamweaver with HTML5 and CSS3?

By Andy Harris

Many web development books are really books about how to use a particular type of software with HTML. Microsoft’s Expression Web and Adobe Dreamweaver are the two primary applications in this category. These tools are powerful and offer some seemingly great features:

  • WYSIWYG editing: What you see is what you get is an idea borrowed from word processors. You can create a web page much like a word-processing document and use menus as well as tools to handle all the formatting. The theory is that you don’t have to know any icky codes.

  • Templates: You can create a template that stays the same and build several pages from that template. If you need to change the template, everything else changes automatically.

  • Site management: The interaction between the various pages on your site can be maintained automatically.

These sound like pretty good features, and they are. The tools (and the newer replacements, like Microsoft’s Expression suite) are very powerful and can be an important part of your web development toolkit. However, the same powerful programs introduce problems, such as the following:

  • Code maintenance: The commercial editors that concentrate on visual design tend to create pretty unmanageable code. If you find there’s something you need to change by hand, it’s pretty hard to fix the code.

  • Vendor lock-in: These tools are written by corporations that want you to buy other tools from them. If you’re using Dreamweaver, you’ll find it easy to integrate with other Adobe applications (like ColdFusion), but it’s not as simple to connect to non-Adobe technology. Likewise, Microsoft’s offerings are designed to work best with other Microsoft technologies.

  • Cost: The cost of these software packages keeps going up. Although there are free versions of Microsoft’s web development tools, the commercial versions are very expensive. Likewise, Dreamweaver weighs in at $400. Both companies encourage you to buy the software as part of a package, which can easily cost more than hundreds more.

  • Complexity: They’re complicated. You can take a full class or buy a huge book on how to use only one of these technologies. If it’s that hard to figure out, is it really saving you any effort?

  • Code: You still need to understand it. No matter how great your platform is, at some point, you have to dig into your code. After you plunk down all that money and spend time figuring out an application, you still have to understand how the underlying code works because things still go wrong. For example, if your page fails to work with Safari, you’ll have fix the problem yourself.

  • Spotty standards compliance: The tools are getting better here, but if you want your pages to comply with the latest standards, you have to edit them heavily after the tool is finished.

  • Display variations: WYSIWYG is a lie. WYSIWYG works for word processors because it’s possible to make the screen look like the printed page. After a page is printed, it stays the same. What a web page will look like depends on the browser. Editors tend to perpetuate the myth that you can treat a web page like a printed document when it’s a very different kind of beast.

  • Incompatibility with other tools: web development is now moving toward content management systems (CMS) — programs that create websites dynamically. Generally, CMS systems provide the same ease-of-use as a visual editor but with other benefits. However, transitioning code created in a commercial editor to a CMS is very difficult.