Web Development Software Roundup

Web development software often comes down to personal preference and skill level. There are many options available, so here is a very brief history and a few options to consider.

The First Web Pages

When the internet first became popular with the general public, web pages were very simple affairs, mostly constructed from text and images. There was very little interactivity, other than clicking links, and so it was very easy to build a page.

The earliest pages were of course coded by hand with a text editor, or potentially directly from a command line.

As time went on, the public wanted to create their own pages, and so software was developed to enable this. Online entities like GeoCities allowed users to log in to the GeoCities servers, set up a username, and build their own page online by adding text and images to a blank canvas. For more advanced users, packages like Macromedia Dreamweaver and Microsoft Frontpage were available for desktop computers.

Both programs (and other similar offerings) allowed the user to put together a page in a desktop app, point and click, and save it as an HTML file. This file (with its associated media files) could then be uploaded to a server and accessed on the internet.

Uneasy Reading

The major problem with these programs was the code they generated — it could sometimes be overcomplicated and overly long. Microsoft Word got in on the act too — you could save Word documents as HTML files (and still can to this day), but you would find that every line of text had a font definition associated with it, making the file three or four times bigger than it needed to be, and extremely difficult to edit by hand — and loading it back into Word to make changes caused problems of its own!

It was often joked that there were two choices for building sites at this time — Frontpage or Notepad. The insinuation was that those who used Notepad knew enough about what they were doing to type in the code for a page from scratch — those who used Frontpage didn’t have a clue what they were doing and were on par with the GeoCities crowd.

Frontpage and Dreamweaver didn’t have to be used in WYSIWYG mode though, for while What You See Is What You Get is a simple way to build a site, a code view option was also available. This was the precursor of modern IDEs (Integrated Development Environments) where code is pushed to the front and a preview of what your page will look like is almost an afterthought.

Modern IDEs

Dreamweaver is still available in a much-updated version and is now owned by Adobe rather than Macromedia. Frontpage gave up the ghost quite a while ago, and Microsoft have attempted to replace it with various products including Expression Web to mixed reviews.

Numerous open-source IDEs exist, of which possibly the most famous is Eclipse. Eclipse can be used for web development but can also be used for most programming tasks as it is tremendously configurable. Want to write a C++ program in the morning and code a PHP site in the afternoon? Eclipse will do that for you, and on multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, and Linux.

Adobe have released an open source IDE called Brackets, which is modern, fast, and quite lightweight. Page previews are performed by opening a live session in a modified Chrome browser window, as the program itself concentrates mostly on code and file organization.

The Microsoft competitor to this is called Visual Studio Code, or VS Code, and works in a similar way. WebStorm is another alternative, with similar options, but specifically geared towards JavaScript, as is PHPStorm — which is designed for working in PHP.

Aptana Studio, NetBeans, phpDesigner, the list goes on, for many other IDEs exist and are often set up for particular types of coding. The key to finding the most usable one is to establish the way you want to work, along with the languages you will be working in, and try a few IDEs out to see if they feel right to you. Where one person loves Eclipse, the next will hate it and feel far more comfortable using Dreamweaver.

Online Software

Modern replacements for the ease-of-use of GeoCities are available, but they are much more standardized and easy to use. GeoCities was notorious for users being able to create low quality sites with flashing animated images everywhere and little content of any use — although that may have been a reflection of the times rather than the usefulness of the site itself.

Sites like Wix and Weebly are the most straightforward, giving a drag-and-drop interface to build your site, but for the best ease-of-use/reliability/number-of-functions balance, Squarespace is worth a shot. Bear in mind that these services are free to sign up to, but for full functionality (including your own domain name) there is likely to be a monthly fee to consider.

If you want to have more control than any of those offerings, platforms like WordPress and Joomla may be the way to go. While all you need to do is to create content and insert it into these CMS platforms (Content Management System), you can add plugins to extend functionality and redesign your site with themes. As they are coded in PHP, you can access the source code and make your own modifications, which is impossible with the likes of Wix.

The Stigma is Gone

Whatever software you use to develop your site, there is no longer a stigma for using a program that isn’t “cool” or lets you work in a WYSIWYG environment. The important factor these days is the ability to get your message out to the world, so the backend of your site or the software that was used to create it is unimportant.

What matters is that you become proficient in using it and are able to create a site as you envisioned it, not as the software might want to dictate to you.