Software Review: Contribute 2

Contribute 2, a new Web site update tool from Macromedia, maker of Dreamweaver, StudioMX and other Web creation tools, is a promising but slightly flawed upgrade to an already excellent product first introduced last year.

The disappointment is that one of the most important new pieces of functionality doesn’t work in some circumstances — or didn’t work in certain situations on our test system.

The function that didn’t work properly is the new ability in Contribute to embed existing documents in a Web page as Flash Paper — a form of Flash movie. They display quickly, can’t be copied, maintain their native formatting and don’t require launching a separate plug-in to display the page.

Beyond this one fairly glaring glitch — which is sure to be fixed — Contribute is an excellent program. It’s that rare thing, a product that shows keen awareness of real customer needs, and a willingness to meet them without unnecessarily inflating functionality or price.

The package sells for as little as $75 per seat.

Economical Updates
The need in this case is to keep company Web pages up to date without involving IT or Web design personnel at great expense, or training business people to be hypertext markup language (HTML) programmers. Or — and this is most important — letting business people mess with site design and page formatting.

Macromedia meets the need well. Contribute makes it very simple for technically naïve users to quickly edit existing pages, create new links and pages and publish new and edited pages to the company Web site — while preventing them compromising design integrity.

One other reservation is that companies can only exploit some of the design protection features if they created the Web site in the first place using Dreamweaver. Contribute is still useful if you didn’t start with Dreamweaver, but it’s slightly more so if you did.

The new version, glitch aside, is a significant improvement over the original product, if only because it adds important new features and functions. Others include support for Apple Macintosh systems and the ability to very easily add Pay-Pal e-commerce functions to a page.

Novel Practicalities
First, though, a review of the original functionality. We tested Contribute on a 1.6MHz Dell Inspiron 4300 running under Windows XP Home. It installed flawlessly.

More important, the set-up wizard for creating a connection to a Web site in preparation for publishing changes and additions via file transfer protocol (FTP) also went flawlessly. This is in marked contrast to recent experiences with shareware FTP clients.

Contribute allows an administrator (an IT person or Web master) to transmit a connection set-up to ordinary users in a defined permissions group at a single clip. So editors and authors don’t even have to go through this step.

Establishing the permissions group is a key part of the security built into the program. If a user is not in a permissions group — there could be several for different parts of the site — he can’t update pages even if he has a copy of Contribute.

Another key part of the security set-up is the ability to import and base new pages on Dreamweaver templates in which certain parts of the page are either locked or not visible.

Some locking features are available for pages created with any Web page program. For example, the administrator can prevent users from inadvertently changing any script-based HTML code in a page, or changing text attributes — font size, color, etc.

User permission settings can also prevent users from creating new blank pages, forcing them to use existing pages as templates or Dreamweaver templates.

Drafts and Backups

Using Contribute to update and create new pages is simple enough that most users can be up and running in a very short time. The onscreen tutorials are succinct and work well.

The program’s main working space toggles between a standard Web browser and a What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get (WYSIWYG) Web page editor. Users browse to the page they want to change, click the Edit Page button and begin editing.

When they move into Edit mode, Contribute automatically creates a backup of the existing page, which it stores. It can store up to 99 previous versions — to which you can revert at any time.

Author/editors work on a new “draft” page. When they’ve finished, they click the Publish button and Contribute uses the pre-set connection settings to FTP the new version of the page to the Web site. For anyone who has wrestled with FTP clients, it works like magic.

The interface is very clean and intuitive. Clicking Edit Page brings up a new tool bar with familiar word processor-like icon buttons for text editing, plus buttons for doing typical Web page editing/creating tasks such as adding a link, picture or table.

Editing text is as easy as editing in a word processor — select the text you’re changing or replacing and type over it. Or click where you want to insert text, hit Enter to go to a new line and start typing. The new text maintains the underlying style.

Creating links is also a snap. Select the text or picture you want to link from and click the Link button. The drop-down menu lets you choose the type of link — to pages and drafts you’ve just created, to new pages that you’re about to create, to existing pages on the Web or intranet, to an e-mail address.

Each brings up a different, but consistently intuitive and self-explanatory dialog.

Payments and Flyers
Among the new features Flash Paper may be the most interesting. The idea is that it lets you take an already formatted document — a brochure or flyer, for example — created in Office or another program, and insert it into a Web page without losing any of the original formatting.

It’s something like PDF, but you don’t need a plug-in — or a new user interface — to display it, and it can’t be copied.

There are two ways to make Flash Paper files. You can use the program in which the original file was created and “print” it using the Flash Paper printer driver that Contribute automatically installs on your system when it installs the main program.

Or you can use the Insert/Document as Flash Paper… menu option from within Contribute.

When we tried converting a Word file to Flash Paper format from within Contribute, it generated a Microsoft VisualBasic error message. When we tried creating a Flash Paper file from within Word using the Print command and the Flash Paper printer driver, it didn’t do anything.

Macromedia technical support had us try the printer driver from within Microsoft Excel, where it worked. After that, it also worked from within Word. Very curious. But it still wouldn’t work on Word files from within Contribute.

Macromedia claimed, naturally, that it was the first time the problem had come up, and implied that it must be due to some idiosyncrasy of our test system. Which may even be true. No doubt they will fix the problem.

The new e-commerce feature makes it easy to add PayPal e-commerce features to new pages in a Web site already structured — presumably using Dreamweaver — with the underlying shopping cart and check-out functionality.

What Contribute lets non-technical author/editors do is add PayPal buttons — Buy Now, Add to Cart, View Cart, or Subscription — to pages. Then it launches a Wizard that helps them provide the information needed to activate the buttons to work with the existing e-commerce functionality.

Parting Thoughts
Overall, Contribute 2 is a good product; a very useful product for small businesses that have an outside agency design and create initial pages but need an easy way to keep it updated themselves so they aren’t continually going back to the agency.

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