I'm sorry but Dreamweaver is dying

5 Mar 2009

I’ve received a number of very kind emails regarding my last digital design column, but I have to admit that a couple made me feel slightly uncomfortable.

These were the emails from designers thanking me for pointing them in the direction of Dreamweaver when they were making the transition from print to web design. It was a decision that they had come to appreciate greatly over the years, providing them with the best possible platform for their web design careers.

The problem is that Dreamweaver is dying...

To be fair it’s not Dreamweaver’s fault. Nor is the problem Adobe and its development team - the last Dreamweaver CS4 version was the most impressive release in years. Moreover, although Microsoft Expression Web poses a far more credible threat than FrontPage could muster, Dreamweaver remains the best HTML/CSS page-based editor available.

The real problem for Dreamweaver and for its users is that the nature of the web is changing dramatically. Dynamically-generated web applications, from Amazon right down to the humble blog, all offer much more – in-built commenting, voting, RSS feeds, etc - than the best sites built on static HTML can ever hope to provide.

This isn’t a matter of bells and whistles, it’s absolutely fundamental. Ultimately a web site is all about content - posting it and making it findable – and Dreamweaver and the other static HTML editors have proven fundamentally flawed when it comes to these two core tasks (and features such as Dreamweaver’s libraries and templates are patches not solutions).

The bottom line is that the old model of the central webmaster hand-spinning every page of every website and, worse, manually adding the navigation necessary to help users find it, just isn’t scalable or viable. The only feasible course for the future is for content to be posted by the content contributor, whether that’s the site owner or site visitors, and for the best possible navigation to be constructed around that content on the fly.

In other words Web 2.0 isn’t an empty slogan, it marks a fundamental break with the past and Dreamweaver lies on the wrong side of it. So is this the end for Dreamweaver and the traditional Dreamweaver-based web designer?

Eventually yes. In the relatively near future every website will be a dynamically-generated web application and all of today’s sites built on multiple static pages will be ripped out and replaced.

The good news of course is that this is actually a huge opportunity – think Klondike gold-rush - for the web designer who can adapt. But how? After all your average designer is built along radically different lines to your average developer.

But it can be done. Just as Dreamweaver eased the transition for print-only designers to the new markup-based world of HTML; content management systems such as Joomla and Drupal can ease the transition for static Web 1.0 designers to the new Web 2.0 world of script-based PHP. Give them a chance and you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve and all without touching a line of code (that can come later just as it did with Dreamweaver).

I really can’t recommend this strongly enough. If you are a Dreamweaver user don’t bother upgrading to the latest version or exploring Adobe’s feeble attempts to graft end user content contribution onto Dreamweaver. Instead save your money and invest your time in getting to grips with the real future of web design: server-based content management systems.

Dreamweaver is dying. Long live Drupal.

Tom Arah

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Well this article has generated a lot more comment than I was expecting (including on slashdot and digg) which is in itself a nice demonstation of web 2.0 in action and how Dreamweaver and static publishing in general is being left behind.

A lot of the comments are pretty much repeating themselves so I'm promoting the main points of an earlier response made below to try and clarify things and nip a few in the bud:

Comparing Dreamweaver and Drupal isn’t mad – they are both tools for producing websites.

Thinking about it I can see why people might assume they are entirely different - after all a cms is for producing a blog right? Absolutely not. You can reproduce any static site dynamically with a cms including simple and attractive brochureware sites.

Crucially you can't do the opposite. This means that by using Dreamweaver you are denying your clients a lot of functionality - in-built commenting, rss feeds etc (only if you want them) - but most importantly end user content contribution and optimal on-the-fly navigation.

You're also denying them the tag-based keywording that helps the search engines understand what your site is about. Google and cms go hand in hand and ultimately your job is to generate traffic.

Having said that it's true that most cms sites currently do look and behave like blogs. More than that they look atrocious (most don't even change from the default theme). There's absolutely no reason why they should look so bad and that's the other part of the equation and of my argument: current static designers have a lot to gain from cms but current cms also has a lot to gain from an influx of good design.

Clearly this post was aimed at the vast majority of Dreamweaver users - those designers producing static sites HTML page by HTML page. I wasn't really addressing the developer and yes one of Dreamweaver's great strengths has always been that it also caters for other languages and those developers manually building up their own dynamic sites.

And cms has even more to offer these users! Why reinvent the wheel and create your web application from scratch when you can take advantage of vast communal development effort that lets you achieve results that you couldn't begin to dream of when working on your own?

Even with the fundamental shift to cms that I’m talking about there remains a role for an application to help users produce the cms logic and the CSS templates in the first place. And I'm sure a lot of the cms modules and most of the css templates were and will continue to be built in Dreamweaver.

But it's precisely because these are then given freely to others to use and adapt that Dreamweaver becomes redundant for the vast majority of users. No one is going to pay for Dreamweaver with all its baggage if all they want to do is tweak a few lines of code. Especially as this is already more effectively done live in the browser.

Finally I carefully didn’t say that Dreamweaver is dead. To begin with, from some of the comments, it's clear that there's a lot of ignorance, inertia and self-interest to be overcome.

More importantly, as others have sensibly pointed out, these are early days and the cms options as they stand are currently only ready for early and adaptable adopters, not for the mainstream. You certainly shouldn't expect to be able to switch instantly - I'm advising rethinking and retraining.

All in all Dreamweaver will be around for a while yet. However it used to be the dominant web force and the secret behind the overwhelming majority of professional web sites and it won’t be in the future.

The future for creating web design is in the browser not in Dreamweaver.

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Unsurprisingly Adobe has a slightly different take on things and I've now added a follow-up post based on a chat with Devin Fernandez, senior product manager for the web products at Adobe

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Still getting a lot of comments 6 months on. And with comment #264 it looks like I might even have persuaded someone to consider looking in to Drupal :-) In case anyone else is thinking about it, here's the relevant part of my response:

"The article was primarily aimed at professional non-coding designers either starting out or recognizing that the world has moved on to web 2.0. Sadly it’s not a simple swap by any means (though things are getting easier).

However, if you are seriously looking to the future, I recommend taking a look at it – get a cheap BlueHost account and you can install it automatically and take it for a spin.

If you do, don’t judge it by first appearances (ugly and underpowered). Instead check out the add-on power available and get a better idea of what Drupal is capable of.

Essentially Drupal is harnessing the power of the data-driven web through the pooled efforts of a huge community of talented programmers meaning that you don't have to code from scratch or even at all (though if you can that’s even better)

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