A nice chat with Adobe about Dreamweaver

16 Mar 2009

Following my recent post, I’m Sorry but Dreamweaver is Dying and the ensuing online discussions/abuse, I was summoned for a chat with the headmaster – Devin Fernandez, senior product manager for the web products at Adobe.

Based on my core argument - that the future of web design lies with content management systems (cms) rather than Dreamweaver - I was expecting an uncomfortable time. Thankfully Devin is far too nice for that. More than that he seemed genuinely pleased to have had a debate opened up and a chance to hear what the community is thinking about Dreamweaver and the future of web design...

Naturally Devin hopes and believes that Dreamweaver is going to remain central to future web workflows and was keen to stress that the program is always evolving. As such we chatted about some of the introductions in the latest Dreamweaver CS4 such as the HTML table-based Ajax handling, the new compound file support and advanced CSS navigation.

To my mind, Dreamweaver CS4's HTML table-based Ajax handling is simultaneously over-complicated and underpowered and is a good example of the web 2.0 wall that Dreamweaver is hitting in the static HTML page context. However (as I pointed out in my review) the other two features are certainly significant advances and show Dreamweaver moving forwards from the old model of the simple standalone HTML page to embrace today's more complex compound reality. 

Moreover, as Devin pointed out, these features prove especially useful in the cms context where the compound page is the norm and drilling down to find and edit CSS rules a nightmare. In short Devin made the case that Dreamweaver has a lot to offer cms-based users and doesn't see cms as an either/or alternative but rather as a partner it can work with, just as it does with the Ajax frameworks.

Without making any explicit commitments, Devin also made it clear that Dreamweaver users can expect further developments when it comes to integration with the big three frameworks:- WordPress, Joomla and Drupal. In particular, knowing I'm a Drupal fan, he recommended that I check out the work Chris Charlton is doing with his Dreamweaver Drupal extension that integrates the Drupal API directly into Dreamweaver. 

We also discussed just how important the mission of bringing good design to cms is. I couldn't agree more. Some people seemed to think that I was arguing that we should rip out today's websites and replace them with blogs. That is absolutely not the case. The goal must be to produce truly attractive cms sites that look as if they were hand-crafted in Dreamweaver but with all the web 2.0 functionality - commenting, voting, rss feeds, in-browser content contribution, optimal tag-based navigation, scalability - that static HTML inherently can't deliver. 

This design mission is crucial but I'm not convinced that Dreamweaver is necessarily central to it. Or even necessary at all for the average user. At the moment the general standard of cms design is beyond dreadful but that's because the design potential of cms hasn't begun to be grasped by its user base which is still primarily made up of developers. 

This is most immediately evident when it comes to theming. The ability to quickly explore hundreds of attractive high quality themes is a massive strength but incredibly most cms users still stick with the unbelievably ugly default theme. This is a travesty. If the average cms user spent just one day exploring the themes available, the design quality of their work would take off and the design reputation of cms with it. Indeed by piggy-backing off the work of leading designers, and so ensuring site-wide consistency and best practice and avoiding unhelpful design excesses, a themed cms site can embarrass many hand-crafted static sites. It might even validate!

Off-the-shelf cms themes will take most sites most of the way to where they want to go. Devin argued that Dreamweaver is the essential tool that cms users need to go the extra distance and get exactly the results they want. I'm sure that Dreamweaver does play this key role for the majority of theme developers and also for most of the module developers creating the cms logic. As many of the comments from developers on my original article pointed out, the cms frameworks that I'm talking about simply wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Dreamweaver. 

That's true and a major reason to be grateful to Dreamweaver and to wish it well. However the numbers involved creating the cms framework is inherently small compared to the numbers using it. That's the point: the module or theme creator does the hard work and generously donates it so that end users don't have to. For the cms end user I'd argue that a 5% role for Dreamweaver is a very different role to today's 100%. Will cms-based designers prove willing to pay $hundreds for a support tool when the cms itself, in which they do 95% of their work, is free? 

In any case, despite its undoubted power, I'm not convinced that Dreamweaver will necessarily prove the best tool for the average designer wanting to extend their cms handling. In fact Dreamweaver's all-round power and the associated complexity becomes more of a drawback than an advantage. For tweaking a theme's CSS, for example, a lightweight dedicated approach makes more sense - something like Chris Pederick's excellent and free Web Developer add-on for Firefox which works live in the browser. 

In the longer term I believe that an end-to-end, high-quality design solution will be provided in the browser and largely by the cms frameworks themselves. Already image handling and wysiwyg editing have improved out of all recognition. And, using advanced modules such as Drupal's excellent Panels (which lets you break up your layout to break out from blog-style listings) and the stunning Views 2 (which lets you pull out any content based on any criteria to drop into those panels), you can produce beautiful sites based on completely custom designs that give no indication that they were produced with a cms apart from their additional web 2.0 functionality. And the design capabilities of the cms frameworks are only going to get better. 

So where does all this leave Dreamweaver? 

Working with the web's constantly changing open standards has always been Dreamweaver's greatest strength and, from the chat with Devin, it's clear that Adobe is well aware of the rise of the cms frameworks and of what they can do. It will certainly be interesting to see what future releases come up with in terms of support for cms. Moving to truly dedicated support will represent a step-change and help unleash the next generation of content management systems.

And as the content management systems get more powerful, more attractive and more usable they will attract more developers and designers who will come to appreciate the enormous benefits of building on the work of others rather than trying to do everything themselves. Moreover, as some of these developers and designers put something back into the communal pool of high quality logic and design, the arguments for joining up to the cms project become more and more compelling. A standalone user can already, with a lot of effort, use today's cms frameworks to produce a site that looks and acts as if had been built by a massive team of design and development talent (which in a way it has). Over time the results possible and the ease of use with which they can be achieved will rise dramatically. The potential is extraordinary. 

Both Devin and I agree that the cms frameworks are going to get more powerful and that Dreamweaver will play an important role in this. However we differ over how this is likely to play out and the implications. My argument is that the cms frameworks are completely different to the Ajax frameworks because they represent a far more fundamental shift; a shift that will redefine how future designers and developers go about creating the website itself - the role that Dreamweaver currently fills.

Dreamweaver has been the central player behind the page-based web and the custom-made application-based web. I believe that it will also play a major part in creating the content management systems that will come to replace it as the web's main driving force.

Tom Arah

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