Contribute 4.0

It takes a lot of skill and talent to create a Web site that looks great and works smoothly. But a major task still awaits after you’ve launched your new site, namely keeping it fresh with new content. The dilemma for Web designers and IT departments is profound: their clients and users clamor for the ability to make site updates, but it’s awfully easy for those users to accidentally destroy the Web site’s design. Adobe Contribute 4 allows everyday users (sometimes referred to as content contributors, as opposed to Web designers) to maintain, edit, and add new Web pages from templates, without needing to know HTML and without the possibility of breaking the site.

Business users and other non-designers can use Contribute to edit existing pages created in Dreamweaver or other design tools, and even create new pages from Dreamweaver templates, but Contribute can’t be used to create a new site from scratch (Adobe assigns that job to its Dreamweaver (   ) and GoLive (   ) Web design products). Site administrators can assign different levels of editing privileges to their users, further constraining the possible changes that well-intentioned but unskilled users can make to pages. This control can be quite detailed; for example, users can be allowed to enter text, but not to apply styles to their entries. An administrator can also specify that some users can make draft changes to pages, but must send them to a supervisor for approval before the pages go live on the site. Installations that have many Contribute users working on a site can install the Contribute Publishing Server ($89 per user). This server application centrally manages user permissions and integrates with LDAP (Lightweight Directory Access Protocol) or Active Directory servers to make it easy to add users, send e-mail to users alerting them that a draft page awaits review, and track page workflow.

Contribute 4 builds on an already solid product, Macromedia’s Contribute 3 (   ), and this is the first upgrade under Adobe’s aegis. But this lightweight upgrade likely will be a tough sell to existing users.

Blog support

Contribute 3 was a big improvement over the previous version, making the product faster, providing more editing tools, and adding CSS support. While you can’t create CSS styles in Contribute, you can apply CSS styles created by the designer that are attached to the page or the Dreamweaver template for the page.

Contribute 4’s major new feature is the ability to use Contribute to create and edit posts for Weblogs. The program supports a wide range of blog servers, including Typepad, Blogger, and WordPress, as well as servers that implement the MetaWeblog API (notably Movable Type and Drupal). You get started blogging by creating a connection to your blog with Contribute’s Connection Wizard, just as you would with any other Web site. You can have connections to as many blogs as you want, and it’s very convenient to use the same editing interface for all of your blogs and Web sites, rather than use different tools to accomplish essentially the same job.

Clicking the New button in the toolbar allows you to either create a new Web page on one of your regular sites, or a new blog entry. If you choose the latter, the new Blog Metadata toolbar appears (see screenshot). This toolbar allows you to choose which of your blogs to post to; enter the title of the blog post; assign which of your site’s categories you want (many blog servers allow you to attach your own categories, such as Politics or Technology —Contribute is limited to a single category per post); and enable comments and trackbacks, which allow your blog posts to be easily linked to by others and alerts you when others write about your post. You can also add tags to characterize your posts, which are used by blog tracking sites such as Technorati.

When you create a blog entry, Contribute reads the blog’s template from the server, and then allows you to add text, images, tables, and other elements only in the blog post’s content area; you can’t make changes outside of this area. This is similar to the way Contribute works with pages based on Dreamweaver templates, which have editable and immutable page regions. Contribute works very well as a blog editor, as it allows you to create your entry in a WYSIWYG editor, without messing with HTML at all. You can use Contribute on any Web site that has static pages, but for the most part you can’t use it to edit dynamic sites, where the page content is served from a database. The exceptions are blogs, which are often built on blog servers that store their content in databases. Contribute works with the blog server to add or edit the database records, which to the user looks just like any other static page.

Flash support

If you work in an organization that creates Flash Video files, you can now drag and drop them into Contribute, as you previously could do with other media files such as QuickTime and AVI (although, oddly, not MP3 or other audio files; you can add links to audio files, but you can’t drag and drop them on your draft page). This version still creates FlashPaper files, the former Macromedia’s alternative to PDF.

If you use Mozilla’s Firefox browser (   ), you can install and use Contribute 4’s new two-button toolbar. The first button, Edit in Contribute, allows you to edit the current page, as long as it is on a site to which you have previously set up an editing connection. The second button, Post to Blog, works after you select some text on a Web page. When you click the button, Contribute creates a new blog post with an attribution link to the page, and the selected text in blockquote with its other formatting intact. Unfortunately, there are no equivalent toolbar features for Safari (in comparison, Weblog editing competitors such as Adriaan Tijsseling’s ecto and Newsgator Technologies’ MarsEdit (   ) provide similar Post to Blog ability for Safari through bookmarklets (small JavaScript programs that can be stored as URLs within a browser’s bookmarks).

One annoyance that hasn’t improved since the previous version is that Contribute takes as much as 30 seconds to retrieve pages from a site and switch into editing mode, or to publish draft pages to the Web server, during which you must wait for the activity to finish and you can’t do any other work. Contribute is doing a lot behind the scenes, but it’s irritating to be unable to begin work on your next page during these server operations. In comparison, Dreamweaver 8, which shares much of the same technology as Contribute, can upload pages to the server in the background. Moreover, users with fast Intel-based Macs won’t enjoy any speed benefit, because Contribute is still based on PowerPC code and runs under Rosetta. Performance for such tasks as editing and publishing a page were virtually identical on my G5 and my MacBook.

Windows features outpace the Mac

The Windows version of Contribute has always contained features not found in the Mac version, and Contribute 4 continues this sad tradition. On the Windows side this time around, you’ll find improved integration with Microsoft Office, including the ability to drag and drop Office documents into Contribute, which converts them into HTML pages, and new toolbars for Word, Excel, and Outlook that allow you to make new Web pages from their documents with a single click.

Given that Contribute 3 was released more than two years ago, it’s a real disappointment that Adobe has not managed to convert the Mac version to a Universal binary or bring it up to feature parity with the Windows version. That leaves the blogging features as the main improvement for your upgrade dollars, and if you want a good blog editor, you can get one for $25 or less with either ecto or MarsEdit. I also found several minor bugs, including inconsistent preview of pages in editing dialogs, and some odd XHTML rendering that will prevent some pages from properly validating as correct XHTML.

Macworld’s buying advice

Contribute 4 is a bit of an odd duck, because it is often purchased by Web designers and IT departments for others to use, rather than being bought by individuals for their own use. If you’re a designer or IT manager and you want to roll out blogs to your user base while maintaining tight control of the look and operation of your sites, Contribute 4 is a very good choice. This version is especially useful if you’re looking to add blogging to your site as a major feature. However, the lack of Office integration is irritating, as the vendor has had plenty of time to bring the program into parity with the Windows version. For individuals, it’s a thornier choice. If you didn’t upgrade to Contribute 3, then Contribute 4 should be a slam-dunk purchase for you. But if you own Contribute 3 and you’re not interested in the new blogging features, then move along, because there’s not much to see here.

[ Longtime Macworld contributor Tom Negrino has written books on Contribute and Dreamweaver, including the best-selling Dreamweaver 8 Visual QuickStart Guide (Peachpit Press, 2006). ]

Contribute 4’s new Blog Metadata toolbar allows you to add all the ancillary information any good blog post needs.

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