Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Front Page -- goodbye perhaps? Will Expression Web get rid of the "pain" of corrupted extensions?


I have recently encountered some occasional difficulty in another environment with a hit counter hanging. The hit counter is a Front Page plug-in, and runs out of an element called _vti_bin/ftpcount.exe. Sometimes it will stall for about twenty minutes or so, and then suddenly start working again. A couple of times it has stalled for much longer.

During these periods it isn’t possible to access the domain with Front Page. The server will close the connection. However, when the hit counter finally works, the Front Page connection will reopen automatically. Sometimes Front Page cannot find a connection on Port 80, but will connect if the domain name is re-entered.

There is a lot of literature on the Web that if you FTP to a site with Front Page extensions, it will corrupt the extensions. Most literatures says that Front Page pages will not display properly in browsers. In fact, they may display if extraneous code is removed in the HTML. A typical reference is here.

One particularly vocal reference from another hosting company about the pain of Front Page extensions is here.
They say that FTP can be tolerated on NT environments (and I guess Windows Server 2003 +), but never on Unix or Linux environments.

Last, but not least, Microsoft seems to be replacing the whole Front Page world with Expression Web, which apparently will not require extensions. Nevertheless, I found, on an Expression Web forum, “Cannot publish using Front Page extensions” on an Expression Web forum.

I’m not quite sure why Front Page was designed to be so finicky. It is a pain. I can tell you that back in 1999 and 2000 I had a site that I maintained with WS-FTP, but I was able to log into it with Front Page 97 and update when I wanted to. It could “recalculate hyperlinks” and that would take five or ten minutes. But it never got corrupted. The ISP, which was owned by a coworker with an entrepreneurial business on the side, had to spend a lot of time on the phone with Microsoft in early 1999 to get it to work for any of his customers in the first place, but after that, no problems.

Some of the references (you can find them with search engines) talk about hyperlinks getting corrupted. That seems to refer to the ability of Front Page to plug in the right directories for you. If you always hard code the directories yourself in the links, they will always work anyway, but then the site is hard to move.

In a few cases, I have found that Front Page seems to resequence some of the HTML building blocks. The page still displays in IE but not in all browsers (Mozilla will show some garbage). The fix is to go into Code Mode in Front Page and edit out the extraneous HTML or simply recode the HTML manually according to established W3C conventions; then all browsers will work. Of course, you have to know HTML syntax real well, like any “programmer” has to know any “language.”

Another glitch that happens is that Front Page can hang in XP when inserting a hyperlink if the host server is too slow, or if the web publisher goes to another file on his harddrive to cut and past the hyperlink URL and tries to come back to FrontPage. This sounds like a bug in Front Page code or memory management. Just some sloppy code somewhere.

The rub is that Front Page was designed with small business sites with a lot of interface functionality (forums, guestbooks, etc) but not that much text content. The design of Front Page encourages users to publish all webs as integrated objects; in fact, you can cut and paste individual files from your hard drive onto Front Page and it will work fine. Webmasters who have a lot of “literary content” and many text files may not need Front Page or Expression Web at all. They can just write or paste a few javascript utilities or CSS style sheets for any special functionality. WS-FTP may be all they need. It sounds like, get real!

A somewhat related problem occurred with 2002 Microsoft Word, when converting word documents to HTML. Word would generate a lot of internal XSL parameters and would start reinserting and repeating redundant hyperlinks, and corrupt the page. The only way to fix such a page was to go into the HTML manually and tediously remove the extraneous hyperlinks. Visitors might think the page was “infected” if it took them to hidden hyperlinks; it wasn’t; this was just a software bug. Microsoft stopped supporting the 2002 product and insisted customers get a later version.

In the long run, Front Page has been a bit of a pain. I hope Expression Web, which I just downloaded a trial version of but haven’t connected with yet, will do a lot better. I discussed Expression Web on this blog before, I believe in August 2007. Microsoft will now allow a two-month free trial with a single product code.

You can try searching for "Front Page extensions" and "corrupt" with search engines and not come up with clean explanations of this mystery. Maybe some visitor can explain why this is such a mystery; it has never made a lot of sense. Or perhaps the whole issue will become moot point with Expression Web (another $300 or so, although upgrades from FP are available).

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