Alternatives to FrontPage

For 6 years, Microsoft FrontPage was an important tool that offered non-technical users an easy way to build websites. In addition to its intuitive desktop publishing interface, it allowed novice webmasters to incorporate basic interactive elements. FrontPage achieved this through a combination of a HTML editor application and server-side scripting.

FrontPage offered people a chance to make their mark on the web. Its simple interface was good enough to develop a reasonably attractive website, and the code view — added to some of the later releases — provided more flexibility. In the days when contact forms and hit counters had to be coded mostly by hand, FrontPage offered the potential to implement these features with no technical know-how.

A Brief History of FrontPage

Vermeer Technologies Inc originally developed FrontPage in the mid-1990s. (Many FrontPage configuration files were always prefixed with "VTI," in a throwback to the original creators.) Microsoft purchased FrontPage from Vermeer in 1996, and released its own version of the software soon after.

Two years later, Microsoft launched an Express version with a cut-down user interface, and Microsoft marketed both as editors to create content that could be viewed in Internet Explorer. FrontPage was bundled with Microsoft Office 2000 and Office XP, alongside key products like PowerPoint and Word.

The final version of FrontPage was released in 2003, but by then, it was no longer included with Office. Many users had to pay to acquire it, and that marked the beginning of the end.

How FrontPage Fell From Favor

It's critical to understand that FrontPage was designed as the editor for Internet Explorer. Conversely, Internet Explorer was the only browser that could render pages that used FrontPage Server Extensions correctly.

These Server Extensions were used to render basic interactive content, and without them, the sites couldn't function as intended. FrontPage users had to choose hosting companies that would offer that compatibility.

Even when Microsoft was bundling FrontPage with Office, some hosts were not wild about its Server Extensions. The older the technology got, the less likely it was that hosts offered them, and the harder it was for users to keep their sites working properly.

FrontPage vs the Web

In the early 2000s, the changing face of the web was starting to discredit Internet Explorer. This, and other changes to the way the web worked, had a knock-on effect on FrontPage. Combined, they eventually sealed its fate:

  • Internet Explorer was not compliant with many web design and security standards. When FrontPage was originally launched, this didn't matter much; Internet Explorer had 80% market share in 2004, and hobbyist users didn't much care about the remainder. But browsers like FireFox were starting to offer more consistent standards compliance in the mid-2000s. That compliance made developers' lives easier, and meant that Internet Explorer fell from favor.
  • FrontPage was primarily a Windows application. There was only ever one edition for the Macintosh, which has always had a strong following in the creative sector. That meant FrontPage was destined to be more of an amateur product, compared to rivals like Dreamweaver.
  • Towards the end of FrontPage's existence, it was not offered as a free or bundled product, which meant that users were less likely to adopt it.
  • Technologies like WebDAV offered similar features to FrontPage Server Extensions, but crucially, they could be used on practically any web hosting account. For web hosts, and web developers, it didn't make sense to specialise in FrontPage when WebDAV offered far greater flexibility, and a potentially larger user base.
  • It was relatively easy for a curious visitor to view the contents of entire web-accessible directories using FrontPage hacks, and administrator passwords were stored in files that were easy to download and crack.
  • The code produced by FrontPage is not standards compliant, so few professionals would consider using it.

Microsoft withdrew support for FrontPage Server Extensions in April 2009, and discontinued extended support in April 2014. Web hosting providers were left running vulnerable and unsupported software. On any server that's exposed to the internet, that's a very bad idea.

The application we knew as FrontPage was reincarnated as SharePoint Designer. SharePoint Designer looks and feels very similar, but can only be develop content that will be deployed on a SharePoint server. At any rate, SharePoint Designer was phased out in 2013. Microsoft launched Expression Web for general purpose web design, which offered a small amount of FrontPage compatibility.

Alternative HTML Editors

There are still a handful of hosts that support FrontPage Server Extensions, and some people still use FrontPage as a basic website design tool. But there are more flexible, capable and reliable editors available for free, and they produce cleaner code that is compliant with modern browsers.

If you need something roughly equivalent to FrontPage, we'd recommend a site builder tool. Site builders run within a web browser, instead of being installed on a desktop computer. But offer a similar "what you see is what you get" (WYSIWYG) interface, which was arguably FrontPage's biggest selling point. Without the security holes and special server requirements, site builders can create sleek, modern website that are safe for both you and your web hosting provider.

Choosing a Site Builder

The majority of web hosting companies provide a free site builder tool with their plans. Even on a very basic package, you should have no trouble finding one. Typically, hosting companies offer Plesk's site builder, the RV Site Builder, or the Weebly site builder. Sometimes it isn't obvious which one is included.

You can also sign up for a dedicated site builder plan, rather than a hosting package. Functionality is restricted, but you may find the service easier to set up and use.

Here are a few of the most commonly used site builders:

  • Arvixe: all users can take advantage of Arvixe's "one click website builder’ when they sign up for a Linux shared hosting package.
  • Godaddy Sitebuilder: free for basic use, although the big drawback of this site builder is the lack of SEO in the free version.
  • InMotion Premium Web Builder: offering more than 500 themes, this website builder promises lots of choice and flexibility, but you’ll need to purchase the Business Class hosting package to use it.
  • HostGator: HostGator offers the standard Parallels Plesk website builder, and the Weebly site builder. The Plesk site build available to everyone who buys reseller, VPS or dedicated hosting, on Linux plans only. Note that this tool is not compatible with some versions of Internet Explorer, and the set-up procedure is not as simple as it could be. The Weebly builder is more user-friendly.
  • Jimdo: in 2009, Jimdo was notable for persuading evicted Geocities users to migrate their sites under the Lifeboat scheme. The free plan allows you to build a store with 5 items under a Jimdo subdomain.
  • iPage: iPage hosting offers the Weebly site builder on its shared hosting plans. Users are limited to 6 pages.
  • Moonfruit: this site builder service says you can create a free website in just 5 minutes.
  • Shopify: this specialist site builder is designed specifically for ecommerce websites. It offers payment gateways and other tools aimed at online retailers.
  • Squarespace: Squarespace combines website building tools with a blogging platform. Users can embed content from Google Maps, Getty Images and other prominent third-party services.
  • Wix: this website builder creates HTML5 websites using a drag-and-drop interface. Basic features are free; just pay to bolt-on the advanced functionality you need.
  • Weebly: every Weebly user gets unlimited file storage space, although each file has to be less than a certain size. Weebly has a blogging module, and you can add content via its mobile apps.

Comparing Like With Like

When you’re choosing a site builder, it’s a good idea to sign up for a few trials. Try out the templates, and experiment with layouts. See what works for you. A basic site builder could work fine for a personal blog, but may not function quite so well as a professional website.

Additionally, when comparing all of these tools and services, consider:

  • The number of free vs premium features, and the cost of getting what you need;
  • Any limits on the size of your site, or the size of files you upload to your account;
  • The suitability of templates for your niche;
  • How customizable those templates are;
  • The diversity of third party widgets;
  • Critical features, like SEO and a blog;
  • The ease of management as your site grows;
  • Any services you really need, like FTP and email hosting;
  • Whether you want to use your own domain name;
  • Whether the provider offers a mobile app for your chosen device.

Summary

Microsoft FrontPage played an important role in bringing website design to the masses. But the software is now out of date, and few hosts offer it. If you need a modern equivalent, migrate your site to a dedicated provider of site builder tools, or choose a cheap shared hosting plan with a site builder option included. Not only will your site look better, but it will be more secure too.


Further Reading and Resources

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