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Shawn FitzGerald spends his spare time in front of his Mac trying to do constructive things, but usually ends up screwing around.

NetObjects Fusion 2
reviewed by Shawn FitzGerald

There is a problem reviewing products like Fusion 2. The average user doesn't need it, and explaining why will just bore the users who do need it. Fusion is not for the average user, and the price tag ($295 US) should indicate that it isn't. Fusion bills itself as being an all-purpose Web Design application, which in some respects it is. However, its strengths are certainly aimed at large scale production, the likes of which most of us do not encounter. It also has weaknesses, which must be balanced against its strengths, and if those strengths are not being used . . . well it just looks lame. Sorry.

Fusion excels in managing large web sties with hundreds or thousands of pages. It treats each page as part of a whole site, and makes changing items on many pages simple and fast. Again, this isn't for the average user. Perhaps you are a designer for a company that makes Mylar balloons. These balloons have pictures of cats on them doing naughty things, like ripping up furniture or biting holes in screen doors. People love these balloons, and your boss thinks people will love them more if they can order them on the Net. You are in charge of building a site that will sell billions of Bad Cat balloons. (And if anyone actually starts making these balloons, I want a cut)

You've spent weeks building a web site that includes an example of each of your company's 250 designs. In a brilliant bit of marketing, you have included links to your sister company (a helium distributor) with each design. Sort of a buy & fill deal. You boss loves the idea, talks to the helium company, and sets up a balloon/helium discount. It looks like you'll get a promotion, or at least a better raise this year. Then, in a brilliant bit of marketing, the helium company changes its domain name the day your site is scheduled to go live.

If you've built every page by hand, with a text editor, you are to be applauded for your dedication (not to mention your talent for tolerating tedium). You also have a big problem, because every link you've created to the helium company is no longer valid. You must open each of the 250 files and retype each URL with the new domain. Experienced HTML users will note that I've cleverly designed this example to eliminate the usefulness of relative links.

This is where Fusion becomes useful. Instead of typing the new URL 250 times in 250 files, you set the helium company's URL as an asset. When you apply the asset to a piece of text, or button, Fusion looks up the URL attached to the asset and inserts it. Thus, if you need to change the URL on every page at a future time, you simply change the asset. All appropriate changes are made globally over the site. Fusion's use of assets is a powerful tool for managing large web sites. Pretty much anything you can think of to put on a web page can be treated as an asset. Graphics, scripts, movies, and sounds can all be assigned as assets, which makes changing the same thing on a huge number of pages simple. For example: you company's logo is on every web page, and the marketing department decides one day to change this logo in a trivial way. If you're using Fusion and have made the logo an asset, you only need to make one change to affect every page.

Another nice trick in Fusion is its site map. Your entire web space can be viewed as a flow chart or outline, with links between pages represented as lines. This is a nice way to look at your site's hierarchy without the aid of a white board in your office. The only drawback is the lack of Dry Erase Marker smell.

The savvy Web Designer must be aware that, with few exceptions, tools like Fusion do not create very elegant HTML code. This makes hand editing or tweaking difficult, and can result in compatibility problems between platforms. All editing and design done with Fusion must be done in Fusion.

When a site is ready to go live, the designer must "publish" the site, which causes Fusion to export every page from its own format into functional, but inelegant HTML. The nice part about this is that the designer need not worry about file paths or dead links within the published site. The drawback is that the designer must republish any changes. Connecting to your web server and adding something on your own is likely to cause confusion and headaches.

Macintosh users will be dismayed by seeing another product fall behind in production. Fusion, like so many other products, is one version behind for Macs. Currently, Fusion 3 for Mac is scheduled for release in June. Windows users have been using Fusion 3 for months, but NetObjects is offering free upgrades to version 3 for Macintosh users who buy version 2 now. You could wait a couple months, but this way you'd have two exciting yellow Fusion boxes sitting around your office. More information about this deal is available at NetObjects' web site.

Fusion makes up for some of its shortcomings with a nifty little tool that allows designers to create small database-style catalogs without investing in pricey client-server software. As may be expected, this feature is crippled on the Macintosh version. The feature is call Data Publishing, and is treated as a mini-database inside Fusion. The Data Object exists on a single page within Fusion, allowing data to be entered in fields similar to any database software. When the site is published, a page with a Data Object is split into many different "stacked pages" so each record exists on its own page. This is obviously not the best way to handle large collections of data, but is an acceptable hack for small sets, like our aforementioned Bad Cat Balloon catalog.

Of course, on the Mac version of Fusion, the designer must enter every piece of data from within Fusion. There is an import function in the Windows version, that allows designers to bring data from various sources (i.e. Microsoft Excel) . There is a nicely written section in the user's manual that tells you how to do it. There is also a dreaded "Windows version only" warning attached to this description.

The Proverbial Nutshell

Investing in NetObjects Fusion involves several tradeoffs. For large, complex sites where simplicity of management is more important than absolute control over individual pages, Fusion is a wonderful tool. Small, design intensive sites might better be served with a different package. Also, Macintosh support for Fusion seems rather halfhearted. One powerful function in FusionÑthe ability to import data sets into web pagesÑis crippled in the Macintosh version. Fusion for Mac also lags significantly in version upgrades from its Windows cousin. Download the demo, work with it a while, and consider your options carefully before introducing Fusion into a Macintosh environment.

[Editor's Note: Fusion 3 for Mac is slated for a late June release. We'll have a full review when available.]

The writer of this article welcomes your comments: