Hold the Front Page!

I am, in general, a big fan of technology. But let me add a couple of important qualifications to that statement, for experience has tempered my enthusiasm markedly. I discount what might be called “selfish technology”, which is anything that improves things for you, while irritating everyone else. Mobile phones are the most obvious examples, and I’d also add those little folding scooters to the same category, having been nearly mown down – on the pavement, I might add – by some idiot yuppie more often than I’d like to remember. And can anyone over the age of 18 ride one of those things without looking a complete twat? I think not.

The second caveat is that the freakin’ stuff must work. Few things are capable of causing more irritation than lame gadgetry which fails to function in the intended manner. It should serve man, make progress through everyday life a bit smoother, yet some cases appear to have the opposite effect. My Walkman, for example, has been teetering on the edge of breaking down for the past year – never reliable, yet never quite faulty enough to merit buying a replacement. It’s one of those “soft logic” players, and this is perhaps the problem, since the buttons are so sensitive that stepping off a kerb can cause it to switch on, off, or change the direction of play. When this happens four times inside two minutes (beep-reach-in-switch-on-beep-reach-in-switch-on), I start to dream happily of the day when it ceases to work altogether, and I can take it out of my pocket, and introduce it repeatedly to the nearest hard surface. For the moment, it usually responds, at least temporarily, to a hard slap. So if you see an individual who appears to be punching themselves in the heart, Fight Club style, that’ll be me, releasing a bit of tension by smacking the shit out of the recalcitrant beast in my breast pocket.

Every bit as irritating is my current nemesis, a piece of software excrement called Front Page, which I have grown to hate with genuine venom over the past month or so. It is supposed to be an aid to web designers, allowing the easy creation and maintenance of pages and sites. If you still believe this after working with it for a few months, you probably also think that paperclip thing in Word 97 is an endearing character. I’ve never used Front Page and already loathe it, because it has reduced people I care about to the brink of tears. When I witness intelligent human beings reduced to nervous wrecks, by psychological terrorism on a CD-Rom, I get mad.

I am, I admit, biased, having learned HTML from the bottom up – Front Page is thus, to me, a redundant piece of software, doing nothing I can’t, and what it does, it does with a startling lack of efficiency. Just as a one-line Word document bloats up to 20K, so the output from Front Page is grossly top-heavy, with unnecessary tags and entire sections which are only of significance to…Front Page. If you want to try and debug the results, it’s hard to pick through the badly-formatted verbose garbage. For someone who hasn’t been grounded in HTML first, it must be almost impossible. Even more insidiously, it has a nasty habit of corrupting pages written by other methods. It tries to seduce them to the dark side of the force, by inserting additional code, or simply over-writes them with its own version, doing so without telling the user [It strikes me that if something arrived from the Phillippines and did this, it would be referred to as a virus — but since it comes from Seattle, it’s called a Microsoft product, and will probably be compulsory before too long.] Trying to prevent it doing so appears to be futile: it may be the first piece of software with an ego coded into it, which refuses to tolerate the existence of any other method of working.

I’m sure there’s a place for such programs, to take the hackwork out of generating large volumes of code – and I’ve heard some good things about Dreamweaver, which is a little more expensive, but apparently superior. But my bad experiences have left me feeling highly suspicious of the overall benefits. It seems to me that, just as with guns, radioactive material and Backstreet Boys CDs, access to the current generation of HTML editors should be limited to those who can prove a genuine need for them. The rest of us should stick to writing the stuff by hand; it may leave the Net less graphically groovy for a bit, but in the long run, it will turn us into lean, mean coding machines rather than coached potatoes.