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Macromedia to sell light-duty Web tool

After years of targeting professional Web developers and designers, Macromedia has a new type of customer in mind for its latest product--you.

After years of targeting professional Web developers and designers, Macromedia has a new type of customer in mind for its latest product--you.

The San Francisco-based company on Monday is set to unveil Contribute, a simplified Web publishing tool that will allow ordinary office workers to make text changes and other minor fixes to Web sites.

Such work is typically left to Web professionals, who have to juggle requests to fix a typo here or add a product description there while tackling bigger design and development projects.

"There are a lot of inefficiencies in the processes most companies use," said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia. "The business-side folks want to get changes up as fast as possible, but it all has to get funneled through the Web team."

Contribute is based on the same underlying software as Dreamweaver, Macromedia's market-leading Web design application, but it uses a streamlined interface similar to a Web browser. People call up a Web site in Contribute's main window and then click on a link next to the browser window to add or edit text, or perform other basic functions.

The interface is a marked change from Macromedia's professional Web products, which typically require weeks or months of training to master. Erik Larson, senior product manager for Macromedia, said the Contribute team wanted to make the product look and behave as much like a Web browser as possible to overcome people's natural reluctance to learn new applications.

"Because we worked with the Dreamweaver code base, we had the room to be able to focus the last 18 months on the user experience," Larson said. "We've learned a lot about designing a product for people who don't naturally love to use software...It was important that people not have to learn a new interface. This needs to be something that doesn't require a big training or implementation process."

The other side of the equation was to make Web professionals comfortable with Contribute and the capabilities it grants end-users. The software allows Web site administrators to designate who has access to Web pages and which parts they can fiddle with. Particularly skeptical types can even require e-mail approval before any revisions are published.

"I think there's a natural tendency for a 'that's mine' sort of reaction" from Web professionals, Larson said. "That's why we've built in all these safeguards, so you can't mess up anyone's code."

Rikki Kirzner, an analyst for research firm IDC, said Contribute is a well-designed product that addresses real business needs. However, she said it will require Macromedia to reach a new type of customer.

"One of the challenges the company has, is (that) it's created all these wonderful new tools that are extensions of the other stuff they've produced, and they're all relatively unknown outside Macromedia's installed base of users," she said. "Macromedia is really going to have publicize this and leverage that user base."

Like other recent Macromedia initiatives aimed at improving the way the Web works, Contribute will confront a general timidity about experimenting with new business processes, Kirzner said.

"It's nothing to do with them or the product--it's just the reluctance in this economic climate for companies to experiment with a lot of new tools, no matter who they're from," she said.

Macromedia's Lynch said the company expects to leverage its existing customers to reach a new type of consumer.

"We think that initially the Web professionals will be our evangelists---they'll see the benefits right away and try to get the people around them to try this," he said.

A Windows version of Contribute is scheduled to go on sale next month, priced at $99 per user. A version for Apple Computer's Mac OS X is in the works for next year.