FreeWebs has officially launched the WYSIWYG Site Builder tool we blogged about last month. In short, it lets anyone build a site without any knowledge of HTML, or having to refresh the page to see changes. The service soft-launched the tool early last week, and I took it for a spin this morning.
Site Builder emulates a desktop app, with a small floating tool bar, and context-sensitive menus that will serve up different actions depending on what tool you're using. For example, if you've inserted an image, the menu will give you options to align it with text, or link it to a full version off-site. With a moderate level of difficulty, I managed to put together an entire Web site in about half an hour.
The joy of tools like these is that you start out with a relatively blank canvas that's yours to create. That being said, I found Site Builder to be a little sluggish, and crop up with a few error messages when trying to add widgets. The real showstopper though is the processing message, which pops up every time you swap back and forth between page elements on your site. It's the Web equivalent of the hourglass on Windows, or the spinning beach ball of death on Mac.
Despite the slowdowns, Site Builder is ages ahead of its predecessor. The previous version would split up the page viewing and editing into two separate tools, with the latter called WebsEdit, which is now simply integrated into the new builder. The widget directory tool is also really well done and lets you browse, search, and configure widgets to include in your site without taking you away from what you're doing. If you're a regular Webware reader, you'll recognize many of the widgets that are in there, like a Flickr slideshow viewer, Meebo chat rooms, and a YouTube player.
As far as blogging platforms go, I can't wholly recommend FreeWebs over other free services like WordPress.com and Blogger. You're missing out on some handy features like post management, comment control, guest authoring, and more support documentation. However, for free, Web-based page building utilities, it's a different story. Google's Page Creator, Jimdo, Ning, SiteKreator, along with a few paid options like Homestead and Squarespacefill up a crowded market of online tools for making sites.
So what sets FreeWebs apart? For one thing, there's built-in community. There's also a social networking aspect, where you can slurp in your profile from other social networks like Bebo, MySpace, and Facebook. To me, the social seems like the real draw, and your page--like your profile, is your place to experiment with social tools. I can't help feeling that FreeWebs is aimed at the younger crowd (there's a bona fide option to include glitter graphics and mouse trails), as older users will likely be more at home on one of the services mentioned above.