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Microsoft aims higher with Web software

The next version of the company's FrontPage Web-authoring application is geared toward professional designers and developers.

After years of playing with amateurs, Microsoft has decided to push its FrontPage Web-authoring software into the big leagues.

The company on Tuesday announced details of FrontPage 2003, the next version of the package, slated to come out this summer. Other Office System products with which it works are also due later this year.

Previous versions of FrontPage have offered a light-duty Web editing tool useful for consumers and small businesses with a modest Web presence. The new version, however, is aimed squarely at the business world, with enhancements intended to appeal to professional Web designers and IT administrators.

As with other portions of the upcoming Office 2003 family of software, the biggest changes in FrontPage revolve around Extensible Markup Language (XML), the rapidly gaining standard for sharing data among disparate computer systems.

XML support in other products is focused on shuttling data to databases and other corporate backend systems. In FrontPage, the data moves in the other direction. XML applications created with the software will suck relevant information from databases, constantly updating the information presented to viewers.

"We focused on really being able to extend your Web pages beyond static pages...to become data driven and connected to multiple data sources using XML," said Melisa Samuelson, a Microsoft product manager.

The code-writing interface in FrontPage has also been dramatically revised, Samuelson said, with the idea of allowing designers to easily transfer code to and from other applications.

"We've heard in the past that customers felt our code wasn't transparent enough, that we generated messy code," she said. "We've really focused on generating clean, industry-standard HTML code."

Rob Helm, an analyst for research firm Directions on Microsoft, said Microsoft's goal with the new FrontPage isn't necessarily to compete with professional Web-authoring packages such as Macromedia's Dreamweaver or Adobe Systems' GoLive. Instead, FrontPage is being crafted to support other Microsoft software and services, most notably SharePoint, Microsoft's collection of server and desktop collaboration software that let workers share documents and data.

"Microsoft is hoping Windows SharePoint Services will kick off an orgy of Web development inside the organization, and this is one of the ways you take advantage of that," Helm said. "FrontPage is being positioned as what you use if the generic SharePoint tools aren't enough."

"They might like to take a little business away from Macromedia or Adobe," he added. "But it's really important to have FrontPage just to support what Microsoft wants to do with the server. Microsoft needs a tool that's friendly with its way of using server resources."

While previous editions of FrontPage were included in most versions of Office, Microsoft's collection of productivity applications, the new version will only be sold as a standalone product. Pricing has not been announced.

Samuelson said casual Web designers who used previous versions of FrontPage will find the new one at least as approachable. However, much of the market for mom-and-pop Web design has already moved on.

"For people who already use FrontPage today to create simple Web pages, we've added tools to make it even easier for them," she said. "But a lot of those people have moved to much simpler solutions."

Helm said there's good business logic behind Microsoft's decision to focus on higher-level Web design.

"My sense is they've just determined that (FrontPage) is something like Visio (Microsoft's diagramming and drawing software)--the people who need it, need it badly enough to pay for it," he said.

And a limited version of the current FrontPage could be retooled for delivery in Microsoft's MSN online service, Helm speculated. "I can picture the baby tool for Web design eventually becoming part of the MSN client," he said.