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February 27, 2004

Mac public beta available

very excited to let you know that the public beta of Style Master 3.5 for Mac OS X has just been uploaded.

Because we have been testing for some time, with quite a few beta testers, this release should be quite solid, and hopefully the full release is only just around the corner.

Grab it from

https://www.westciv.com/style_master_35/installsm35pb1.dmg.gz

This is a really significant upgrade, with so many new features and improvements I honestly believe we could call it version 4. But we have plenty up our sleeve for version 4 :-)

What's new here?

Just for Mac OS X users you can now preview the current statement or style sheet, with the HTML document of your choice, using Safari, right inside Style Master.

On top of that, there are 5 powerful design wizards which help you design HTML + CSS based multi column layouts, navigation bars, breadcrumb trails, as well as whole style sheets.

Working with color is now a joy, with Apple's floating Color Panel letting you edit any color value with ease.

We have a dozen new commercial quality HTML + CSS templates, many with professional graphics, available for you to base your websites on. They are licensed under creative commons licenses to allow you to use them commercially if you wish.

You can now validate your style sheet with the W3C's CSS validator from right inside Style Master.

And there are many performance enhancements, and interface improvements to guarantee using Style Master is even more productive and enjoyable than before.

But why not just give it a go?

We are very excited, hope you will be too

john

February 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (9) | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

Style Master 3.5 Windows public beta has arrived

After many months of development and testing, we are excited to announce the release of the first public beta of Style Master 3.5 for Windows (Mac due in the next day or two).

Grab a copy here

https://www.westciv.com/style_master_35/installsm35pb1.exe

and give it a go. We know you will like it. Seriously.

What's new you ask?

Read on.

Version 3.0 of Style Master was a great tool for getting to know CSS through using the editors and at the same time becoming familiar with hand coding. Our theme for this new release has been to really turn Style Master into a tool for quick and easy page design, but at the same time maintaining and improving high level support for hand coding. Here's what we came up with.


Wizards, lots of wizards


Wizards are a kind of "mini-application" that let you create a certain effect or even whole page designs, without even thinking about CSS or HTML code. Style Master 3.5 has 5 powerful easy to use Wizards for creating



  • a basic style sheet to control the appearance of text, headings and links with point and click ease

  • sophisticated multi column CSS+HTML page layouts using the latest techniques

  • attractive and usable HTML+CSS breadcrumb trails

  • stylish HTML+CSS navigation bars

  • customized link appearance


Templates


Over a dozen professionally designed templates utilizing the latest CSS techniques, many incorporating sophisticated graphics. All these released under a creative commons license for you to learn from or even to use as the basis of your own site designs.


Style Master 3.5 also includes a completely new CSS tutorial taking you through many areas of CSS from the ground up, and showing you how to build up to date, professional, standards based sites.


Improved editing environment


Many enhancements to the editing environment including



  • improvements to our code auto-complete feature

  • a new "comment out" feature that turns selected properties and statements into comments with a single click - great for debugging complex style sheets

  • seamless support for font, background and other shorthand properties: shorthand or longhand? - it's your call

  • improved interactive CSS validation: syntax coloring now identifies incorrect CSS values that can be hard to spot; invalid values will now be highlighted in property editors as well

  • validate style sheets with the W3C's validator from within Style Master


Improved design environment


A sophisitcated new color chooser, to make working with colors much much easier than before

Linking and Embedding pages and whole sites is now easier and more efficient with a much simpler wizard interface.


And of course, all this along with numerous performance enhancements.

February 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Bonus

Just for my blog readers, yes both of you!

The new version of Style Master will now cost $59.99, up from $49.99

However, there will be a free upgrade from 3.0 to 3.5

So, if you currently don't own a copy, if you purchase one in the next few days, well, you can work it out :-)

John

February 25, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

Public betas coming

The wait is nearly over.

A public beta for Mac and windows of version 3.5 is coming in the next couple of days.

Stay tuned, exciting times,

john

February 24, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

February 10, 2004

What is a wizard?

For Style Master 3.5 we have been working on a number of "wizards" (yes that is a windows term, and on the Mac the term Assistant is more accurate, but anyhoo) for creating more complex CSS and particularly CSS + HTML constructions such as navigation bars, breadcrumb trails, layouts and the like.

While beta testing, though many have responded very positively to the wizards, a number of people have asked for the wizards to be much more complex than they are, essentially to provide the full range of possibilities in CSS. For example, suppose you can add a border to an element. In our wizards we constrain the choice of border width to four options. 1 pixel, thin, medium and thick. Some users want to be able to choose any possible thickness, be it 1 inch or 10mm.

Now Style Master already lets you set the full range of possible widths, so why have we constrained it in that way?

This comes down to the question I posed right at the top, "what is a wizard?"

We've all no doubt used wizards or assistants, for setting up a network connection, installing software, and other similar tasks.

How is a wizard different from, say, the property editors in Style Master, for example the Text Style Editor?

Traditional interfaces, like Style Master's property editors, are some sometimes categorized as "deductive interfaces".

This means the user must deduce, or "work out" the purpose of the interface elements. Essentially a user must be a domain expert, or at the very least have some understanding of the the domain in which they are working. Most people, I guess, have some understanding of the idea of a printed page, or larger document. Word processors use that intrinsic understanding which users have to provide a metaphor based interface. But users still need to deduce how the metaphors, such as an edit menu, and the cut, copy and paste commands, map onto their mental image of what it is to create a document.

Now, imagine writing interfaces for processes where the user may not have an underlying mental image of what is going on. Where indeed there may not be an underlying idea, other than the process itself. Style sheets are one such area. For people new to Style sheets, I am certain (having been one a long time ago) that looking at even a very well designed tool is probably even more overwhelming than looking at a blank text editor window. This in fact might account for why lots of people like using a simple text editor for CSS editing.

Even people with a good understanding of CSS and HTML will often baulk at the complex set of different pieces of knowledge of both CSS and HTML needed to create an attractive navigation bar let alone say a fluid 3 column layout with header and footer.

So people often base their work on the designs of others who have gone before.

Think of Javascript. In order to really do more than copy and paste other people's code snippets, you need to have a solid understanding of the idea of programming, events, variables, datatypes, and a whole swag of concepts alien to most people. More complex CSS is a bit like this. Although CSS does have one distinct advantage. The underlying ideas can be grasped in the order of days and weeks, not months and years, as is probably the case for programming.

In both of the cases of those new to CSS, and where a well defined but quite complex outcome is desired, rather than deductive interfaces, for many users, an inductive interface is more appropriate.

Inductive interfaces (of which wizards and assistants are the most common example, though Microsoft Money is a fully fledged application designed along these lines) help the use answer two important questions at any given point in time [1]

  • What am I supposed to do now?
  • Where do I go from here to accomplish my next task?

Inductive interfaces break a complex process into a number of discrete steps.

Microsoft's guidelines, probably the most complete summary of these ideas readily available [1] articulates the approach as follows

  1. focus each screen on a single task
  2. state the task
  3. make the screen's contents suit the task
  4. offer links to secondary tasks

We've used this approach in creating our wizards.

Another important way of helping users achieve their goals is to reduce the number of choices they need to make. Hence 4 easy choices for border width, achieved by a single popup menu item choice, rather than the much broader choice or keywords, or length values provided by CSS, requiring two or even possibly three choices, and well as keyboard entry. Our reasoning is that as users become more comfortable with CSS, they can use the property editors to tweak their designs, making 2 inch borders should that really be their desired choice. Indeed, perhaps this will encourage developers to create a basic design and explore their designs

The wizards fall into two categories. There are a New Style Sheet Wizard, and a wizard based interface for creating new style sheets based on professionally designed templates, more suited to those new to CSS. Then there are a Layout wizard, bread crumb wizard, navigation bar wizard and link style wizard, more suited to designers and developers a little more familiar with CSS, who want to achieve these complex goals, without laborious hand coding of HTML and CSS.

We've thought long and hard about these wizards, and hope too to add to the list considerably over the coming versions of Style Master.

Suggestions for wizards more than welcome.

Looking forward to people's thoughts

John

[1] Microsoft Inductive User Interface Guidelines

February 10, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

February 02, 2004

The loneliness of the long distance developer

I've never read the book, nor seen the movie, but I find the title (the loneliness of the long distance runner) evocative.

Maxine, my partner at Westciv, asked me the other day whether I get lonely sitting in my office here all by myself writing software. I don't really, as there are plenty of emails, music to keep me going, a trip out to get coffee and so on. Plus I love what I do, and it keeps me more than occupied.

Outside office hours I do a lot as a lifesaver, physical training on the beach two or three mornings a week, training people of all ages to be lifesavers at the weekend, helping to run events like the Cole Classic, and patrolling the beach at North Bondi. Plenty of good people there. So no, loneliness for me is not a big downside of what I do.

I guess the real thing about what we at westciv do is, and more importantly how we do it, is how personally we take everything. You can't help it. It can be great, and it can be much less than great.

When sales are going well, when people write and say nice things about your software, courses, articles and so on, its great. But the downside is there too. There is nowhere to hide when two of you conceive, develop, polish, test and release software, training and so on. In a bigger company, it's probably a lot easier (and certainly a lot healthier) to distance yourself a little from your products.

So when people have negative things to say, it can be tough. And though we've had few bad reviews over the years I can guarantee you there is little more painful for software developers than a less than stellar review, regardless of its validity.

Now, its not that we don't like criticism (nor praise or sales either) but it can be tough when something you've worked on for several years is dismissed in a matter of minutes. Of course it shouldn't matter, but it does.

At times like those its nice to sit back, take a deep breath and think about how far we have come, how much we have achieved, and the many many positive things that people say to us.

And if there is a silver lining, its this. If it didn't hurt a bit, it would be a fair sign that we didn't care, and if you don't care, you don't write good software. No way.

February 2, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack