April 11th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

Having heard so much about Squarespace from watching Tekzilla & Diggnation, and from seeing it briefly at the Web 2.0 Expo. I thought I’d take advantage of their trial setup to see how it all works.

In case you haven’t heard of Squarespace yet,  basically it’s a combination of a hosting service and website building software.  But instead of a downloadable website editing application such as Dreamweaver or Expression Web, you create a Squarespace-based website directly through their site. Once you’ve signed up, you’re presented with a web-based application for creating and maintaining your website design.  They have a variety of starter templates for you to start from, but you can later customize most aspects of the design.

The target user for Squarespace seems to be someone who might be thinking about doing a WordPress site.  The kind where WordPress hosts it for you, that is, rather than the kind where you download their software and install it on your own web hosting package.  The main difference for these users will be the fact that Squarespace offers a real GUI for creating and editing your layout.  For a regular, non-gearhead user, this is quite a bit more friendly and accessible than the WordPress method of manually editing the PHP code and CSS stylesheets for your selected theme.

WordPress offers a lot of options for customizing a site in ways other than the basic page layout.  Using plug-ins, you can give a WordPress site a wide variety of additional functions that the original authors never envisioned.  Squarespace, not so much.  Their customization is pretty much limited to changing font sizes, colors, and so forth.  On the one hand, their GUI makes it fairly easy to come up with a unique layout.  On the other hand, even if you don’t want to customize a WordPress theme yourself, there are THOUSANDS of WordPress themes out in the wild web for you to choose from.  Many users never customize their sites beyond selecting a theme and maybe uploading a new graphic banner or two.

One thing about Squarespace that I definitely do not care for is something that I see on other websites all the time.  They give you a little tiny piddly-ass space to edit your text, instead of a decent sized window, and then they give you no option to make it any bigger.  This isn’t simply a matter of personal reference for large editing windows… it can be very difficult to manipulate things in a small window when you’re doing something like inserting a graphic and trying to position it relative to a particular piece of text.  The Squarespace text editor is not going to accommodate any but fairly small graphics.

Perhaps the editor size is something one can change, but if so I’ve not yet figured out how to do it.

This is, thankfully, not an issue with the editor in WordPress.  You can easily adjust the height of the WordPress editor simply by dragging around the bottom right corner of the window, and the width adjusts automatically when you change the size of the browser window.

Editing the layout of your Squarespace site is something that ranges from very easy to somewhat frustrating.  Most individual aspects of the layout are fairly easy to change… you want a different font, different colors, or a different banner graphic?  All easily changed.  But the higher up you go in the page structure, the more difficult things get to change.  You want to adjust the width of the content area?  Uh… not quite so easy.  I could change the width of  the separate sections within, but never did get the width of the whole content area to change.  Either the option is not there at all, or else it’s hard enough to find that other people will also have trouble finding it.

Squarespace seemed to be not quite finished to me… there were a number of  places where I’d click on something expecting a result, but nothing happened.   I also note that there is an absense of things like popup info, or “tool tips” when you hover the mouse over something.  Other times, I’d make a change to the template and nothing would happen… I’d click to make the same change again and the original setting would still be there.  It turns out that your changes didn’t changed unless you clicked somewhere that was outside of the edit field, but not on a button that would change the page.  Bad Javascript Mojo there, mon!

One could argue that no application is ever really quite “finished”, but the fact that Squarespace is 100% web-based means they can roll out updates several times a day if needed.  They’ll never have to worry about what version the user has installed, because they will always be using the most recent version.  This is perhaps the most significant advantage of “cloud” applications.

Ultimately, Squarespace is not something I expect to continue using once my free trial expires.  That’s not a reflection on the company or their product, however.  More than anything else, it really just points out that I’m not really the sort of user they’re targetting.  Squarespace’s target audience isn’t the web designer like myself who is currently using Dreamweaver and Flash.  They’re looking for regular users who just want to get something going easily and quickly.  Their software is designed to provide a complete solution to people who don’t have the desire, knowledge, and/or time to become a “real” web designer.  If that describes you, then perhaps you need to have a look at Squarespace.

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April 9th, 2009 by Mike Fulton

The Web 2.0 Expo trade show happened last week at San Francisco’s Moscone Center.  I had not originally planned to attend, but while watching Tekzilla on Wednesday night, they said that the next episode would be taped live during the expo the following day.  That sounded like fun, so I went to the expo’s website and discovered one could still sign up for a free exhibits-only pass.  So I did.

Tekzilla is a videocast hosted by Patrick Norton and Veronica Belmont, with occasional guest appearances by other people from Revision3.  If you haven’t ever watched it, you really should go to their website and watch an episode or two.  You can also pick it up in the “Podcasts” section of iTunes.  There are actually two versions of the show.  The first is a weekly show, about 40-ish minutes per episode, with tech news & tips, product reviews & comparisons, and so forth.  They also do a “Daily Tip Show” that’s just a minute or three and which features a single quick tip.

Thursday afternoon I arrived at the show about 90 minutes before the Tekzilla event.  I figured I’d walk the exhibit hall for awhile first.  I wasn’t quite sure to expect as far as exhibitors were concerned.  The exhibit hall is one of the main reasons I attend trade shows like this, and that uncertainty is why I hadn’t planned originally on attending this show.  I do enjoy some of the conferences when I go to them, but access to most of the conferences requires a different, and usually much more expensive, registration.  So I don’t usually plan to go to a show unless there are particular exhibitors that I expect to see.

At a show like MacWorld, the exhibitors are mostly showing off physical products that work in conjuntion with one of Apple’s products.  But “Web 2.0” is really more of a broad concept than a particular product, so I was interested to see what sort of exhibits would be on hand.  As I walked the show floor, I discovered that the exhibits fell into three broad categories:

  1. Companies with some sort of physical product to sell.
  2. Companies whose product is basically whatever website they do.
  3. Companies offering a service, such as web hosting, marketing, etc.

Certainly there is some overlap with some exhibitors, but generally most fell into one of those three categories.

The companies with physical product included O’Reilly Books, a regular tech expo exhibitor who had several new titles on display at a show special price of 30% off.   I picked up a new title covering the Twitter API that I’m especially looking forward to reading.  I also grabbed a book titled “Everything You Know About CSS is Wrong!” that talks about the emerging CSS 3.0 specification.  It’s small, but packed with good information about the new features in the new spec.

Another physical product, hereafter known as a “physprod” (Can I do that?  Coin a new word right in the middle of a blog like that?  I think I can, so spread it around!) was Adobe’s Flash.  Strangely, Adobe didn’t seem to be showing Dreamweaver, Photoshop or other apps.  Given how these are the basic tools many webmasters rely on, it seems an odd omission.  On the other hand, it may also be a sign at how some companies are scaling back what they’re willing to do for trade shows like this.

Microsoft was showing off several interesting things.  They had Windows 7 on display, and you could pick up a beta DVD to take home with you.  They were also showing off the developer functions of the new Internet Explorer 8.  In many ways, IE has always lagged behind other browsers like Firefox when it came to helping developers figure out what was what when problems arise.  That all ends with IE 8, which has a variety of new functions that will help web developers solve problems quickly and easily.

Microsoft also showed Silverlight and Expression Blend 2.  I’d previously not paid a lot of attention to Silverlight.  My initial impression, as with many other people, was that Silverlight was nothing more than Microsoft’s attempt to do something like Flash.  In large part that may be true, but the way they’ve integrated later versions with the .NET platform has some interesting implications.  I plan to read more about Silverlight in the near future.

Companies whose product is basically their website included Facebook and Meetup.com.  There are a few other companies where the website is the mechanism for delivering their product… If the previous category was about physprods, then I guess one would say these companies are pushing virtprods (virtual products… there I go again coining new words).  Many of these companies have websites that are basically online tools for creating other websites.  Squarespace is the main example that comes to mind here.

Squarespace looks like an interesting setup.  At the risk of oversimplifying it, Squarespace looks similar in broad concept to WordPress, except with a web-based GUI for creating page designs, themes, and content.  I’ve only played around with it for a few minutes, so I’m not going to say much more at this point except that if you’re looking to create a website you might want to check it out.  I’ll be writing more about it in a future column.

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