a Mac-only web publishing tool.
Who is it for?
RapidWeaver targets people with little to no web design experience seeking a simple way to produce a professional-looking, standards-compliant, and highly customizable mixed-content website. By ‘mixed-content,’ I mean that it handles both static and dynamic content. But it’s not just for those new to web publishing. It’s used by experienced developers, too, because it’s a handy way to quickly build and deploy a site with minimal fuss, and it’s fairly easy to create custom templates.
What is it?
It’s a stand-alone web design and Content Management System (CMS) that runs locally from your computer. As a content management tool, the built-in capabilities of this app are easy to use — and the user interface is much friendlier than most other web-based content management systems. It’s also easier to set up since you don’t have to worry about potentially complicated installation procedures. For instance, you don’t have to set up a database on your server to get your blog up and running. The down side to this is that you can’t manage your content remotely from a web browser (with a few caveats, which I’ll go into later). For the most part, you need to be sitting at your Mac when you want to work on your site.
Like iWeb and WordPress (and other CMS solutions), RW is built around the assumption that it’s desirable to start out with well-built, professionally-designed, battle-tested templates. This is desirable because (a) most people don’t have the time, inclination or ability to produce a site design and (b) templates help ensure that sites meet web standards.
What I’ve just labeled a ‘template’ in the previous paragraph, RapidWeaver calls a ‘theme.’ What’s the difference? Themes are flexible templates. For most blogging tools or content management platforms, a user will find a theme he or she likes, apply it to their site and that’s pretty much it. The average user may change some basic colors and fonts for a given template, but they typically don’t have the ability or the inclination to readily modify much else. A RapidWeaver theme, on the other hand, empowers the user to really dig in and modify the template to make it his or her own.
For the novice, themes may be the killer feature of this program. With themes, some of the style variables that may be modified with ease include site colors, font families, page width (to include flexible and fixed width options within one theme), header image, and sidebar position. Most themes also offer several pre-defined styles from which you can choose as well, which is nice for those who have trouble picking complimentary colors or matching thematic elements.
The customization parameters of a theme are really only limited by how many options the theme developer builds into it. RapidWeaver comes with a slew of nice themes. If you don’t find what you like within these options, there are many top-notch third-party themes available (most will cost you around ten dollars or so, but many are free).
While most people will use a pre-designed theme, the RealMac developers provide a great tutorial and a software development kit for those who wish to create their own (for their own use, to give away, or to sell). Note for those of you who are interested in creating a theme: RapidWeaver works this magic by saving theme variables within an Apple property list (plist) file. It’s a standard XML file, which makes it a breeze to add to and modify theme properties.
Conceptually speaking, RapidWeaver places the design and management of your site in the background so you can concentrate on content, content, content. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t offer robust design/management tools. On the contrary, the app provides very effective management and customization tools, support for search engine optimization and advanced-user options (such as adding your own java, PHP, special assets, or custom CSS on a per-page or site-wide basis). Most of the configuration and customization options are deployed through a plethora of tabbed pop-up windows (commonly referred to as ‘inspectors’ in Mac parlance). You open them up when you need them; otherwise, you close them up and they stay out of your way.
All things considered, the developers have created a clean interface to manage just about all aspects of a site — which will especially appeal to those new to web development. The idea is that you won’t ever need to get at the code behind the scenes (if you don’t want to, that is). RW is so confident that most users will never have to mess with underlying code that the developers don’t even present an option to view the code through the application’s user interface ( actually, they used to have an option to view the code in earlier versions of the program, but no longer do. This was a good choice because the displayed code in the earlier versions was not directly editable. That was just annoying). Not to worry though — you can get to the code if you need to. UPDATE: I’ve learned from the RW forums that you can still toggle the code view by invoking the shortcut ⌘-Alt-U.
If you’re used to directly editing style sheets and web code, you may find the ‘RapidWeaver method’ a little awkward and limiting; the developers took many of the common things you would normally do ‘under the hood’ and gave them their own front-end user interface. If you’ve never hand-coded anything, no need to worry: RW’s built-in tools allow even the most novice user to jump right in and start modifying site colors, fonts, sidebar position, site metadata, etc. without ever needing to access the code. There are also some third-party tools you can buy to help you access images for easy modification (see RWmultitool). Alternatively, you can modify a theme by locating it’s associated package at /Your User Account/Library/Application Support/RapidWeaver/ and opening up the associated HTML and CSS files in the editor of your choice
The RW workflow is simple: you choose a template, you add pages, you publish it to your web host. All you need to get started is a copy of RW, a remote web host and an FTP or .Mac account. What makes it special is how easy it is to do this, the good looks of the resulting site and the versatility of the ‘theme’ framework. RW also stands out in terms of how quickly you can deploy a site. How fast is it? It depends on how much customization you want to do. I was able to launch a site with a blog, multiple static pages and a photo album page in about 30 minutes. That’s not too bad. I set up a fairly complex website for my wife that features a blog, dozens of static pages, customized graphics, and a highly modified template in about 6 hours of non-contiguous work. That’s pretty good, too.
The core of this editing area (the main place where you add your content) is the RW page. You can add a variety of pages, ranging from a fully-featured blog to straight HTML code. Each page type you choose defines how you add content to that element. If you choose to create a blog page, for instance, the content area is specialized with fields unique to things you need to add for blog entries. Makes sense. If you choose a photo album page, you get a totally different content area, specialized for iPhoto integration and drag-and-drop simplicity. The designers have obviously put a lot of thought into creating simple interfaces for a wide variety of page types. Chances are that you will not need to refer to the manual very often, except when it comes to understanding all of the options in the RW Inspector panes. That is, each page type is associated with a specific inspector pane, and each inspector pane is chock full of customization options.
While this equates to a platform that allows users to quickly and easily deploy a site, there is a downside. Since RW makes it so easy to publish a site, many users won’t bother to (or won’t know that they should) fill in site metadata and other details. I have a suggestion for the RealMac developers: it it would be a good idea to provide some tooltips or otherwise-integrated instructions to better explain the myriad customization options available for each page type, the page inspector, and the site inspector.
For example, it’s very quick and easy to create a page. However, it may not be readily apparent to users with no web design experience that you also need to name the folder and file for that page. It would be helpful if the developers built in some sort of warning message when users hit the ‘Publish’ button as a heads up that some of the parameters have not yet been defined.
In the example above, for instance, a helpful message might say ‘Wait! Before you publish your site, you should name your folders and files for the pages you’ve created. This is an important step that will make your site easier to index by search engines. It’s also necessary for blog entries so your permalinks are meaningful.’ Or something like that…
There are many other examples of instances where tips and other helpful messages would be helpful to ensure the site is properly set up. Imagine you’ve never published a website before. You may wonder: What’s a meta tag? Why should I worry about this meta stuff? What’s ‘page expiration?’ What’s the difference between optimized, tidied, and default code? And so on. I think the program would really benefit from some additional cues to help users along. This, of course, assumes that most people won’t read the manual or dig into the forums. I think that’s a safe assumption, especially for an app that draws so many people with little knowledge of these things precisely because it’s supposed to be so simple to use.
Remote management (for Bloggers only)
I mentioned that there were a couple of caveats to the statement that “you can’t manage your site remotely.” There are two exceptions that I know of. The first is with the built-in RW blog: while you can’t manage your blog posts remotely, you can manage your comments remotely. That’s because RealMac partners with HaloScan, a third-party commenting system, to deliver blog comments.
If you want comments on your blog posts, you need to sign up for this service. And if you sign up for this service, you can manage your comments via HaloScan’s web-based interface. You don’t need to be at home to do that.
The other exception? You can buy a third-party blog plugin called RapidBlog from Loghound.com. RapidBlog is basically a front-end for Google’s Blogger that seamlessly integrates into RapidWeaver. Using it requires you to sign up for a Blogger account. The only weird thing about it is that your posts will appear both on your website and on your newly-created Blogger site (you can choose to hide your Blogger posts, or you can just leave them there — who knows, it may generate more readership for your primary site). If you use RapidBlog, you can remotely edit your posts or email a post from a remote location.
The Small Print
RapidWeaver has been around since 2004 (the same year that WordPress hit the streets, incidentally). It’s now at version 3.6.5. Note that this app is not free or open-source (like WordPress). RW costs $49 per license. That’s pretty cheap, but if you want to really take it to another level, you’re going to want some third-party add-ons. And when you decide to buy some, you’ll soon discover that it’s not as cheap as it first appears.
In my opinion, you need to buy some third-party plugins to really get the most out of this application. And one thing I really ike about RW is how well it integrates with third-party plugins, add-ons and themes. I mentioned earlier that the RealMac team offers a SDK for themes. Well, they also offer a SDK for anyone who wishes to try their hand at creating a plugin as well. What fun. True, there are many, many great third-party themes out there. But there are also some killer plugins.
Two complaints I’ve heard from RW users is that (a) some plugins should be part of the application from the start and (b) the cost of the plugins quickly exceeds the costs of a RW license. My view? There are some plugins that are so essential, I wouldn’t consider RW complete without them. They are just too handy to pass up. I could complain that RealMac should include some of these plugins as core parts of the application, but I honestly don’t mind paying for some third-party extended options (note that most of these plugins are different page types, each with their own Inspector pane full of options and choices). The app is still quite cost-effective, and it’s definitely generating some very great third-party software development.
I think RapidWeaver is a tool with a great future. It offers slick themes, powerful customization options, ease of use, a dedicated user base (check out the RW User Forum when you get stuck), and top-notch third party add-ons. It’s cheap. It’s easy for novices to use. It’s fun for more experienced people to use.
What’s not to like? Well, as I mentioned, a case can be made that RW is feature-weak and not powerful enough, evidenced by all of the third-party plugins. Do you really need these plugins? No, but they will make life easier for you and they are pretty cool. I wouldn’t be surprised if the RealMac team bought out a few of the add-ons in the future. Yourhead Blocks, for instance, adds WYSIWYG freeform layout functionality to RapidWeaver. I know that my wife, for one, could not live without it for her site. She’s so used to using Blocks, in fact, that she forgot that it’s not actually a part of RW.
Speaking of my wife, I quizzed her on her RW experience as she’s the primary user of the app in our household. She reports that the program is, on the whole, a great tool. However, she has faced some problems with the app crashing while she’s trying to publish changes to her site. She’s taken to closing down all other running programs on the Mac when she’s uploading content, which she says helps. She also notes that publishing times can be quite slow, and the site itself is pretty slow on the initial load. These issues have gotten worse as her site has grown. It raises the question of scalability. How big can a RW file get before it becomes unreliable? I trust the developers will keep refining the loading/publishing issues as development moves forth.
I’ve personally noticed that RW can be limiting when it comes to adding or creating complex mixed content on a page. In addition, some things are tricky to do if you want to push the boundaries of a theme or mix up how your content is presented. I can best explain what I’m talking about here by way of example. Say you want to add a third column to only one page of a site. This isn’t so easy. One solution that many people use is to add a ‘faux’ column on a Blocks page. That works, but it would be nice to have some themes with one, two, or no column options per page. I’m not aware of any limitations that would prevent this.
I’ll close by noting that it’s a tool that certainly rewards the patient user — I mentioned that RW has a good user forum, and this is where you should head first to answer any questions you have, or to see if anyone has already posted a fix for a vexing problem you may be having. It’s a vibrant, friendly community and if you have an issue, chances are it’s already being discussed.
For the next installment in this series, I’ll present an overview of WordPress. Then, in the final post, I’ll compare the two based on some criteria of my invention. Cheers.
Postscript: A forgot to mention Snippets! This is one of the coolest parts of RapidWeaver. This is a simple but powerful feature: open up your Snippets inspector pane to reveal stored bits of code. Drag and drop these ‘snippets’ directly onto your page. RapidWeaver includes many handy snippetized code bits, you can easily create your own, or you can download third party snippets from the RW site. If you find yourself typing bits of code over and over, this can be a huge time saver. Added to that, many people are integrating snippets functionality to create unique add-ons. For example, I just used Snippets yesterday to place social bookmarks on my wife’s blog. I works great. By the way, if you use the social bookmark snippet referenced here, be sure to check out this thread on the RW forums. Happy weaving.