Adobe has taken the unusual step of revealing the first details of the next version of Dreamweaver less than six months after the release of current version (Dreamweaver CS3). Now, before you get too excited, the Adobe announcement says nothing about new features. Instead, it tells you what’s being taken out.
Among items destined for the chop are the much-maligned Layout Mode and Timelines. These are both sensible decisions. Layout Mode was a well intentioned attempt to make it easy for graphic designers to lay out web pages in the same way as desktop publishing. The problem is that it creates horrendous spaghetti code behind the scenes, and frequently results in cries for help in online forums. If you get your design right the first time, the code is normally stable; but as soon as you start to change things round—and who’s ever come across a graphic designer satisfied with a first attempt at layout?—the page often falls apart like a house of cards. Timelines equally rely on outdated code, and animations are much better left to Flash, so it’s good to see them finally on the way out.
More controversially, support for ASP.NET is being dropped. Dreamweaver 8 came in for a lot of criticism from ASP.NET developers because it offered no support for ASP.NET 2.0. The vocal critics conveniently ignored the fact that Dreamweaver 8 was released several months before ASP.NET 2.0, so it was impossible for Macromedia (as it then was) to support a Microsoft technology that was still in the beta process. The disappointment was more understandable when Dreamweaver CS3 came out more than a year and a half later, and still had no support for ASP.NET 2.0. However, CS3 offered no new features for any server-side language, so users of PHP and classic ASP were just as disappointed that there were no new toys to play with in their favourite language.
Instead of leaving support for ASP.NET stuck in the past with ASP.NET 1.1, Adobe has taken the bold decision to remove ASP.NET completely from Dreamweaver. It will certainly annoy a lot of ASP.NET fans, but the message seems to be that Adobe would prefer to offer no support at all for a particular technology, rather than second-rate support. At the same time, the next version of Dreamweaver will no longer support JSP. This is likely to affect fewer users, but it sends a similar message—no support, rather than a half-hearted effort.
So does this mean that we’re going to see lots of PHP, ColdFusion and classic ASP goodies in Dreamweaver CS4? Adobe is keeping tight lipped about the new features it plans to put into the next version. Although I would love to see enhanced PHP server behaviors, the existence of Adobe Dreamweaver Developer Toolbox (an updated version of the old InterAKT Kollection) suggests an alternative scenario—basic server-side functionality in Dreamweaver, enhanced features in a separate product. However, I don’t see ADDT really taking off until Adobe changes the way it dumps more than 150 files in 30-odd folders into your site root, even if you need only one or two of those files to accomplish what you want. ADDT’s problem is that it’s a complete framework. It’s very good at doing things in its own particular way, but adapting the scripts to your own needs requires advanced knowledge of the inner workings of the framework. A lighter, more flexible approach is needed.
Two pretty sure-fire bets as to what will be in Dreamweaver CS4 are changes to the user interface and an updated version of Spry, Adobe’s implementation of Ajax. A lot of people criticized Dreamweaver CS3 for not using the OWL interface that Flash and the original Adobe programs, such as Photoshop, now use. (OWL, by the way, stands for Operating system Widget Library). There’s no doubt that OWL has a cleaner, less cluttered look, but I’ve been using it intensively with InDesign over the past week or so, and find a lot of little annoyances. For instance, if you collapse the panels to icons, only one panel can be open at a time. Also, the close buttons at the top right of each panel tab are too easy to hit by mistake. Worst of all, using the panels as fly-outs gets in the way of the main document window. Of course, you can use the panels in a fixed column, but the I find the labels often difficult to read. OWL is definitely an improvement over the old Adobe palettes, but I hope that further improvements will be made before it’s applied to Dreamweaver.
My views on Spry are still mixed. The version that shipped with Dreamweaver CS3 definitely had the feel of a beta—OK as far as it went, but still very much a work in progress.
Now that we know what won’t be in Dreamweaver CS4, it would be nice to know what new goodies we can look forward to. My own shopping list includes improved support for PHP and other server-side languages, and making it easier to create standards compliant (X)HTML and CSS. The Property inspector still supports a lot of deprecated or rarely used attributes. Providing consistent support for ID and title attributes would be a great start. Even better would be a Property inspector that hides all deprecated features if you choose a Strict DTD.