The Adventures of Systems Boy!

Confessions of a Mac SysAdmin...

What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love and WYSIWYG HTML Editing?

I'm not sure why, but the concept of the WYSIWYG HTML editor has really taken a beating. The most recent comment I've heard comes from Shawn Blanc's review of MarsEdit, an offline blog editing product. Shawn says that:

"In all my experience with WYSIWYG editors I have found them a clumsy enemy of fine web typography."

This, apparently, is the major rationale for what seems to be the prevailing notion in the web development community that WYSIWYG HTML editors are an inherently bad idea. The logic seems to go something like: every time I edit my web page in a WYSIWYG editor, the experience is a bad one, therefore the concept of WYSIWYG HTML editors is flawed from the get-go; real designers only ever edit raw HTML. (Though I might point out that I have yet to see or read of a single example of a WYSIWYG editor creating terrible HTML code in a very long time, at least when it comes to fairly simple HTML pages, which most blog pages are. But I'm getting ahead of myself.)

Comments like the following also make it sound like if I'm not editing raw text, I'm just a big pansy-ass wuss:

"I suspect most of you are at least a bit HTML savvy and prefer the use of monospace type and a HTML editor anyway. But for those who are getting weak in the knees at the thought of having to type your own HTML relax."

Now, I'm not a web developer by any stretch of the imagination, but my experience with WYSIWYG editors — even web-based ones — has been largely positive. And, though I'm fairly comfortable looking at HTML code (and actually enjoy looking at other types of code), I never, ever want to edit it if I can at all avoid it. It's a completely unnecessary distraction from what I'm here to do: write. I'd much rather work on something that more closely resembles the finished product and not have it cluttered up with code. It's not that I'm scared of the code, it's that I'm annoyed by it.

For my personal web pages I have always used Dreamweaver. And while the user experience offered by that app is not always the most intuitive or Mac-like, it's always far preferable to me than using a text editor. For my blog pages — which are all formatted exactly the same way as per the Blogger style sheets I've set up — I use the Blogger-supplied online WYSIWYG editor. As much as I like the idea of working on my blog offline, I do not use MarsEdit or any other such client. And the reason is because of their lack of WYSIWYG.

Blogger's HTML Editor: All I Really Need
(click image for larger view)

John Gruber also supports the use of MarsEdit and its ilk:

"My best argument for using MarsEdit (or any desktop weblog editor) instead of a web-based interface is that it’s like using a desktop email client instead of webmail."

That's a great argument, except that it's a bit flawed: A desktop email client adds features and ease-of-use to the email experience. MarsEdit, on the other hand, removes a major feature that, for me anyway, greatly hinders ease-of use. It's far less aggravating to me to use a web-based WYSIWYG editor than it is to use a desktop-based code editor. To follow Gruber's analogy, using MarsEdit is like using a desktop mail client that only shows you the code in which your email is written. MarsEdit hinders ease-of-use by making me look at code when I really don't need to. All I need are some very simple markup commands and basic text editing. I really can't see any reason not to use WYSIWYG, particularly when it comes to editing blogs.

But this is not to completely disparage MarsEdit. That's not my intention at all. It sounds like a great product, really, and MarsEdit's author, Daniel Jalkut even acknowledges the need for WYSIWYG in his product and is planning it for a future release. Awesome. I may even buy and use MarsEdit when that day comes.

My point is that the WYSIWYG HTML editor is a great idea that someone needs to get on and do right. I believe its time has come. Over the past few years I've watched a series of HTML editors hit the market. The latest are either completely template-based — like Apple's iWeb, which lacks any ability to examine the code when it's necessary to do so, which is a big problem — or completely code-based — like, well, all the others. In between is a gaping chasm. The giant WYSIWYG hole. CSS editors, too, seem to be plagued by this lack of WYSIWYG. So I always find myself using Dreamweaver in the end, for lack of a better replacement. I suspect I'm not alone.

Again, I can't help wondering if there's a faulty rationale at work here. Do software authors think that, because their WYSIWYG editor experiences have been bad ones, the basic idea is also bad? Or entirely too difficult to build? Or unprofitable? Because I think that, in the same way that beautiful, affordable image editors are springing up to challenge Adobe's dominance with Photoshop, WYSIWYG HTML editors could have great appeal. I've been marginally on the lookout for one for years, and I write web pages only occasionally. And the best I've found, frankly, is Dreamweaver, which is good but not great, and very expensive.

Or is it possible that it's just machismo? (God, I hope not. Is there anything worse than macho geeks?) It is possible that developers think that WYSIWYG just isn't cool? That real web developers would scoff at such a product? Seriously, why is it that Coda, an absolutely beautiful app that does, like, everything under the sun, lacks the basic WYSIWYG found in all web-based editors? (Yes, I would totally buy Coda if it had WYSIWYG. Without a doubt.)

Guys, all I can say is, you're missing a big opportunity here.

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7:15 PM

Good point- I really wish I had a good WYSIWYG HTML editor, just to do my WordPress work. The built-in WYSIWYG editor is too buggy and limited.

Have you tried Nvu, which I guess is now KompoZer? It's free. After reading this post, I grabbed it, but haven't used it yet.    

7:43 PM

No, I haven't really tried it. Like I said, I just use Dreamweaver. KompoZer looks like a fine general HTML editor, but even less polished and Mac-like than Dreamweaver. Still, for free you can't beat it. And there's certainly nothing wrong with either of these tools.

But what I really crave is something, you know, great.


7:37 AM

Speaking of WYSIWYG editors and bad HTML, when is Blogger going to discover the P tag.    

1:09 PM

Not sure what the "P tag" is, but it sounds kinda gross.


8:16 AM

This post seems like a weird mash of pro-WYSIWYG and blogger-WYSIWYG on the one hand, and pro-web designers, and bloggers on the other.

I contend a clearer image works like this:
web designer WYSIWYG is evil.
blogger WYSIWYG is joyous!
Code for bloggers is evil.
Code for web designers is joyous!

As a web designer, I only want to work with code. I tried Dreamweaver years ago and found I spent twice as long doing everything, as I had to go back and fix all the messed up code DW was creating. And then it would muck it up again after I fixed it. OK. Everything took 4 times longer.

Then CSS arrived and to be honest, I thought DW died as it couldn't deal with the new design system.

However, I blog. I love blogs as a technology. Even web designers love simply being able to publish content without having to deal with code. I think the WYSIWYG editor in MovableType and Wordpress is great. Without it, people find it hard to do simple things like add a picture or a link.

Another example: OS X Server's Wiki software has what looks like a wonderful WYSIWYG editor which means that Wikis can finally become hugely popular. The issue of regular people learning how to edit Wikis is no longer an issue. I expect Wikis will now explode as a result, and be at least as popular as blogs.    

1:26 PM

Fair enough (and I agree that the article is a little bit of a mish-mash).

But I still think there's a market for an affordable, beautiful and functional desktop WYSIWYG HTML/CSS editor. You're saying what everyone else is saying: "My experience with WYSIWYG HTML/CSS editors was bad, so such a thing must be inherently bad." What I'm saying is that someone should take that concept and make it GOOD. And if they did they could make a lot of money.

The only reason there is no good WYSIWYG HTML/CSS editor is because no one has bothered to make one. I for one wish someone would.


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