Dreamweaver CS5: back from the dead?

Tom Arah
12 May 2010

A year or so ago I created a mini-storm of controversy with my “I’m sorry but Dreamweaver is dying” blog in which I suggested that Dreamweaver’s dominance is fading and that web designers starting out today would do better getting to grips with a content management systems (CMS).

The post obviously hit home, as I realised when the Adobe evangelist demonstrating Dreamweaver CS5 at the press launch began his talk by referring to it and, when he discovered that I was in the audience, suggested that I might want to “eat crow”.

Well I’m delighted to say that he was right... largely.

Before I explain why Dreamweaver CS5 is such an eye-opener, let me explain where I’m coming from. Basically, like the majority of web designers, I grew up with Dreamweaver learning the HTML and later CSS necessary to create the linked web pages that make up the traditional website.

However I now believe that this manual “static” page-based model has pretty much reached the end of its road. Firstly it just isn’t powerful enough as these days site visitors expect features such as in-built commenting, RSS feeds and so on. Most importantly, the system just isn’t scalable. Funnelling the creation of every page through the web designer is disastrously inefficient and ultimately bound to throttle off the lifeblood of any site: new and up-to-date content.

In other words, the static web page authoring with which Dreamweaver made its name and which built the web as we know it, is in terminal decline. The solution is to turn to a dedicated content management system such as the big three open source options: WordPress, Joomla and, my personal favourite, Drupal.

Using a CMS the web master doesn’t create each website page, but rather builds the framework to enable end users (whether workgroup members or site visitors) to create the content. In addition a CMS comes with features such as commenting and feeds built-in, while access to thousands of add-on modules provides the ability to produce sites that the static designer can only dream of.

Best of all, thanks to the open-source principle of community sharing, this power is made available to non-coding designers for free. Indeed, once the CMS has been installed, all the site designer and content contributors need is a browser (helped greatly by invaluable browser add-ins such as Firebug and FireFTP).

So how does Dreamweaver fit in to this new browser-based model of community-based development and community-based authoring?

Good question. Once you’ve been won over to the power and elegance of CMS-based development, Dreamweaver suddenly looks inherently old-fashioned and out-of-step – a standalone, offline, desktop application fundamentally at odds with the community-based, online, browser-based web. Remember that Tim Berners-Lee always envisaged the browser as the authoring application. CMS can be seen as a natural return to the web’s roots and Dreamweaver and static authoring in general as a temporary aberration.

That’s why, when Devin Fernandez, senior product manager for the web products at Adobe responded to my post promising that Dreamweaver CS5 would adapt, I remained unconvinced. Essentially I couldn't see how that would be possible. As I said at the time: “The future for creating web design is in the browser not in Dreamweaver.”

A new hope

So what is so exciting about the new Dreamweaver? As you’ll see from my full Dreamweaver CS5 review there’s plenty of interest but, most important in this context, Dreamweaver CS5 embraces the concept of a CMS with a vengeance. This is immediately apparent in the far deeper support for PHP, the scripting language with which the main CMS are built. Deeper still is Dreamweaver CS5's new support for site-specific code hints, in particular for the big three open-source CMS: WordPress, Joomla and Drupal.

To take full control of your CMS site developing, PHP skills are a real advantage, but CMS-based community sharing is designed to cut down on the need for programming and to enable the creation of fully customised sites without it. So what does Dreamweaver CS5 offer the non-coding CMS designer, as opposed to developer?

It’s here that Dreamweaver CS5 really surprised me. Previously Dreamweaver’s Live View mode was designed to let you view a single local static page as rendered in the built-in WebKit browser. That was pretty much hopeless for managing a CMS because the pages on a CMS site don’t actually exist (apart from via caching) until all the contributing logic and CSS files are processed on the server and the final page generated and returned to the browser. Now in Dreamweaver CS5 you can load a local CMS or even enter a live URL and then, thanks to new Live Navigation, drill through the site to any CMS page.

Crucially you aren’t limited to simply viewing the rendered page. Using the Related Files toolbar and Dreamweaver CS5’s new Dynamically Related Files capability you can view and edit (if it’s your site) all of the files – HTML, PHP, JavaScript and CSS – that together define the page. Using the new Inspect mode you can also quickly inspect the cascade of CSS rules that are determining current formatting and then quickly edit them Firebug-style.

Essentially Adobe has recognised that the only way to manage CMS-based site development is within the browser, so has enabled Dreamweaver CS5 to act as one. More than this, it offers all of Dreamweaver’s longstanding offline power and more within the new live environment to provide a browser turbo-charged for both CMS-based developer and designer.

It’s exciting stuff on two main fronts: Firstly Dreamweaver CS5 promises to play a major part in enhancing the quality of the user-contributed modules and themes that define the core CMS, something that will benefit all users (and in the process render Dreamweaver unnecessary for many). Secondly it provides a natural and powerful route for those professional users who stick with Dreamweaver to learn how to customise and move beyond off-the-shelf modules and themes, the main limitation of the CMS approach. Eventually these users will become experts themselves and can contribute back to the CMS community.

I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong to believe that Dreamweaver couldn’t adapt to the browser-based future of CMS-based web design. However, I still believe I was right on the major thrust of my argument, namely that static page-based publishing is dying and that the future for web design lies with the major content management systems. Based on Dreamweaver CS5, it looks like Adobe agrees.

Dreamweaver CS5 has embraced CMS; now it’s time for the average web designer to do the same.

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