The open-source web
If asked what area of computing has been more affected by open source than any other, the answer has to be the Internet and especially the World Wide Web, which were not only created as open source but have helped foster the whole movement. This month, we’re going to be looking at open-source web-development software and utilities, some of which you’ll have heard and some maybe not.
Everyone’s window onto the Web is their browser, and everyone knows that there’s an open-source option there – namely, Firefox – which is extremely well written and on many platforms has become pretty much the browser of choice; even under Windows it has definite advantages over Internet Explorer. However, Firefox was a long time arriving, and then almost by accident. The Mozilla project started life when Netscape released a version of its own browser’s source code into the web community, and for years the project put all its effort into Mozilla itself, which was much more than a web browser: like Netscape’s Communicator, it could also read emails and author web pages. Communicator and the original Mozilla were to web browsing what Microsoft Works is to word processing – jacks-of-all-trades with too many features that too many people didn’t like (the Side Bar was a much-turned-off feature). All Firefox did was extract a plain-vanilla web browser from the massive Mozilla code base and then add just those features people wanted – such as tabbed browsing and pop-up blocking – to produce a fast, reliable product. The other parts of Mozilla are also now being spun out as separate projects, like the email reader Thunderbird.
There are other open-source web browsers, the best known of which is Konqueror, developed as part of the KDE desktop for Unix. Konqueror has been adopted by a number of commercial projects, most famously for the Safari web browser in Mac OS X, which employs its rendering engine. Konqueror works well under Unix and, with a bit of effort, even under Windows.
Everyone knows that the most popular web server in the world by most metrics is the open-source Apache. And if you want to write server-side applications, there are various open-source languages available, PHP being probably the best known and most widely used option. But what about creating web pages in the first place? We know all about the best commercial products, but what’s the open-source alternative to Dreamweaver and Photoshop? What we’re talking about here isn’t so much web development as HTML development.
There’s any number of open-source text editors you can use to create HTML, all of which support various forms of text colouring and syntax checking, but what we want is an alternative wysiwyg web authoring package. There’s one, and it’s called Nvu (www. nvu.com). Nvu is a fairly recent product that’s designed to take on Dreamweaver. Like all good open-source packages, you can download it from the website and it runs on Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. It has its roots in Mozilla Composer, the HTML editor built into Mozilla, whose heritage in turn goes back to Netscape. However, Nvu is now much more than a rejigged Composer.
To decide whether Nvu is any good, we gave it a try, and not having a new site creation project handy we picked on someone else’s page to see how Nvu would handle it. We chose one very close to our heart – our own column as it appears on PC Pro’s website. Choosing PC Pro was more than mere professional nepotism: it’s a site we know intimately, having not only developed it but also hosting it. Moreover, it’sa site that uses the most recent HTML developments, with extensive use of CSS (cascading style sheets) and DIV-based formatting. We found our article on the website and downloaded its source, images and style sheets, then lightly edited the HTML to change some paths for things such as images, put everything into one folder and opened the HTML file in Nvu.