Wednesday, October 06, 2004

What I'm using: NVU

For a variety of reasons (including flexibility) I like to write my blogs in HTML. Moreover, I like to write my pieces outside the Blogger interface. One reason is that it can be very slow to get a respose from the site, and since I'm often revising my pieces, the lag time can be almost unbearable. So I found myself looking for a new HTML editor. And I've found one: NVU (pronounced "N-view" for "new view"). It bills itself as "A complete Web Authoring System for Linux Desktop users as well as Microsoft Windows users to rival programs like FrontPage and Dreamweaver." Using NVU, I can write pieces on my machine (as I am doing with this one). If I am not satisfied, or if the network is down, I can save it. When I'm finally satisfied, I paste them, and a new blog post is born.

I should say how I discovered NVU. In the last year, I've eschewed all of the Microsoft "Internet" programs - Internet Explorer and Outlook Whtever - in favour of Mozilla products. Or to be exact, the separate downloads of Firefox and Thurderbird, rather the the whole Mozilla suite (all 11 MB of it). There are many reason for this: Firefox and Thunderbird are far more secure than their IE equivalents, and in my opinion better designed. Popup-blocking and tabbed browsing also make Firefox far easier to use. However, I didn't feel like downloading the whole Mozilla suite: I just wanted the products that I would use. The disadvantage is that I missed out on "Mozilla Composer": a HTML editor that comes with the suite.

A little bit of Googling found that MC isn't being maintained. Some more revealed that Linspire decided to play with the code base of MC, and try to make a standalone usable editor out of it. That editor became NVU. Possibly the Linspire chaps will eventually roll the source back into the Mozilla Composer tree. Few things are unpredictable, especially when open-source code is invaolved.

Do I like it? Yes, I do: at version .41 it is already easy to use. While a little buggy at times (see below), it has never crashed. It is a WYSIWYG ("What-you-see-is-what-you-get") editor, so it is easy to enter the simple stuff: bold, italic, bullets, and so on. But it also doesn't overcomplicate the markup like FrontPage and Dreamweaver can do: introduce ugly bloated HTML that works only on one browser and OS. Yes, you can turn this off (and I have done that with FrontPage), but you have to know what you are looking for. Most users aren't even aware. The thing about NVU is that the defaults are towards producing simple and elegant HTML. I like my HTML simple and elegant. I don't even need to worry about styles or fonts. That's what Blogger tenplates are for.

One thing that won me over is how the product seamlessly handles entering Unicode text - the modern standard for entering multi-lingual text. Type in Vietnamese? No worries. I can even insert Chinese. The whole Unicode thing is what soured me on the last HTML editor I used: HTML-Kit. Apart from a little hard to use "Enter UTF-8" interface, it had virtually no support for Unicode. Nor does there seem to be any move in that direction - the last build was in 2002. Sorry, but that isn't good enough for my needs. HTML (and Blogger) handles it; why can't it?

NVU doesn't directly connect to Blogger: you need to copy the HTML source and paste it by hand. I am content with that. If you choose to do the same, just remember - only paste the source inside (but not including) the <BODY>...</BODY> tags. Forget this admonition, and you may get into a World of Hurt. Be careful.

Is it perfect? By no means. There are some problems with the WYSIWYG interface.

  1. The first is that it seems to want to include "<br>" tags just before every closing tag. It introduces too much space between paragraphs, making the post look ungainly. I like to group paragraphs by <p>...</p> tags, so I don't need these <br>s cluttering the code. Providing an option to turn off this feature would be appreciated. There is a "markup cleaner" tool which should remove them all, but apparently doesn't.
  2. One more serious problem is that if you delete stuff, occasionally you get empty tags like "<>" and "</>". These things are illegitimate HTML. They should never be in your source. This is an bug that needs to be fixed.

But if I deduct 2 points for the aforementioned bugs, I would give it 8 out of 10. That's enough to use it for the time being. Doubtlessly new bugs will arise, and will be corrected. Over time, the version will move closer and closer to 1.0. That's all that I want from software: to do what I want without getting in the way.