Whatever happened to… Microsoft FrontPage?

FrontPage was one of the first home web design toolsLast week, I attempted to unravel the mystery of how the once-mighty WordPerfect became a gibbering wreak of its former self. Today, the spotlight turns to another fallen hero – Microsoft FrontPage. Here’s the sad tale of how the World’s most popular Web publishing tool vanished into obscurity within just a few years.

The rise to fame

Believe it or not, FrontPage wasn’t always a Microsoft product. It was actually first developed by Vermeer Technologies Incorporated, who in November 1995 released Vermeer FrontPage 1.0, one of the first ever distributed Web content authoring tools. Seeing that this kind of product might have a future, Microsoft snapped up Vermeer shortly after the launch of FrontPage 1.0, for $133 million. The Redmond company released FrontPage 97 in June 1996, when it was also bundled with the Microsoft Office suite. A stripped-down version, FrontPage Express was bundled for free in Internet Explorer from 1997, then came a Macintosh version, followed by four more versions between 1998 and 2003. At the height of the program’s success, Microsoft announced that FrontPage was topping 1 million unit sales a quarter.

Why people liked it

The reason why people took to FrontPage in the first place, was that there was no product quite like it on the market. The Web was a completely new concept and most people didn’t have the first clue about how to create pages for it. FrontPage’s WYSIWYG approach made it simple for ordinary folk to put things onto the Web without having to fanny around with a text editor, or learn HTML.
Templates were one of the most important elements within the application, allowing people to choose from a series of preset page layouts without having to design their own from scratch. FrontPage also had great interoperability with the rest of the Office range, so Excel sheets, Word documents and Access databases were easy to integrate into Web pages. The program also came with a simple built-in image editor called Image Composer, which would let you see how your graphics looked in different combinations of browsers and a different screen resolutions.
Perhaps the overriding reason why FrontPage did well was the fact its workflow was so similar to other Microsoft products that the average user was used to. If you were proficient at editing a document in Word, you could pick up FrontPage and lay out a page without having to learn an entirely new interface from scratch. What’s more, pages would render exactly as they were displayed in FrontPage when viewed in Internet Explorer.

What went wrong

In 2006, three years after the last release of FrontPage, Microsoft quietly withdrew support for the app, signalling the end of an era. In its place, the company launched two new products: Expression Web, a tool for professional developers who want to create high-quality, standards-based sites; and Sharepoint Designer, a business tool for building company intranets and workflows. These apps have proved fairly successful in the high-end development World, but have been largely shunned by home users.
So, what was the big problem with FrontPage then? One of the main complaints about the app was its failure to embrace Web standards. Its WYSWYIG mode tended to generate non-validating code, meaning pages were only optimized for Internet Explorer. The bigger picture though, was succinctly illustrated by John McKown, President of Delware.Net, who picked out five reasons why Frontpage was shelved by Microsoft:

  • FrontPage was a beginner tool, that professional web designers shunned
  • Adobe Dreamweaver is now the defacto tool for professionals
  • Company Intranets became more critical to businesses, and yet most businesspeople are not web designers. So it made sense to make FrontPage into something even easier to use for web design newbies
  • Due to the last point, FrontPage because the built-in authoring tool for Microsoft Sharepoint (Microsoft’s limited Intranet product)
  • Professional web site design requires tools that generate standards-based code, which FrontPage could not do

Others pointed to the rise of the blogging culture, or even just a general bad feeling about MS products within the web development community, as the reason FrontPage was pushed into obscurity. Whatever the reason, I think it’s a little sad to see a product which played such a big part in the rise of home Web publishing wither out in this way. If you fancy a trip down memory lane, you can still download FrontPage Express and have a stab at creating some pages with it.

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