Fog Creek CityDesk: Content management for the masses
By David Walker (Google profile)
You should be able to create a 200-page site without coding every page by hand. That, in a sentence, is the promise of Web content management systems, or CMSs. After all, in most of a typical site's Web pages only a few things differ. Presentation, navigation and various page elements obey predictable rules; you should be able to automate them, and spend most of your effort on creating content.
Unfortunately, to use the polite language of a 2001 Forrester report, Web CMS offerings are immature. Some are giant complex application-server-type systems which cost you $200,000-plus to take out of the shop. Most of the rest are cheap or free, but they started off as some programmer's one-off build and have, um, interesting idiosyncracsies. Both the giant systems and the cheap models tend to have set-up and maintenance systems which make users swear softly under their breath for days on end.
What's a small organisation to do - a 50-person business, a local council, a school, an individual self-publisher without programming skills? They can keep on agonisingly hand-coding. Or they can pay $20,000 for the pain of understanding and maintaining a slightly unfriendly new IT system. The reality is that these costs keep many organisations and individuals out of Web content management altogether.
Enter Joel Spolsky, former head of Microsoft's Excel macro team and the entertaining author of "User Interface Design for Programmers". Spolsky wanted to make a CMS for the people without $20,000 - people who can pay for space on a Web server but can't pay for the resources to configure and adapt one.
The resulting product, called CityDesk, rejects several recent fads. It runs only on Windows, ignoring Linux (and ignoring the Mac as well). It uses no XML, storing all its data in a Microsoft JET database. It doesn't use a Web browser for editing; instead, it runs as a native Windows application, like Excel or Photoshop, that reacts fast and supports drag-and drop. It contains no built-in Web server. It creates only static pages; you publish using its built-in FTP capabilities.
Oh, and it works. Immediately. Without fuss. It doesn't crash, it took me ten minutes to understand, and my eight-year-old can use it. You create page content using its Wordpad-like editor. CityDesk then turns that content into pages using one or more templates to generate navigation, presentation and other consistent page functions. You take a look at the pages, then hit the FTP button and wait as it sends all the updated pages to your server.
The templates use a simple scripting language called CityScript that anyone even faintly familiar with data manipulation should be able to use. And those templates will take only one person's effort to create. If you're a small design shop creating pages for smallish clients, you can create the templates (using whatever tools you like) and let the clients update their own content. CityDesk even hides all the template-related functionality until someone turns it on, limiting unskilled users' power to mess up a site.
CityDesk has flaws. Its non-text media asset management is sparse, its workflow management non-existent. If you want search functionality or feedback forms or discussion groups or other interactive functions, you'll have to set them up on your own. And of course, If you're not in the office where the CityDesk database lives, then tough luck.
But for many users, CityDesk already far outstrip everything else on the market. And Spolsky and his colleagues appear to know the basics of building a profitable business that can stay around to enhance the product and support their customers.
What makes CityDesk a stand-out investment proposition is that its .cty site files are just Access 2000 databases. So you can learn the basics of content management without investing huge amounts of money or time - and then, if you decide to quit CityDesk for a bigger CMS down the track, you can simply port your entire database over to XML or MySQL or SQLServer or Oracle or whatever your new system understands. CityDesk is probably the quickest way to get your hand-built site into a proper data structure. And that's something you need to do regardless of what CMS solution you pick next year.
CityDesk's "Starter Edition" for up to 50 articles on one machine can be downloaded for free. A 500-page version costs $US79 ($A151) and a Professional version for multi-user environments and sites of any size costs $US349 ($A667). If you want to move up to Web content management at low cost and low risk, CityDesk is the course to take.