Water drops on an apple

The MS-DOS of the Web?

By now you’ve probably heard about our website updating application, Ladybug. Inspired by the best ideas of “Web 2.0” and software like Backpack and Strongspace, we’ve borrowed some great ideas and practices from many of these great web-based applications. We’ve also been writing our software in Ruby on Rails which, like the apps mentioned above, definitely creates software with opinions.

What is “software with opinions,” and why on earth would you create it? I’ve cited another’s opinions above, but I believe that, like opinions, it’s a matter of personal choice. For one thing, we have to use the software a lot, probably more often than our customers. So it needs to be good, fast and intuitive. I’ve written about being careful when adding features before, so I’ll not get into that right now. But I will focus on one feature that seems to generate a lot of controversy these days – how your users edit text in the pages of your site.

Text editing on the web has been around since the earliest graphical browsers, albeit in a somewhat primitive form. Typically you type plain text into a box on your screen, and hit “Submit” when you’re done. If you’re on a Mac, you might have your misspellings underlined in red, which is nice. But that’s about it. When you’re using this as a means to edit the text that’s going to appear on your website, as you do with our software, you’re quickly going to have questions like “how do I make this word bold?”

It’s a problem that needs solving. You could train your users to type in HTML code, but not only is that cumbersome for most users, it’s easy to break, or write invalid markup. Since the point of our application is to keep our clients websites looking pretty, that rules out HTML. What we’ve chosen instead is a higher-level markup language (one of many) called Textile. It’s easy for us to program, it’s easy for our clients to use, and it’s nearly impossible to break or to generate invalid markup. In short, it works really well for us, and for the foreseeable future, it’s what we’re going to use. But it does lead to humorous comments like this one, spotted in a thread in the TextDrive forum:

I love textile, but I’ll never forget one client who, when he saw me demonstrate it, made the off-hand comment that it was “like MS-DOS for the web.”

Ouch! That’s a frightening analogy, and if we hadn’t given careful consideration to our options from the start, we certainly would after reading that! But we have indeed experimented with graphical editors that you can embed in the web page, to allow visual editing, and we’ve found that they create far more problems than you’d expect. So for now, we’re sticking to Textile.

The MS-DOS of the web!

Raymond Brigleb

Creative Director, dreamer, partner, father, musician, photographer. Has been known to ride the rails. Pulls one heck of a shot.