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8 March 2011

Why are websites so hard?

By Andrew Clifford

Tools and services for creating websites are so much more complicated than the underlying technology that it is almost impossible to explain how to set up a simple website.

Because I "work in computers", I am occasionally asked how to set up simple websites. I though I would write a newsletter about it, but as I tried to write it, I realised that I could not. Although the web is basically simple, and I understand it reasonably well, it has become very hard to explain.

The web works like this. A browser on a PC asks another computer, a web server, for a web page. The web server sends back a web page coded as hypertext markup language (HTML). The browser interprets the HTML and displays the page to the user.

To set up a website, you need to know a little bit about HTML. It is useful to have a basic understanding of internet domain names and web servers. You need to know how to move files from one computer to another, for example using FTP. Some basics of web site layout and writing for the web are useful.

Each piece of setting up a website if fairly straightforward, but it is very difficult to bring them all together in a simple "how to" guide.

Part of the problem is how services for the web are bundled.

To run a website, you need a domain name, domain name server set up, and some space on a web server. However, different providers supply these bundled in different ways, and bundled with other capabilities. Some capabilities, like email accounts and email forwarding, are closely related. Others capabilities, such as vouchers for web advertising, are not related to the underlying technical task. So instead of explaining some fairly simple technical ideas, you have to explain these through the products and deals that different providers offer.

Another big problem is the software used to write web pages. Now that Microsoft Frontpage is no more, there are no obvious pieces of software for simple websites for beginners. The main commercial web authoring tools, such as Adobe Dreamweaver, are so full of features that they are difficult to explain simply. A single copy of the software can cost as much as many year's of web hosting, so they are an expensive option for anyone just experimenting. To add to the confusion, hosting providers sometimes bundle online "site builder" tools, but different providers supply very different capabilities.

Some open source tools, such as KompoZer and Amaya are simpler and free. Although they are reasonably easy to use, they can come across as rather geeky to a beginner.

We have made the web far too hard. The underlying ideas are simple, and can be explained easily enough. But the commercial offers and product bundles and software packages built on top of this make the web much harder, not easier. To use the web effectively, you have to wrench layers of confusion out of the way before you can see the underlying simple concepts.

p.s. although I could not write a simple guide myself, I did come across this guide on how to start/create your own website at thesitewizard.com, which I recommend to anyone setting up a website for the first time.

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