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neatComponents - Q & A 

neatComponents - Q & A

Q. So what is neatComponents - is it any use to me?

A. Well, if you're trying to publish anything more than a simple homepage on the web, neatComponents is probably going to be of use to you. There are obviously lots of web design packages and tools around, so it's worth clearing up straight away where neatComponents fits in to the market.

Lots of design tools help you make a website. You design it, you upload it, and there it is. That was great, say five years ago, but these days clients tend to want more. Tired static sites are a turn off for their customers, yet if they need regular updates to be made by web designers; it's just not going to happen. It's boring, relatively unskilled work for the designers, and it's expensive and tedious for the clients to have to pass everything via them.

So we started out with the whole lifecycle of the website in mind, not just the initial site setup. And when you look at it like that you see the site as a fluid system that evolves over time. Sections move around, pages get renamed, color-schemes revised. In fact, the entire site could end up completely unrecognisable, as it keeps up with changes of focus in the client's business.

What we've created is a management system that handles not only the construction of the site, and the display of pages to site visitors, but also all the behind-the-scenes complexity of those changes.

Q. So is there a typical customer?

A. The system has a lot of features that appeal to various audiences, from corporates, to ISPs, but the people who can make use of almost everything are the traditional web designers. These are people highly skilled in graphics, and with a portfolio of clients with traditional 'static' brochureware sites.

What our system does is empower the web designers, and lift them out of a number of business problems.

One of the key problems is that clients are now more demanding - they want their sites to do more - to have ecommerce and personalisation in them, things that need programming, which is a completely different skill from graphic design. In fact it is incredibly rare to find someone who is both a good programmer and good with graphics. The problem is that a graphic designer can be squeezed into a corner when the client asks for more advanced functionality for their site, and they can't do it themselves, and they can?t afford to take on a programmer to do it for them. The danger is that they lose the client just as the client is growing.

Another problem the web designers have is that they are limited in their time. It?s very easy to spend all your time serving existing clients, without having time to go out and bring in new business. The online editing aspects of the system allow the designer to delegate to their clients all the day to day updating, and instead of charging an hourly rate for making the changes, charge a fee for providing the editing facility. So the client is still paying, but not taking up the designer's time.

A related tedious chore with existing clients is running the accounts function, sending out bills and making sure they get paid. The system provides an online billing interface where it can measure usage, apply charges, email clients, and interface with online payment processors. So for many designers this will either save them valuable time, or save them the cost of employing an accounts assistant.

Q. You've chosen to create a system that is entirely online, why?

A. By online, we mean that the entire system is based where the sites are being served from. So you have a web server, and you have the system installed on it. You don't then need to install any software on web developers' machines.

This was a very deliberate design decision, and it's fair to say it has made it much harder for us to make the system. But it is well worth the effort, as it makes it much easier for sites to be maintained over their lifecycle.

The reason is that the distinction between a web designer and a content creator is breaking down. There may be one or two people responsible for the overall appearance of the site, but many - possibly hundreds - of individuals may be delegated responsibility for their own sections. If we had required special client-side software, there would have been major problems with installing, updating, and generally keeping track of the software. And of course with everything server side if you're away from the office you can nip in to a web cafĂ© or public library, and fire up a browser and edit the site. No need to lug around a laptop with the software on it.

Q. This must be a highly competitive market. What makes you different?

A. There are certainly lots of site design tools out there, from the simple tools like Frontpage, through to corporate heavyweights like Documentum. They each have significant problems.

The low end tools are fine for creating a homepage, but are a nightmare for ongoing site maintenance. There is a tendency for them to be based around client-side tools, with all the administrative problems that causes, or they are limited by licenses restricting the number of users who can make updates. In contrast we require no client side software, and allow an unlimited number of users to manage the sites.

At the high end the feature set is, as you might expect, much better, but the problem there is the cost. Not just the initial license fees, but the consultancy fees that are needed to get things operating. We've deliberately decided to keep our pricing low, to make the solution attractive to the widest possible audience.

The other aspect which makes us stand out is that we aren't assuming that there is just one site being provided on the system, but there could be hundreds. So we've included a full suite of site management tools - allowing sites to be cloned, and used as templates, and of course allowing resellers to run client billing and credit control automatically. These features are unique in such a tool, and are of use not only to web designers selling their services, but also to corporates providing sites for internal departments.

Q. How does neatComponents compare to other website development platforms?

A. Technically, the biggest difference is that there is no software running on the 'client' machines that are used by the website developers. All that?s needed is an Internet Explorer web browser.

In terms of scope, there a big difference too, in that the system encompasses not only the design and management of the sites, but also any commercial relationship with the site owner, whether that is a web designer's client, or inter-departmental billing within a corporate. Learn more...

The third main difference is that neatComponents is priced to be universally affordable. Learn more...

Q. So with no software on the client, how is the site developed?

A. Well, there is software, but it's all run from the server. The developers are given a design interface through the browser - and with some neat tricks, this has a similar feel to a local application.

Q. Why go to this effort - why not have local developer applications?

A. Running applications on the client is an expensive business. Ignoring licensing costs for the software itself, local applications require more hardware, and more expensive management time keeping them up to date.

Running applications on the server means that the software can quickly be updated for all users, even if there are thousands of people able to manipulate the content. It also means the designers can work from anywhere - even from Internet cafes - as there is no software to be installed every time.

Q. So if the design application is on the server, where is my data?

A. Your data - the site and its contents - is also on the server. There is no-longer the design, upload, publish cycle that so stifles traditional development. Instead, workflow for each component is seamlessly managed on the site itself. For larger sites, content approval mechanisms enable the pages to be reviewed before publication, and if necessary, content can be rolled back to previous versions.

Q. And finally, why haven't I heard about neatComponents before?

A. Many sites rely on neatComponents, but it is, deliberately, rarely obvious to site visitors. Visitors shouldn't be sidetracked by the technology, but allowed to concentrate on the contents of the site. Nor can you spot a neatComponents-based site by its visual or structural appearance; the technology places no visual limits, and whilst there is template-like functionality to increase productivity, it doesn't constrain creativity.