PageSpinner 4.6.3: Quirky and Erratic
I am on a quest to find inexpensive applications that are capable of creating accessible Web pages. Web professionals need to know a lot to create truly accessible sites to the strictest levels of compliance, but I’m interested in the ordinary user.
I want to know whether these applications allow ordinary folk to achieve basic tasks such as adding alternate text to an image, marking up paragraphs, headings, and lists with the correct HTML tags, and using a good title for the page. These are the sorts of common things anyone creating a Web page, at whatever level, should be able to do. And they shouldn’t have to fight the software to do it.
PageSpinner costs $30. It works with Mac OS X 10.2, 10.3, 10.4, and even Mac OS 9.1 and higher. Version 5 has been announced and supports Intel Macs. The PageSpinner package can be used free for up to 21 days to try it out.
I opened PageSpinner and chose a New Empty HTML Page from the Starting Points dialog. PageSpinner created a new HTML 4 page with a relevant doctype and <head> tags, and the cursor ready in the <body> portion of the page.
Aside: I was on my third or fourth visit to the Starting Points before I noticed that the button is actually labelled “New Emtpy HTML Page.” I wonder how long that typo has been there?
I pasted in a few paragraphs of text and clicked the Live Preview button. As expected, my text had all run together, as it wasn’t marked up with paragraph tags.
It was easy enough to select each paragraph in turn and add <p> tags, either using the default Command-Return keystroke or the Toolbar button or menu item.
Another option was to select the text, choose Edit ‣ Convert ‣ Text to HTML… and then to choose between various combinations of <p> and <br> tags.
It’s an interesting quirk that when entering text by typing you can use Command-Return to create new paragraph tags as you type, but the new tags are created at the cursor. If your cursor is already inside an existing paragraph tag, then an invalid nest of tags is created. You must either press the arrow key four times (to move the insertion point past each character of the </p>) or click to move outside the existing closing tag.
This makes the shortcut almost useless. It would be a nice feature if the software could figure out where you were and what you were doing and allow you to just type fluidly, creating correct paragraph tags as you typed.
The default character encoding seems to be iso-8859-1. I prefer UTF-8, but was unable to find any way at all to set PageSpinner to use it. If I used the New Page Assistant I could type in UTF-8 and PageSpinner would remember it for the session, but that memory would not survive restarting the application. The only other choice built in to PageSpinner is SHIFT_JIS.
Next I added a heading and came across a stumbling block: how to mark it up from the available tools. Finally I found it in the last place I’d think to look: under the Size menu.
It’s been many years since I saw any strong connection between heading level and size—that’s truly old-fashioned thinking. Thanks to stylesheets, we can make any level heading appear however we want it: big, small, green. While the size of a heading may decrease as its importance diminishes, these days it’s arguably more common that we’ll use similar sizes for the lesser headings and use color, font, or a style such as italics to distinguish heading levels.
I’d certainly expect to be able to assign headings from a toolbar button, but there isn’t one. There is a button on the Toolbar to call up the HTML Assistant where you can make numerous choices, including selecting headers of various levels, but it’s long-winded for something that should be simple.
On the other hand, the Toolbar has the now-rather-redundant buttons for bold and italics. Under General Preferences it’s easy to set the bold and italics buttons to enter <strong> and <em> tags, enhancing their usefulness.
Adding a list was interesting: I added a few list items, selected them, and clicked the List button on the toolbar. Each list item was correctly marked up with <li> tags, but the list tag itself (probably <ul> or <ol>) wasn’t added. To add the list tags I had to select my text and use the List topic in the HTML Assistant. Making a list is therefore a two-step procedure, with the commands you need in two very different places. Odd.
At least I was able to create my properly marked-up list.
There is an option in the Preferences to enable a List menu, but a list remains a two-step procedure. Moreover, PageSpinner happily marks up empty lines with <li> tags, creating empty bullet points in the output.
As a Web professional, I hand code my pages, using a text editor and downloaded or homegrown AppleScripts to help. Perhaps I’m spoiled that my scripts remove empty lines from a list, but if I can do it with a small AppleScript then software people are paying for should certainly do it.
Next up was adding a photo. When I clicked the Toolbar button, the HTML Assistant dialog box appeared. It was easy to browse for my image, set various attributes, and Insert the image. Unfortunately, PageSpinner was happy to allow me to insert my picture without entering anything in the Text Description text box. The resulting code also didn’t include the empty alt tag that might be appropriate in this circumstance.
When I undid the insertion, added alt text, and clicked Insert, the alt text appeared as expected.
Not every image requires a text equivalent, but every image does require alt text. It’s simply a matter of what you choose to enter: sometimes a description of the image, sometimes wording reflecting the function of the image, sometimes a space or a empty string, i.e. no text. The alt text attribute, however, must not be omitted.
PageSpinner needs to handle this differently.
Good alt Text
Alt text is also not the same as a “text description,” and it doesn’t actually help anyone to equate the two.
If I were writing a page about how to distinguish a cat from a dog, I may have photos of both, and the alt text may be appropriately “cat” and “dog” respectively.
If I used those same cat and dog photos simply as decoration, the appropriate alt text may well be “ ” (a space).
If I used a cat photo as a button for “next page,” then appropriate alt text would be “next page,” not “photo of a cat.” It’s the function of the image that’s crucial. Occasionally that may require describing the image, but often it does not.
Honestly, the best way to really grasp what alt text is and how it needs to work is to spend a day or a week surfing the Web with the images turned off (mimicking the experience of a blind visitor, or Google). You’ll soon understand two things:
- what alt text is and why it’s absolutely necessary.
- how incredibly frustrating the Web can be without correctly marked-up images.
What you won’t understand is the experience of the blind visitor. If there is no alt text at all, then a blind visitor often hears the path and filename instead. Here’s a genuine path and filename example from a CMS I use daily:
Just imagine listening to that even once or twice per page!
For a truly enlightening experience, download the video of Darren Fittler’s presentation at the Webstock conference held in Wellington, May 2006.
PageSpinner makes it easy to preview the document, with a built-in viewer or in a browser. This is very handy for seeing how the page is coming along.
The globe in the menu bar is the icon for Web Tools, including several validators. Make a choice and confirm you wish to open the link in your Web browser. The validator’s page opens up and you can proceed from there.
PageSpinner also has an AppleScript menu, with some supplied scripts. You can also create your own scripts and add them to the menu. When I tried the script to paste a text file into an existing XHTML Strict document it stepped me through a sequence of about three operations. The last was to convert the text to HTML. Unfortunately, while PageSpinner added <p> tags, it didn’t add the closing tags required by XHTML, creating an invalid page.
PageSpinner 4.6.3 is quirky and erratic. Version 5 has been announced, and I would hope it’s been substantially overhauled. While PageSpinner allows its users to create the kind of basic, accessible Web page this series has been aiming for, it doesn’t make it very easy, and it sometimes work against the user. My quest continues.
- Web Accessibility: Nvu: impressive and powerful, ATPM 12.10, October 2006.
- Web Accessibility: RapidWeaver: A Useful Tool in Need of Sharpening, ATPM 12.09, September 2006.
- Web Accessibility: Sandvox: Sand in the Eyes, ATPM 12.08, August 2006.
- Web Accessibility: The Clayton's Web, ATPM 12.07, July 2006.
- Web Accessibility, ATPM 10.01, January 2004.
Also in This Series
- What Browsers Can Do, Part 2 · May 2007
- What Browsers Can Do · April 2007
- The Flip Side of the Coin · March 2007
- SeaMonkey 1.0.6 · December 2006
- PageSpinner 4.6.3: Quirky and Erratic · November 2006
- Nvu: Impressive and Powerful · October 2006
- RapidWeaver: A Useful Tool in Need of Sharpening · September 2006
- Sandvox: Sand in the Eyes · August 2006
- The Clayton’s Web · July 2006
- Complete Archive