Roger V. Skalbeck i s the Technology Systems Librarian at George Mason University School of Law in Arlington Virginia. He has worked in law libraries for over a decade, and he is currently pursuing a law degree. He is a not yet a lawyer, and he doesn’t even play one on television.
Do you want to edit web content, but you don’t have the proper access, training or skills? Do you maintain a website where you must make frequent changes for other people? Wouldn’t it be great to edit an existing site without worrying about “messing up” the site’s script-driven menu system? Wouldn’t it be great to approve others’ page changes with a simple mouse-click? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you should take a look at Macromedia’s Contribute 3.0 (“Contribute”). This program ia a wonderful low-cost option to edit web content in an environment providing essential administrative tools to control where and how users can change content.
At its heart, Contribute is a sophisticated web editing system. To the end user though, it looks and acts like a web browser with a few extra buttons. As suggested by the product’s apt name, the core purpose is to allow users to contribute content to websites. Once configured, the default process for editing in Contribute are to: 1.Browse to a page, 2.Edit the page directly within the Contribute browser, and 3.Publish changes without leaving the application window. These are accomplished by clicking on buttons with unambiguous labels like “Browse” “Edit” and “Publish.” It is that simple.
Following is a quick overview of the Contribute product in its latest version, including highlights of some of its strongest selling points. As it is not a perfect program, included below is also a list of some of the program’s flaws. All in all, Contribute is pretty darn good for the price. In addition, because it can be tightly integrated with Dreamweaver, it is a natural extension to the web management toolbox of many webmasters.
To begin using Contribute, an administrator creates a connection to a website by configuring server address, the site’s URL and file transfer (“FTP”) settings. The latest version allows connections using secure FTP as well as WebDAV, which are two file transfer protocols offering better security than your “typical” FTP.
Within a defined site, an administrator establishes “Roles” (like user groups) and then add users to those Roles. Each Role can have specific permissions and access privileges. Without a tool like Contribute, a website administrator might primarily define permission based on the directories a user can access. This can be something of an “all or nothing” proposition, which could cause problems if pages include a complicated menuing system or other elements that need to be fixed on a page. Contribute allows administrators to define many more privilege variables including a user’s ability to: insert images, create new pages, use existing templates, share site attributes, use a defined stylesheet or format text.
Once a connection has been defined, the administrator sends a connection key to a user via email or by saving it to a disk or network drive. By clicking on the key on a a system that has Contribute installed, a user can have immediate access to edit a site. This connection key contains all of the permissions the administrator establishes, it typically requires a password to open it, and it can include encrypted FTP login and password information within the key itself. Once a key has been activated, a user can browse to a page and simply click “Edit” wherever s/he has proper permission to edit a page.
Edited pages are either published directly to the server or they can be sent to somebody for review before being posted. Alternatively, a user can save a draft of a page, which is stored on a user’s local hard drive. There is an option within Contribute to save one or more prior versions of pages. With this, an administrator can roll back changes to a prior version of the respective page.
Looking at the program in a bit more detail, following are six of its strongest selling points:
- Allows flexible access control
For site administrators, Contribute provides flexible control over how people are allowed to updates sites. Users can be allowed anything from unrestricted editing rights to simply having the ability to change the text in a single cell on a page. Each of the configuration settings is clearly labeled, leaving no guesswork for administrators. For example, below is a quick snapshot of the general editing features, which shows some of the access controls. An option like “Only allow text editing and formatting.” is certain to give some administrators peace of mind.
- Exceptionally simple interface
End users don’t have to learn a new software interface, and there is no requirement that users have to manually upload files. The buttons for editing make it blatantly obvious how to accomplish the core tasks, as illustrated by the following:
Also, text editing controls look just like they do in Word, so novice editors will have little if any learning curve before feeling comfortable with Contribute’s tools. Note below that pages include context-sensitive notes such as “You only have permission to edit text on this page.” or “You are viewing a page on a website that you haven’t created a connection to.” when viewing or editing a page within the Contribute browser/application window.
- Integrates with Dreamweaver templates
Contribute is designed to work very well with Macromedia’s Dreamweaver, particularly with the integration with Dreamweaver templates. Within any defined Role, users can be restricted to use of specific Dreamweaver templates. These templates can contain defined regions where users are able to edit content, and any items “locked” in the template can be changed globally at any time.
- Users can share page elements
A new feature in version 3.0 allows an administrator to make page elements available as shared assets across a particular site. In Dreamweaver parlance, these are Shared Assets (which include Library Items). They are snippets of content that are shared across a site for use in multiple locations. This might include a “what’s new” paragraph or a simple HTML table that includes an organization’s fax, phone and street address. Contribute administrators have the option to selectively make these assets available.
- Includes directory integration & publishing features
New with Contribute version 3.0, administrators can set up publishing services and user authentication to integrate with LDAP (lightweight directory access protocol) or Active Directory (Microsoft’s version of LDAP) services. This means that user accounts could be integrated with an existing directory, and the publishing services could be leveraged to generate email when certain pages are changed or other actions are taken.
- Includes free copy of FlashPaper 2 (PDF creation software)
Every copy of Macromedia’s Contribute comes with a version of “FlashPaper 2” which is a simple program for converting documents to Adobe Acrobat’s PDF format or Flash documents (.swf files). The PDF conversion is not terribly feature-rich, but it is one way that users could easily create PDF documents without requiring a full license for Acrobat’s production software. Note though that Contribute 3 does not provide an easy way for users to replace PDF documents on a website (see following section).
Contribute is by no means a perfect product, illustrated by the following four (and a half) flaws discovered in testing it for this review:
- Can’t restrict access on a file-by-file basis.
Roles are defined within Contribute’s administrator module based on directory-level permissions. Users cannot be granted access to edit selective files in a directory. If you’re using Contribute for an existing site that has lots of files in very few directories, you’ll have to make some compromises in establishing access groups.
- Can’t replace an existing PDF
For some strange reason, Macromedia has neglected to figure out a very basic workflow problem with this program. Users can’t upload a new version of a PDF document under the same file name. Contribute 3 comes packaged with software to create PDF documents, but it ironically prevents efficient use of that program. Contribute makes file transfer (FTP) seamless and “idiot proof”. However, a user simply cannot upload a new version of a file like calendar.pdf while preserving internal links to that file.
- Can’t use multiple “Roles” on one system
For some unknown reason, you can’t test or use more than one Role (user group) for the same website on a single computer. For instance, an administrator might want to see first-hand if the “Recruiting” role indeed can only access the /recruiting/ directory. In order to test it, an administrator has to replace any existing Contribute connection to the same website on that computer. Also for this same reason, users cannot be assigned to more than one role concurrently. This means that an administrator can’t establish permissions where one person has rights under “Publisher” and “Writer” roles at the same time.
- Not a “Silver Bullet” or “Perfect World” solution
If you might someday have a full-fledged content management system, or if most of your web content is (or will be) in a database, then Contribute might be too simple for your needs. Macromedia offers a more comprehensive (and accordingly more costly) Web Publishing System that incorporates Contribute with other features. Also, there are a number of database-driven content management systems that could provide more flexibility or better options to integrate the publishing process with existing procedures.
- (and 1/2) Undocumented Licensing Flaw
Not deserving as a full-point criticism, one final item is worth mentioning. For users of Dreamweaver MX (either standalone or with the suite), you can administer Contribute sites directly within the Dreamweaver interface without purchasing an additional license. Users of the latest version (MX 2004) must purchase an additional license for Contribute in order to administer Contribute sites even if that program is never used on the administrator’s computer. It may be that Macromedia will change this policy (programming flaw?).
Currently, a single copy of Contribute is priced at $149. Multi-user licensing is done in groups of 6-license packs, with a base price of $699. There are upgrade options, and Macromedia has recently offered sales promotions that would reduce the overall price. Any user can download a fully-functional 30-day trial version before deciding to purchase.
Academic pricing starts around $79 per copy. One thing to note though is that there are no upgrade options for the academic market. For any new version, academic users either have the option to buy the entire new version or go through the trouble of setting up a multi-year contract under which any new versions are shipped for free.
In closing, Macromedia’s Contribute is a great tool for a number of web publishing scenarios. It provides the sophistication and control that web managers truly need, and it provides the access and simplicity that content experts truly deserve.
Copyright © 2004, Roger V. Skalbeck. All Rights Reserved.