Listening To Reason

random musings about technologies by Andy Norris

09 February 2006

Initial impressions of Seamonkey 1.0 and Composer

I noticed yesterday that Mozilla SeaMonkey hit 1.0 a few days ago, so I decided to check it out and see if it works any better than I remember the old Suite working. If you don't know, SeaMonkey is the volunteer effort to keep what's left of the old Mozilla Suite alive, with an integrated client for email, browsing, and HTML editing. It was abandoned by the Mozilla organization in favor of Firefox (and Thunderbird as an email client).

When I last used Suite (which was a while ago, certainly), it was sluggish, visually ugly, and generally hard to recommend, even over IE6, but I was still curious to see how things were going with it these days. I don't have any use for a desktop email client -- I use webmail, except at work where I have Outlook -- so I'm not really interested in the integrated email/browser aspect of SeaMonkey. But it would be nice to have a decent HTML editor, especially since I have a visceral dislike of FrontPage, and I suspect I won't like DreamWeaver much better.

I do my website development either in Visual Studio (for C#-based projects), or good old TextPad (for other stuff), and I can certainly do fine without a WYSIWYG editor. But sometimes it's nice to have that for simple things, especially if you can control what kind of HTML it emits.

So, anyway, I loaded it up. My first impression: man, that's ugly. It's still got the old Netscape 4 icons, which were ugly even back in the days of Netscape 4. So I switched to the Modern theme. Yikes. Even uglier. Fortunately, there was a menu item for Get New Themes, so I was able to root around in there.

Of course, most of the themes are for Firefox now, and most of the ones that aren't only for Firefox are either old, or simply haven't been updated for SeaMonkey 1.0 yet. What was available was either cheesy theme skins, like wood paneling, or variants of the "Modern" theme that weren't any better. Finally, after about an hour of this, I found a theme that looked pretty good, "Mostly Crystal," by CatThief. It was a close relative of the standard Mozilla theme, only the icons were kind of shiny with a glass look to them. Most importantly, they were interface compliant, and they weren't a massive eyesore.

So now I have an application that looks just fine. The only downside: if there's a way to switch it over to small icons, for the life of me, I can't find it. Oh, well.

Now to browse a little. Initial impression: just like Firefox. Which is just great by me. I like Firefox. More importantly, it's not sluggish, and everything seems to works just like I expect it to. Yay.

So I moved on to Composer, which is what I'm really interested in. Even better, there's a setting to make Composer start up instead of Navigator on startup. That's good, because if I'm going to use SeaMonkey for anything, it's going to be as an HTML editor.

The editor seems to work pretty well for most things. You can tell it to use styles instead of heinous HTML 3.2 artifacts like <font>. You can't tell it to use XHTML transitional, so you get old-style <br> tags that don't terminate themselves properly for XHTML, and a lot of <font>s. All the style information is inline with the tags, and it uses spans with styles in place of <strong> or <em>. Possibly most annoying, hitting enter after a paragraph of text inserts a <br>, and doesn't give you a new paragraph. For cases where you're picky about your HTML (i.e most professional work), these issues are probably a dealbreaker.

On the plus side, if you use <strong> tags correctly in the source view, they appear correctly in the WYSIWYG view. In fact, pretty much everything I tried in the source view came up correctly in the WYSIWYG view, including absolute positioning, separated styles, etc. So if you set up an XHTML template correctly, Composer might be a good way of entering text into it and seeing it render correctly -- though you'd still have the <br> issues.

Composer also gives you the ability to edit arbitrary text files (and, by extension, CSS files). SeaMonkey also comes with the Mozilla DOM Inspector and Venkman JavaScript debugger, both of which are fantastic tools. Though, honestly, all the Windows get unwieldy pretty quickly. Every HTML file you have open in Composer lives in its own window, and there isn't a site browser of any kind. Venkman runs in its own window. DOM Inspector runs in its own window (I couldn't get the sidebar version to work). Also, for debugging, Venkman binds to Navigator and not Composer, so you have to leave a Composer window open as well. That's a lot of windows to shuffle to do any real work, so it's not exactly an IDE.

Conclusion: in it's current state, Composer is a pretty usable ad hoc HTML editor for simple pages, but not something you can use as a production tool for a serious website. I'm going to keep it around and see if I end up using it for anything. The navigator portion of SeaMonkey seems like a good solid browser, but if there are advantages over Firefox, I didn't find them.

Another interesting note: in trying to find out more about the state of Composer, I discovered that there is a successor to Composer that has been under development as a standalone web IDE called NVU. It has a site management tools and it allows multiple HTML files to be edited in the same window using tabs. It has a CSS editor. It doesn't have JavaScript capabilities or integration with Venkman in the base package, but it's available as an extension. I'm going to play with it some, then I'll post another update on the subject.

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