Geoff Chappell - Software Analyst
Is Expression Web the worst-ever program from Microsoft?
After setting up a new computer with new software, it was nine months before I had the satisfaction of closing Expression Web simply for having finished with it. Instead, every time, it hung, it crashed, or it started misbehaving enough to make me think I would do better to shut it down and start again. A few times, it looked hung for a while and then magically started working again but with a new taskbar button, so that it might just as well have crashed and restarted. That the thing falls over so often for anyone is unforgivably defective on its own, yet even while the program is supposedly “working” presumably as its designers intended, it frustrates in oh-so-many ways, both big and small.
Outside of a test environment, I myself have never before used any software that is anything like this bad, but perhaps I should not say it is Microsoft’s worst. I should instead settle just for describing it as extraordinarily poor, and leave the choice of golden turkey award to those who use a wider range of software for a wider range of purposes. A problem with leaving this to others is revealed soon enough by searching Google for pages that contain the phrase Expression Web together with such words as bugs, crashes and hangs. Reviews of Expression Web as being riddled with bugs are surprisingly few, relative to the many hymns of praise and the numerous pages that don’t so much as hint that the program is seriously flawed. Could it be that there is an industry out there that offers its expertise with Expression Web and doesn’t dare bite the hand that feeds it?
The program’s immediate ancestor, FrontPage, was not without its problems, including to crash occasionally, but at least it edited text consistently with the long-standing practices of other Windows software from Microsoft. With Expression Web, keystrokes and gestures that have been established for 20 years or so in Microsoft Word, which still work much the same way in Word from Office 2007 despite its big changes, and which also worked much the same way in FrontPage, sometimes don’t work at all in Expression Web or work very differently. Note the “sometimes”, which adds to the exasperation. Too much basic functionality depends on doing things one way and not another.
This really is astonishing for software whose literature goes on and on about being standards-based. For all I’m to know, Expression Web is beyond excellent for such things as XML and ASP .NET (and I won’t quibble about whether the latter actually is any sort of standard). I, however, am far removed from those features. Like countless ordinary users of this software, I just want a word processor for HTML pages that I can prepare in an offline website and occasionally transfer to a live website. All I have are pretty straightforward HTML pages, formatted using CSS and made a little interactive through some client-side scripting. For these simple needs, Expression Web is in almost every respect a devolution of FrontPage.
True, FrontPage did not put CSS front-and-centre in designing web pages. There is some merit to criticism of it for such things as encouraging novice users to format text with <b> and <i> tags (or <strong> and <em> for that matter). But just as Word has some users who will forever format using the bold and italic buttons on the toolbar and move text by inserting spaces until its position looks right, it has others who have always defined styles and laid out with whatever formal features Word provides. FrontPage provided style-based WYSIWYG editing for most everyday purposes. Though it didn’t explicitly support applying selectors to every sort of HTML element, neither did it get in your way if you edited these by hand. By contrast, Expression Web makes some simple editing, e.g., with tables, clumsy if not actually difficult or impossible. It reduces some convenient old user-interface features, e.g., the Format Painter, to a joke. And much of what it does offer that’s new and potentially useful is marred by inconsistencies, as with styles. Too often, it just doesn’t work very well.
Microsoft might want it believed that Expression Web is a new product which ought to be indulged a few teething troubles, but this would be nowhere near reasonable. Even without the technical detail that Expression Web is built on the FrontPage code and the commercial detail that Expression Web is in the market taking FrontPage’s place, there are just too many bugs in basic functionality. For a product with sales in the millions, many of these ought not have survived even to pre-release testing. That many are still present years later, for Expression Web 4, is a disgrace—and not just of Microsoft.
Now, I did not buy Expression Web as software to study. Like countless others, I bought it as a tool to help with what I consider to be actual work. In my case, that work happens to be that I study software and write up the results in HTML for a web site. I’m not proposing to spend my time studying Expression Web in anything like the way I study Windows, but neither do I have to tolerate this piece of rubbish, waiting impotently until Microsoft releases a working version for which they no doubt will expect more payment. At the least, I can document for the public record my observations of this program’s errant behaviour in my ordinary use of it, even though I shall not be able to offer my customary detail about any problem’s causes.
It may take some time, off and on, to get my notes collected, written up and organised. Use the Table of Contents to find what has yet been done. If you see no Table of Contents, check the Browser Advice. If you think I should work quicker to support my criticism with a careful write-up of systematic observation, then write to me with your encouragement.
Lest it not be clear, what I write in these pages about Expression Web is not a collection of gossip from the Internet. These are all the observations of one man who really would much rather not have anything to write about this. That any one person can encounter in ordinary use even the few matters that I have yet written up is a disgrace for a product that is at least a decade old from the world’s dominant manufacturer of computer software. It’s long past time that software manufacturers should be accountable for a product as outrageously flawed as this. I’m only dreaming, of course, but perhaps Microsoft might find the grace to acknowledge its program’s defectiveness publicly and prominently, and provide that its customers can go back to their retailers for a free replacement that meets reasonable standards of workmanship.