Macromedia Contribute (March 2003, page 57) caused considerable excitement with its ability to keep site content up-to-date, under control and within budget. Previously, the Web's underlying HTML architecture meant that even the smallest content changes had to be channelled through a professional, wasting both the contributors' and their time. Contribute, however, provided a fool-proof environment for contributors to browse, edit and republish pages, while the administrator had enough security and permissions-based control, backed up by a versioning-based safety blanket, to ensure they could sleep at night.
To be successful, Contribute needs to work in just about any workgroup. As such, the most requested change in version 2 is Mac support, although this is limited to OS X and comes at the expense of support for NT. Less problematic, however, is the move to a new third-generation site-connection system. This is based on a high-performance, threaded architecture with file caching, which is designed to provide a stable and persistent connection, no matter how unusual or cranky your Webserver, firewall or dial-up connection is.
Another fundamental change is the licensing arrangements. One of Contribute's great strengths is that end users can edit a site over the Internet from anywhere, so Macromedia has sensibly changed individual licences to enable non-concurrent use on two systems - a desktop and a notebook. Of course, many users did that anyway, and on more than one system, but that's no longer an option, as Contribute 2 now has a Microsoft-style activation system.
Of course, with greater notebook use comes a greater need for security. Previously, if a Contribute-equipped notebook was stolen, the thief could immediately deface the associated site. Now, contributors can at least set up their own startup password to prevent unauthorised access, although an administered connection-based system would have been preferable. In addition, for those sites such as government agencies and corporations, which demand secure and encrypted file transfers, Contribute 2 now supports SFTP alongside its more traditional FTP and LAN connections.
So what new authoring power does the end user have access to? This is a bit of a balancing act, as new power often means more complexity, but it's one that Macromedia has neatly bypassed by leaving Contribute's authoring capabilities virtually untouched. In fact, the site contributor might not spot any difference at all between version 1 and 2 apart from the new welcoming screen.
That's slightly unfair, though. Contribute 2 does offer one major new authoring feature - the ability to directly incorporate content from your favourite applications into web pages. Contribute already did a good job of converting pasted material from Word and Excel to reasonably clean HTML, but the new feature is very different - it lets you automatically add multipage, fully formatted documents complete with fonts.
Sound too good to be true? Well, it's certainly not as simple as it sounds. To begin with, the capability is only available to Windows 2000 and XP users and depends on running the document through the bundled FlashPaper Printer driver. This converts the document to a scalable and efficient SWF Flash movie, complete with its own simple interface for navigation, zooming and printing. It's undoubtedly very clever and could prove useful, but it also has some teething problems. When I tried to print the Contribute press release, for example, the pages came out blank. Moreover, it's important to recognise that you're not creating traditional HTML - end users require the latest Flash player to see your document and, unlike a web-friendly PDF file, the text in your FlashPaper document isn't searchable or selectable.
Contribute 2 has one other trick up its sleeve - the ability to 'transform your Website into an online store faster than you can say e-commerce'. What this boils down to is a step-by-step Wizard that lets you add the code to accept credit card payments online, assuming you're happy to sign up for PayPal's transaction-based scheme. And, while this could be useful for some small businesses, the system again feels bolted on and ultimately underpowered.
More importantly, to many Web administrators, the idea of unsupervised contributors adding pricing directly is the stuff of nightmares. In fact, Contribute's security generally needs some beefing up, with perhaps an enforced approval stage before changes go live, for example. In a way, though, this is missing the point. Contribute isn't for producing a mission-critical enterprise or e-commerce site - for that you're better off with a data-driven approach. Contribute is for organisations where trust is taken for granted and the consequences of errors aren't too drastic - say, a small business that wants to update a professionally designed site without paying through the nose or learning HTML.
Contribute isn't right for all sites, but where it is it's a must-have application that benefits everyone and is worth its weight in gold. Sadly, the same can't be said of Contribute 2 as an upgrade - if you're already happily using the original version, there's little reason to switch.