A New Web-Browser/Editor

For several years a group of programmers in France have been developing an elaborate text-processing system known as Thot. Thot has some resemblances to Tex, in that it is a structural document-editing system capable of very high-quality output. One major difference is that Thot is more WYSIWYG; the formatting tagging is hidden and doesn’t have to be explicitly written by the user. The output formats are more varied as well. Thot can produce Postscript files, as Tex can, but it can also produce plain ASCII text and HTML. This last formatting capability attracted the attention of the W3 Consortium a couple of years ago. (W3 is an international research organization which attempts to set standards for Internet documents; their flexibility and patience have been sorely tried in recent years by the flood of HTML innovations introduced by Microsoft and Netscape, among others). Using the Thot system as a core, the W3 group in collaboration with the Thot developers have been developing a combined web-browser and HTML editor known as Amaya.

Amaya, as is the case with much Linux software, is a work-in-progress. Until recently the source code was restricted to members of the W3 Consortium and only binary versions were available to the public. In early February the source was made freely available, both at the Amaya web-site and also at the Sunsite archive site, currently in the /pub/Linux/Incoming directory.

Amaya can be installed anywhere as long as the directory structure is preserved. It is a Motif application, so unless you have the Motif libraries and header files installed you will have to get the statically-linked binary distribution. Compiling the source necessitates obtaining and compiling the Thot toolkit as well, which is available from the same locations as Amaya. I compiled it from source and found the instructions to be somewhat unclear; after several false starts I found that the Thot source should be unarchived first, then the Amaya source should be unarchived so that the Amaya directory is a subdirectory of the top-level Thot directory. This is a very large source tree and needs about sixty megabytes of free disk-space over and above that required for the source itself. It compiled without errors but there was no evident means provided for cleaning up the object files, etc. I resorted to moving subdirectories which looked un-essential to another drive, then moving back the essential ones which it turned out Amaya needs. You might want to try the binary version first in order to determine if it suits you before going to the trouble of obtaining and compiling the source.

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One caution: the first time you start Amaya, point it at a local file; otherwise it will attempt to load a file from http://www.w3.org and if you’re not on-line at the time, it will die with a segmentation fault. The default home-page can be set to one on your local disk in the initialization file if you’d like.

As an HTML editor Amaya is WYSIWYG all the way. There is no view of the file being edited which shows the actual HTML tags. The main window (take a look!) is a typical browser window complete with in-line graphics, with the major difference being that you can enter text. The various HTML tags are invisibly inserted by means of mouse-driven menus. I much prefer hot-keys and found that, though few are included by default, any number of them can be set up in the ~/.thotrc file. The behaviour of the enter key is interesting. Pressing the key while just typing text will start a new paragraph, whereas if you are entering list-items, table-fields or other sequential tags another one is created.

There are two alternative file views available: the first is the « Structure View » (here’s a screenshot) which presents a tree-like diagram of the HTML file. I suppose this could be useful with large files, just to get an overview. Another window, the « Alternate View » (another screenshot), shows you what your file will look like when displayed by a text-mode browser such as Lynx. I thought this was a nice touch. It’s all too easy to work up an HTML file, test it with Netscape or Mosaic, and never even consider that it may be illegible viewed with a text-mode browser.

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As a web-browser Amaya has some limitations. It is confused by many of the newer Netscape tags, though on relatively simple pages it does a good job. As an example, the Linux Gazette table-of-contents page is displayed in a garbled fashion. The spiral-notebook graphic on the left side of the page isn’t rendered, and the table formatting isn’t interpreted correctly. In contrast, the bulk of LG’s content pages display well, but they are usually simpler in format.

Amaya wasn’t really created to be a full-fledged browser, though it may approach that status in future releases. The W3 « position statement » on Amaya says that it is intended to be a test-bed platform for HTML development.

I never have become comfortable using Amaya, or any WYSIWYG HTML editor for that matter, to create HTML files from scratch. What I have been using it for is to experiment with already-written files. Sometimes when the precise tagging I want eludes me, I’ve loaded the file into Amaya just to see how it approaches the problem. It might be wise to begin using Amaya on copies of files. I favor lower-case tagging but when Amaya saves a file it will replace all of the tagging with its own, and this is all uppercase. Some of its other choices may not be what you want as well, so working with a copy allows you to incorporate the changes you like into the original file, leaving the rest alone.

Amaya is an interesting project, and even at this early stage it’s stable enough to be usable. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on it solely, but it has proved useful to me on several occasions. Now that the source has been made public perhaps other programmers will make contributions; it’s likely that in future months new releases will be made, amd its capabilities will increase.

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Larry Ayers Last modified: Thu Feb 27 18:50:42 CST 1997

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