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CityDesk: A Decent Tool for WebLogs?
by Eric Armstrong
January 13, 2005
After hunting around and comparing options, I finally settled on CityDesk to author my news weblog. After using it for a few months I was pretty pleased with it, and gave it a qualified recommendation. But after it committed the unforgivable sin of silently deleting 1,000 words of text, I can no longer recommend it in good conscience.


After hunting around and comparing options, I finally settled on CityDesk to author my news weblog (advisories) at Citizens' Advisory. I've been using it for a few months now, and overall I'm pretty pleased with it.


I know. Someday I really have to switch over to Linux or Max OS 10--something that has a decent shell.

CityDesk is a small content management system that runs on windows. It was written by Joel Spolsky and company at FogCreek Software. It can publish over an FTP connection or to disk. It generates static web pages, using a pretty nice little macro-substitution language. You insert the macros into your HTML template, and publish what you want.

CityDesk doesn't let me edit my weblog from anywhere, like I can with Artima's web-based weblog. But it's handy when traveling-access isn't the prime consideration. (Plus, I don't have to worry about a remote site being inaccessible right when I want to blog something.)

CityDesk articles are stored in an MS Access database, so you can access them directly, if you like.

CityDesk does have some bugs, but most have workarounds, and I've generally had good support, even before paying for the product. (It's $300 US, but you can write 50 articles with the free starter version.)

Joel Spolsky is an interface specialist, so the interface is pretty good. There are some egregious mistakes, though. (It was written quite a while ago. He says he would do many things differently if he were writing it today, but it apparently needs a ton of refactoring before it will accept change gracefully. Don't we all wish we could take back our early code?)

For example, the "else" construct in the macro language applies to FOR loops. There is no "else" in the IF construct. That messed me up for a while. (For me, a programming language is an interface to a computer, and an API is an interface to a library. I apply user-interface thinking to everything.)

The editing is done using Microsoft's HTML editor. It's something like Word, but it's inexplicably missing buttons or menu items for headers. You can edit the HTML directly, so it's easy to get around, but it's a strange ommission. (All HTML is supported, but not all of it is in the interface.)

Other interface oddities:

I guess my final comment would be that it's quite as easy to set up as it sounds. You need to create a copy a template, and you need to figure out the macro language to get things where you want them. On the other hand, there are defaults for everything. So it was up and running in a couple of hours, so I could see if I liked the interface. A hour or two for the next couple of days saw the templates created, so I was publishing in my (graphically weak) format. A few tweaks here and there over the next couple of weeks, and everything settled down to where now things are as simple as write and publish.

For people who want better-looking results than I was able to produce (who wouldn't?), several third-party wizards for constructing templates are listed on the CityDesk News page. There's even tools to help you manipulate the database.

Now that I have things working, I much prefer it to authoring in DreamWeaver, which is what I use when posting articles to my TreeLight/Health website. It's major advantages:

When I need heavy duty features like tables or dynamic pages, DreamWeaver is the way to go. Plus the index pages I generate in DreamWeaver are nicely formatted and organized. And it's nice to know how many people are listening. I can look at the size of my mailing list to know that.

Question: Is there a way to find out how many people are monitoring an RSS feed?

But for day in, day out article generation, CityDesk is hard to beat. The bottom line: It's working for me. What more can I say?

Update, 10 Apr 2005:

I just added a small diagram to an article in a <blockquote><pre> paragraph. CityDesk didn't format it very well. So I filed a bug and reformated the paragraph. To my surprise, though, I found that in the publishing process, CityDesk silently truncated the article, removing the last 1,000 words. Worse, the act of publishing replaced the previous HTML version that was my backup. I don't trust programs that delete my work. That is the one unforgivable sin, in my book. I can live with anything else, but not that. So CityDesk will now be replaced. One respondent pointed me to a Macromedia product--Contribute . Time to try that.

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About the Blogger

Eric Armstrong has been programming and writing professionally since before there were personal computers. His production experience includes artificial intelligence (AI) programs, system libraries, real-time programs, and business applications in a variety of languages. He works as a writer and software consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area. He wrote The JBuilder2 Bible and authored the Java/XML programming tutorial available at Eric is also involved in efforts to design knowledge-based collaboration systems.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2005 Eric Armstrong. All rights reserved.

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