Back in 2004 -- yes, eons ago in Web time -- we lamented over not having a blogging client awesome enough to make us do away with our browsers for daily publishing work. Although there were a few promising candidates, ultimately none of them yielded a good enough score on our terms.

Since then we’ve been keeping tabs on developments in the desktop web content authoring and management tool business, and things have certainly come a long way.

Adobe caught our attention anew just recently. Their release of Creative Suite 4, including Contribute v5.0 sparked hope that we might find a wonderful desktop tool in which to while away our days. Let's take a closer look.

The Basics

Vendor  Adobe Systems, Inc.
Product Name
 CS4 or Adobe Contribute 5.0
Product Category
 Web Publishing, Micro Publishing, Web Content Management
Typical Scenario
Simple Online Publishing, Small to Medium Website Management
Bad Fit Scenario
Large Websites, Database Driven Websites, Ecommerce

Company & Product History

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for, well, your entire life, you’re at the very least a smidge aware of Adobe’s offerings. Photoshop alone has revolutionized the standard of online photographs, of graphic design, and in some (a lot of) cases, our online personas (looks). Of course, the benefits don’t stop at aesthetics.

In September of last year, the release of Web Premium CS4 especially highlighted a topic that’s got many companies in a tizzy. Regulars like Photoshop and Illustrator are given parts of the release, but also along for the ride is the lesser-known contender, Contribute v5.0.

Where From Contribute?

The software was first introduced by Macromedia in 2003. It was aimed at allowing users to collaboratively publish, author and review Web content without learning HTML.

When Contribute was first released, Macromedia heavily promoted the ease of use for any and all Web writers, claiming it to be a tech layman’s game despite the high quality output and advanced capabilities.

In 2006 -- post acquisition -- Adobe jumped on the blogging bandwagon and re-marketed Contribute as a one-stop-shop for editors -- but in spite of the trendy use of the word “blogger”, it was pretty much the same thing.

The not so well known (nor seemingly that actively developed) Contribute Publishing Server (CPS) has been along for the ride. But hey it's 2009 and CPS is at v1.11. So we're thinking she's never been nor is likely to ever be the star of the show.

Market & Pricing

Still aiming to serve the same audience of writers, Adobe presently boasts productivity as their new “killer feature”.

Seemingly bent on conforming Contribute’s marketing strategy around current Web memes, the publishing software will now reportedly boost publishing ROI by increasing content management efficiency. Not only is it a browser-less publishing tool, it also allows users to manage content living in Dreamweaver templates. Collaboration gains are offered once the Publishing Server is hitched up. That's the story.

Pricing

You can buy the desktop software outright for US$ 199 or existing owners can upgrade for US$ 99. A 5 user multi-pack lists for US$ 799 or you can go with the entire CS4 suite for US$ 1,699.

Contribute Publishing Server is an additional cost. Each CPS user must have a client access license which runs US$ 89 each. For example, if you have ten Contribute CS4 users connecting to a Contribute Publishing Server, then you need ten access licenses. This is similar to how Microsoft CALs work.

Ye Ol’ Requirements

The following is a list of the requirements we had for a good browser-less blogging service and how Contribute measures up:

  • Runs on Windows [Yes!]
  • Access to all of MT's article fields [Sort of...requires modifications.]
  • WYSIWYG HTML/XHTML Editor [Yes!]
  • Spell checker [Yes!]
  • Access to article categories [Yes!]
  • Ability to set publish date [Yes!]
  • Access/editing of previous articles [No]
  • Image/file upload support [Yes!]
  • Support for multiple Blogs [Yes!]
  • Usable, intuitive interface [Yes!]

Have a Look See

9/10 on the CMSWire scale ain’t bad, but it’s still not a 10. And there is some hacking around required to get close to replicating access to all of a blogs fields. Contribute has a field for Tags, for example, yet the contents of this field does not end up in Movable Type's Tags field -- it get embedded in the body of the article.

With that said, the slew of options Adobe is known for offering with their products is nice. For starters, once you set up a Contribute connection to your blog (it’s fairly easy), you can choose to publish directly from Microsoft Word, from your browser (Windows only) or from Contribute’s Interface. This scenario of course only applies if you are using a limited set of fields (probably just Title, Category and Body).

contribute_connection_ss.jpg

Contribute Welcome Screen

Additionally, Contribute’s Interface is quite intuitive. The WYSIWYG editor didn’t display the page exactly as it is, but it came fairly close.

adobe contribute screen shot 1.jpg

Contribute WYSIWYG Editing of a New Article

As you can see, the editor is fairly bulky -- something we’re not too fond of, but the bulk is generally for good reason.

The various toolbars located at the top are heavy with options and editable fields, including tags, drop down menus for multiple category selection, editable publish dates and times and the option to toggle between different blog connections. Other run of the mill options include HTML tools for link management, images and spell check (a handy new feature in v5).

contribute_spellcheck_ss.jpg

 Contribute Spell Check, New with Version 5.0

The HTML manipulation tools work fairly well -- as one would hope -- but the Link tool was a bit annoying, in that a) it assumes you are linking internally to existing pages, and b) it does not support microformats (i.e., you cannot set the rel="foo" link attribute).

Admittedly, this is common problem with many current WYSIWYG HTML editors. And microformats are an advanced topic, yes. But we'd expect a company like Adobe to be on top of this.

The Sticking Point

Using the software is definitely a breeze. At face value, everything is pretty straightforward and almost all questions that do arise can be answered after just a few seconds of digging and clicking around.

For us, there's a fundamental issue that would prevent using Contribute for publishing CMSWire articles. The basic use case, from what we see is too simple. For starters, we have to hack Contribute a bit to access all of Movable Type's native article fields. That's not too big of a deal, but is a hint that we're probably going to run into other problems, as we stray from the core use case path.

We also employ a number of custom fields. Most blogging and publishing tools either support or will soon support content type extensibility. Contribute does not currently handle this (from our preliminary testing), nor will it likely handle this well, we're guessing.

A few other things tripped us up. First, we don't seem to have access to previous articles. That's a bummer, since having that knowledge locally in the tool is very useful to an author.

Secondly, tags are a semi-controlled vocabulary. A good authoring interface will auto-fill tags to help keep this semi-control in place. That does not happen with Contribute. This means we're going to have a noisier vocabulary with a lot more duplication.

On another serious downside, entries that we’ve already got tucked away for in Draft mode in Movable Type aren’t accessible through Contribute. Though there’s a Send It feature to enable accessing your current entry from multiple computers, and even the ability to roll back to previous versions, once it’s published it seems it’s sent out in to the webverse without the slightest trace of it left on the software.

Extra, Extra

In addition to fulfilling most of our requirements from 2004, Contribute 5 offers a ton of features that have become the norm in more recent times:

  • In-browser editing: Edit pages directly in your Web browser without having to open another application. Supported browsers include Firefox 2 and IE 6 and 7.
  • Adobe Dreamweaver compatibility: Contribute CS4 works with Adobe Dreamweaver CS4 templates and allows users to design sites while letting content contributors add to it without risk.
  • In-context shared reviews: Enable multiple reviewers to comment on drafts simultaneously with the in-context collaboration tool.
  • Enhanced CSS support: Improved CSS support and complete rendering fidelity between Contribute CS4 and Dreamweaver CS4.
  • Content expiration notification: Keep website content fresh. Set the expiration value for a single Contribute page or multiple pages and Contribute will notify the designated content contributors when the expiration date nears.
  • Dynamic website editing: Add content to dynamic websites powered by Movable Type, TypePad or WordPress with Contribute CS4.

Of course, Adobe wouldn’t be Adobe if it didn’t offer a little extra to their extra. In Contribute, the special somethin’ somethin’ comes in the form of a Draft Review Process and the Contribute Publishing Server.

Draft Review Process

If you’re working out of the office, out of the country or perhaps you just don’t want to move away from the comfort of your cubicle, collaborating with your team won’t be a problem. With Contrbute’s Draft Review Process, you can send a draft web page for edit, review or approval to anyone connected to the website.

The process is much like drafting a page in MovableType or WordPress for another site administrator to review, although Contribute sets some tight rules and regulations.

For example, only one reviewer can review a draft at a given time, even if a user sends them to multiple team members. Secondly, when a draft is sent in for review, the author transfers “ownership” of that draft and cannot proceed to the next stage in the workflow until the draft comes back.

Additionally, 100% approval rate is required. If an author sends a draft to 3 reviewers and one out of those 3 rejects it, the page is automatically removed from the list of accessible files for the other two reviewers and is sent back to the author for a re-do.

Publishing Server

If you think the Draft Review Process is a tad controlling, then brace yourself for Contribute’s Publishing Server. The server application (free to try) provides central administration and tracking of user access and publishing activities on the website.

Supported on Windows, Linux, UNIX or standard J2EE application environments, the app not only allows IT heads to manage everything centrally (including site connections and access permissions) it also reveals the publishing activities of users by way of e-mail notification.

Built on three main ideas, Contribute Publishing Server is designed to deliver the following:

  • Control: It’s not such a bad thing. Adobe aims to ensure that design standards are met, functionality is maintained and code is protected. Additionally the audit trail is a clever way to provide the information needed for basic measures of ROI.
  • Compatibility: CPS is compatible with existing Web and IT infrastructures and works across platforms, enabling web publishing in almost any computing environment.
  • Enterprise ready: Contribute is a scalable solution that can be deployed across an entire organization. Additionally, it offers integration with Active Directory and LDAP user directories using Contribute Publishing Services.

Final Take: Where is the Need?

As just one of the many legs supporting the infamous 27 year old, San Jose-based company, it’s easy to assume Contribute is just as viable a product as their main offerings. But considering that it’s been available to customers for over 5 years and has yet to gain a sustainable claim to fame (regardless of its ever-changing marketing strategy), it’s questionable whether the product will ever become the cure-all for writers that Adobe hopes it to be.

At the end of the day, one thing is important to note here: We still authored this post in Firefox. Partially because of the aforementioned trouble we ran into, partially because our specific needs don’t include the extra extras that Contribute offers, but mostly because as different clients have strived over the years to become more intuitive, so have browsers.

Browser Wars have been a hot ticket around here for quite some time, and with recent innovative developments that include the integration of social media tools, enhanced mobile options and plug-in on top of plug-in, the tides have unexpectedly turned. No longer do we strive to get rid of our browsers; we now hold them close to our hearts.

And so, on a purely blogging basis, we ask all of you, if you can edit with your beloved and ever-enhancing *free* browser, what about Contribute could ever compel the masses to pay money for the same thing?