The ABC of CD-Publishing

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CD: The Forgotten Publishing Medium

Tom Arah shows you the easy way to effective CD-based publishing.

When thinking of computer-based publishing, print-based DTP and web-based design immediately spring to mind, but there’s another medium that is easily forgotten and seriously undervalued – CD-based publishing. After all, just about every desktop system has come with a CD reader for many years now so the potential audience is vast (arguably larger than the total web audience). And with each CD providing an impressive 640-700MB of high-speed storage costing just a few pence, the publishing benefits are unarguable. And the possibilities – training resources, design portfolios, college prospectuses, photo slideshows, local guides, business reports, educational games – are endless.

So what do you need to begin CD-based publishing, apart from the obvious CD-writer (again so cheap these days as to be an almost insignificant overhead)? To ensure the maximum impact, there’s no doubt that the best option is to turn to dedicated multimedia software such as JASC Opus Pro, or the market-leading Macromedia Director. Again the monetary investment needn’t be that great – JASC’s cut-down Opus Presenter for example costs just £100. However you do have to invest considerable time and effort, especially if you’re going to make the most of the underlying programming languages such as Director’s Lingo (and of course keep up-to-date with the latest trends via Kevin Partner’s Multimedia RW column).

Professional CD authoring tools such as Macromedia Director are beyond the reach of most users.

That’s too much to ask of the average user which partly explains the low profile of CD-based publishing. However there are plenty of alternative options and, as we’ll see, you don’t have to become a professional multimedia developer to produce professional results. In fact you don’t necessarily have to learn any new software at all. After all, the most common application in which the majority of computer users create their content is Microsoft Word, so its DOC file has become a de facto exchange standard. And with reasonable layout capabilities and the ability to embed graphics and more recently TrueType fonts too for viewing and printing, the DOC format’s design credentials are acceptable if not exactly exciting.

AutoRun

Of course just burning your DOC files to a CD can only be called publishing in the loosest sense. To begin with, it’s clearly not desirable or professional to have to rely on your end user navigating to the CD and then hoping that they load the correct file. A much better option is to take advantage of Windows’ Autorun capability which is designed to automatically run an EXE file when the CD is inserted (sadly Mac users’ equivalent autoplay feature has been disabled in OS X). All you need to do is create a plain text file called autorun.inf to call the EXE file and any associated parameters, and optionally to include a link to an ICO icon file or file containing the icon information that will represent the CD drive in My Computer ie

[ autorun]

open=[ exepath\] exefile [param1 [param2] ...]

icon= iconfilename

The problem is that the path to where the end user’s copy of Word is stored will vary from one system to another so in practice the open command is effectively limited to EXEs delivered on the CD.

A solution, on more recent Windows systems at least, is to take advantage of a new Autorun capability, ShellExecute, which lets you load documents into the application with which they are associated so that

[ autorun]

shellexecute =report.doc

automatically opens Word and the desired DOC from the CD’s root directory. An even better option that works on all systems since Windows 95 is to take advantage of Koen Mannaerts' ShellExe (free from www.whirlywiryweb.com) Simply copy the freely distributable shellexe.exe into the root directory with your documents and the following autorun.inf

 [ autorun]
open=shellexe.exe report.doc report.txt

will automatically load Word and the desired document and, if Word isn’t available, it will load the fallback text-only version into the editor with which TXT files are associated, usually Notepad.

Alternatively, to provide an all-round more professional experience, Klaus Schwenk’s CDMenuPro (US$90 from www.cdmenupro.com, demo on cover CD) lets you create an aumatically loading, multi-option, graphical front-end for your CD. Working in CDMenuPro’s visual and template-based environment you can simply drag documents onto your workspace layout and a linked menu button is automatically created. You can also quickly add text, graphics, rollovers, dropdowns, sub-pages, audio and even a high impact AVI trailer. You can then preview your front end and CDMenuPro automatically checks for potential compatibility problems such as filenames that are over 64 characters or include spaces, AVI codec and so on. When you’re happy, you can then compile all your menu resources into a single neat CD_Start.exe and the necessary autorun.inf to load it. Copy the project folder to CD and that’s it - assuming that the end user hasn’t turned off AutoPlay of course!

With the help of autorun.inf, CDMenuPro can provide an impressive front end to your CD.

Our CD front end is now looking seriously impressive, but the same can’t be said of the use of Word DOC files as the delivery medium. Word might be the most popular word processor but that still doesn’t mean that everyone uses it and there’s nothing worse than giving your end user a publication they can’t see (and providing a text-only fallback really is scraping the publishing barrel). The problem is made worse by the fact that there are many different versions of Word in use on both PC and Mac platforms, each with differing capabilities. The end result is that, even if your DOC does load, you can’t rely on the layout that you created on your system being rendered perfectly on another. And anyway the whole idea of viewing within an editor hardly makes your publication seem like the finished article.

Acrobat

A much better option, and one which still allows you to use Word as your authoring app if you so wish, is to turn to an Acrobat authoring solution such as Adobe’s Acrobat Standard or Professional or a third-party shareware or freeware equivalent. Essentially all these applications work by diverting PostScript output destined for print and converting this into an Acrobat PDF (portable document format) file. This has a number of immediate advantages. All fonts and graphics are embedded in the one file and thanks to PostScript, the layout is guaranteed to be replicated absolutely exactly on all platforms. And because the PDF format is fixed, it is well suited to security measures and has much greater authority than an equivalent editable Word DOC.

The real strength of the Acrobat format is the Adobe Reader application with which the PDF is viewed. To begin with the latest version of the Reader is freely available from the Adobe site and for a whole host of platforms ranging from Windows 3.1 and MacOS 7.5.3 through to Linux and Sun Solaris SPARC. More to the point, because the Reader is so ubiquitous (over 500 million downloads so far), your end user will almost certainly have the Reader already installed so that your publication is immediately readable. And just in case they don’t, you can freely distribute the latest Reader software on your CD.

There’s no doubt that Acrobat is an amazing publishing medium and the ability to print to PDF from any application is a huge strength. However to do the medium any sort of justice you really need to move up from Word as an authoring medium. In particular all modern professional DTP and graphic design applications now include direct PDF export enabling the highest quality, full- colour print-oriented design to be immediately output to PDF as well as to paper. And being able to produce your PDF directly rather than via a print file provides a number of advantages including the ability to set up selectable bookmarks and and live URL links. Using Adobe InDesign 2 or Acrobat 6 Professional you can even add button-based navigation and interactivity, forms and multimedia elements such as audio and video.

Acrobat is ideal for repurposing high quality print work for CD delivery.

With a little bit of effort it’s possible to produce a high-impact, interactive, multimedia PDF designed for onscreen viewing but, with its fixed page-based metaphor, Acrobat will always be primarily associated with print. From the author’s point of view this isn’t a problem and Acrobat’s ability to repurpose print publications of any length in full- colour with virtually no production costs is unbeatable - but it’s a different story for the end user. Like everyone else, my heart sinks when software arrives on CD with the only documentation being a 500-page PDF manual. The bottom line is that viewing the printed page through the window of a computer screen just isn’t ideal for prolonged onscreen reading.

HTML

So why not use a publishing medium that was designed specifically to be viewed onscreen? The obvious candidate is web publishing with its emphasis on a simple, easily readable single column of resizable and reflowable text based on a limited choice of fonts (Arial, Times, Tahoma, Verdana) that are particularly well suited for low resolution screen rendering. Especially as the continuous ongoing interaction required for viewing hypertext makes browsing a website a much more natural and involving onscreen experience than reading a PDF.

And it’s simple enough to ensure that an HTML/ CSS-based site designed with any of the main authoring apps from NetObjects Fusion to Macromedia Dreamweaver can also be delivered via CD, so giving you two publishing media for the price of one. Essentially all you need to do is make sure that your filenames aren’t going to cause problems (keep them reasonably short and avoid spaces), that there’s no server involvement ( eg no data-driven pages or FrontPage components) and that all links within the site are relative rather than absolute ( ie no URLs unless you deliberately want your publication to link to content on the Web), and then copy all the files to the CD.

Most websites can be delivered as a CD-based publication.

Providing your CD publication in HTML/ CSS format like this offers huge advantages. To begin with, because HTML is built on hypertext the necessary navigation and front end/home page to your interactive publication come built in, and should be immediately understood and accessible by your audience. Most importantly, you can be confident that, whatever their platform, your users will have a web browser installed so everyone should be able to view your content immediately. Best of all, and the real advantage of CD delivery, you are free to move beyond the normal text and static graphics of the Web, to include animations, audio and video. After all a 1MB file that would take 3 minutes to download with a 56k modem, can be opened in a fraction of a second by a typical CD reader so there’s nothing to stop you turning your CD publication into a rich multimedia experience.

Flash

Having said that, you still need to ensure that your readers can view such multimedia content and that means they will need to have the necessary player installed. Fortunately there’s one player that is so ubiquitous as to be almost universal. Macromedia claims that its Flash SWF format is accessible on “more than 97% of Internet-enabled desktops worldwide” and, although it’s important to stress that this headline figure includes all player versions, after less than a year the latest Flash Player 7 already averages around 75% penetration and Player 6 nearly 95%. Such a massive audience and rapid take-up is easily understood when you remember that Flash provides a one-stop multimedia solution enabling the delivery of highly compressed and streaming vector animations, audio and video.

Flash is undoubtedly the best way to give your otherwise static HTML pages a new multimedia dimension and to take advantage of the storage space and data transfer speeds that CD delivery offers – but why not cut out the middleman? After all, as well as its dynamic media handling capabilities, Flash can also handle bitmaps (JPEGs and PNGs), text (internal with embedded fonts or loaded at runtime and formatted via CSS) and navigation (via its ActionScript programming language), so it’s more than capable of filling the central HTML role.

And delivering your publication via Flash alone has a number of advantages. To begin with, a standalone Flash publication completely breaks free from the PDF and HTML page-based metaphor to make the absolute most of screen-based delivery (even offering scalability where desirable). It also seems less like a work in progress and more like the finished article than a website. Using Macromedia Flash you can even encapsulate your SWF and the necessary player into a single, autorun-friendly, Projector EXE (and Mac HQX equivalent) though these days the cross-platform benefits of HTML-based delivery of your standalone Flash publication tend to make this the better option (essentially there are more non-PC users than users without Flash). And of course you have the unbeatable advantage of being able to provide exactly the same publication as efficiently as possible via the Web as well as via CD.

Macromedia Flash provides an ideal publishing medium but a steep learning curve.

Most obviously, authoring the entire publication in Flash allows you to take full advantage of its amazing capabilities and so take your publication into entirely new territory. With its multimedia handling, for example, why not provide an optional spoken version of your publication’s text or even a personalized video of you delivering it? Even more impressive publishing power comes if you get to grips with ActionScript. This is capable of much more than just handling navigation, in fact it’s developed into a powerful programming language in its own right so that you can effectively turn your publication into an advanced application – adding form-based interaction, checking data, handling variables, calculating results, running quizzes, providing games and so on. In short it’s difficult to think of things you can’t do with Flash.

There’s no doubt that Flash provides the most powerful and accessible medium for our CD publication. However it has a major problem: ease of use. Getting to grips with Macromedia Flash MX 2004 and Actionscript is no easier than getting to grips with a dedicated multimedia authoring application such as Macromedia Director MX 2004 and Lingo. In fact it’s actually more difficult to start achieving results with Flash than it is with most multimedia authoring packages. In particular just to produce a simple, step-by-step, multi-screen Flash publication, you’ll need to learn about adding frames and labels to the timeline, creating frame-based button symbols, and adding MovieControl actions to both your buttons and the timeline. And until you get everything right, your slides will simply flash past when you try and preview your project!

There’s no reason that it should be so difficult. After all, a program like Microsoft PowerPoint makes it child’s play to create high-impact, template-based slide-based screen presentations complete with animations, audio, video and automatic navigation based either on timings or mouse-clicks. In fact it’s so simple that it’s very tempting to consider using PowerPoint as your CD-based screen authoring application - but it too has a major downside: accessibility. It’s just not feasible to expect your end users to install the PowerPoint Viewer application   before they can see your publication.

Articulate Presenter

What we really need is a combination of PowerPoint’s ease of authoring and Flash’s unmatched delivery. And that’s exactly what Articulate Presenter 4.1 (US$599 from www.articulateglobal.com, demo on cover CD) provides. And in the simplest possible way, by integrating itself directly into PowerPoint 2000 or later and then letting you output your presentations to Flash via a new Publish command. Naturally the focus here is on web delivery and producing highly compressed and streaming SWF versions of each slide, but there’s also a CD-ROM optimized publishing option. Alongside the SWFs, this outputs two Javascripted HTML files to take care of setting up the browser (removing menus and toolbars to make it appear like a standalone application window) and loading the Flash files, and an Artpresenter.exe and Autorun.inf so that the presentation will automatically load when the CD is inserted into any Windows system (users on all other platforms simply have to load the index.html).

It sounds simple – and it is – but Articulate Presenter offers a lot more than just an efficient way of outputting sequential static SWF slides. To begin with it offers its own Flash-friendly audio capabilities so that you can add MP3 files and, crucially, record your own slide commentary. This latter is particularly significant as, for most desktop-bound end users, listening is a far more attractive option than reading - and more memorable too. Articulate also supports no less than 165 of PowerPoint’s animation features for handling bullet points, graphics and so on and, unlike PowerPoint, it lets you quickly synchronize these to your soundtrack. And Articulate lets you insert a range of external media into your presentation namely: external Flash movies which are ideal for adding video and advanced interactivity; “web objects” which covers any browsable content from a scrollable HTML page or form to an entire website; and other files, such as PDFs or DOCs, which are handled as attachments.

Best of all Articulate Presenter wraps up all your dynamic SWF slides, audio and other content within its own attractive and powerful Flash player module. Along the bottom of the screen this provides intuitive slide controls (next, previous, pause, timing feedback and sound management) along with optional fly-out slide note display. Even more impressive is the tabbed side panel which displays either a selectable outline or thumbnails of your presentation or a live search panel, along with a photo of the presenter and fly-out details and contact options.

Articulate Presenter turns PowerPoint into a simple Flash-based publishing platform.

We’ve certainly come a long from burning a Word DOC and autorun.inf file to disk. With the PowerPoint/Articulate Presenter combination it’s simplicity itself to produce a design-rich, dynamic, interactive, screen-optimized publication complete with audio and other media content that is instantly accessible to around 95% of all computer users (as Articulate output is Flash 6 compatible), can be successfully delivered via both CD and the Web and is wrapped within its own professional, efficient and intuitive interface. Not bad for a morning’s work.

Tom Arah

October 2004


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