Macromedia Director MX

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An improved interface, accessibility and integration with the rest of the MX platform especially Flash - but the latest Director is still disappointing.

There's been plenty of excitement generated by the recent launches of Macromedia's MX applications. So far Flash, Dreamweaver, Fireworks and FreeHand have all been given the MX treatment and now it's the turn of Director. In many ways this should be the most exciting release of the lot. After all, via the Shockwave player, Director can claim to provide the richest web experience possible, even outstripping Flash. So does Director MX live up to its potential and deserve its place in the MX suite?

The first feature that unites the MX applications is their interface. In the past Director relied on a host of differently shaped and sized floating palettes. Now these have been turned into consistent panels, most of which are conveniently docked to the side of the screen. By default Director's central document window, the Stage, remains floating while both the Cast panel, containing all project elements, and the Score, where the project timeline is controlled, are docked to the bottom of the screen, and the main Property Inspector panel runs down the right. If you prefer another arrangement you can save this as a panel set and you can always close or open any docker, panel or tab with a single click.

Director now shares the docker window-based MX interface

Macromedia has also grasped the opportunity to undertake some much needed rationalization. Previously Director provided a whole range of occasionally used palettes such as the Behaviour, Text and Memory Inspectors and the Align and Library windows. These have now been turned into the tabs of a new Utilities panel group positioned by default under the main Property Inspector. Most sensible of all is the decision to incorporate the previous Control palette, used for playing and stepping through your project, into a button bar at the bottom of the Stage.

The new interface certainly helps boost productivity and it's the biggest overhaul since Macromind Director began its life back in 1988. Even so, it's a pity that the revamp didn't go further. The problem is much more fundamental than just the lack of modern staples such as a multiple undo and the ability to open more than one project at a time. The whole stage, cast and score metaphor is an underpowered hang-over from Director's earlier, simpler days and it just doesn't fit well with the other members of the MX stable causing needless confusion, say, between the Flash/FreeHand use of Libraries and Instances and Director's use of Casts and Sprites. When the Flash interface underwent the MX makeover it felt fundamental, with Director it feels much more cosmetic.

What gives Director MX its most obvious edge, compared to Flash MX with its vector bias and Fireworks MX with its bitmap bias, is that it's always been designed to handle as wide a range of media as possible. In the past you could create and edit these media through another set of separate floating windows. Now these have all been joined together as tabs on a new Edit panel group - double-click on a cast member and the element appears in the appropriate tab ready for editing. Again it's really just cosmetic, but it does make a big psychological difference by making you feel in instant control of all the elements in your project.

Where Director is unique in the MX platform is in its support for the two most advanced multimedia elements: long format video and 3D. The Edit panel has separate tabs for dealing with RealMedia (both audio and video) and QuickTime and the latter has been enhanced to cover the latest QuickTime 6 with its streaming MPEG4 capabilities. Even more impressive is Director's support for the Intel-inspired Shockwave 3D format which was introduced in Director 8.5 and enables the creation of everything from interactive 3D presentations through to stunning games. Much less impressive is the fact that Director's new 3D capabilities have been left virtually untouched in this release.

Instead Macromedia has concentreated on the basics. Director MX supports a wide range of bitmap formats including BMP and GIF alongside the obvious JPEG. These can be edited in the Paint tab of the Edit panel, but the power on offer here is embarrassing. A much better option is to edit your bitmaps with Fireworks MX and you can set a preference so that double-clicking on any bitmap opens it into Fireworks rather than the Edit:Paint panel. You can also open any bitmap image directly into Fireworks' optimization mode with a single click.

In fact the integration goes much further than this. Director supports Fireworks MX's PNG file natively so that you can import files directly into the current Cast without exporting them first. For more advanced work including image tables and scripting, Director MX includes an Xtra package for easing the cross-application workflow. This lets you export layers, buttons and even disjointed rollovers as cast members that are positioned correctly and in which Fireworks' Javascript-based scripts are recognized as editable Director MX behaviours. Bizarrely however Fireworks itself is no longer bundled alongside Director (SoundEdit has also been dropped).

Rather than bitmaps and Fireworks, Director MX's new focus is on vectors via its support for the latest Flash MX files. This integration isn't as tight as it is with Fireworks as you can't import Flash's native FLA format files; but you can import Flash's exported SWF files. More importantly, when you double-click on a Flash MX cast member, Director MX automatically opens the associated FLA file and then, once you've made your changes, all you need to do is click on Done and the new SWF is exported from Flash and re-imported into your project. I'd still like to see Director's woefully limited native vector shape editing improved but, if you're an existing Flash MX user, this certainly opens up enormous power.

Director MX offers Flash MX round-triping.

Apart from its support for so many different media, Director's success comes from the way it enables these different elements to be handled and brought to life. The easiest way to achieve this is through dragging and dropping from the range of pre-supplied Behaviours available from the Utilities:Library tab. Ultimately though, to take absolute control, you need to write your own scripts in Director's dedicated programming language, Lingo.

All Lingo work is handled in the floating Script window (which can be tidily grouped with the other Edit panels). This offers a number of new buttons for controlling auto colouring, auto formatting and line numbering as well as new separate alphabeticized and categorized lists of the 3D Lingo commands. The biggest improvement lies in the incorporation of the previously separate Debug window, with the Script window now switching to debugging mode when a breakpoint is encountered. Thanks to the new Object Inspector tab on the Utilities panel, you can also speed debugging by viewing and editing all the properties of your script instances as well as elements within your 3D and Flash MX content. These changes are all welcome but, compared to the scripting enivironments in Flash MX and Dreamweaver MX with their integrated reference and example-based help, programming in Director MX still seems old-fashioned and under-supported.

Scripting and debugging capabilities have been improved.

So what about new power? After version 8.5's introduction of over 300 3D Lingo commands expectations were high, but MX is much more limited in scope. There are new commands for controlling QuickTime sprites, but the main push is to open access to all the properties and methods of imported Flash MX objects. Potentially the most exciting capability here is the ability to create new Flash MX objects from within Lingo code to gain access to the MX platform's server-side capabilities. Working in conjunction with the Flash Communications Server MX (a personal edition for development work is bundled) this opens up the possibility of gaining direct access to end users' installed webcams and microphones for multi-user communication, while in conjunction with Flash Remoting MX and/or ColdFusion MX it opens up direct access to server-side data and web services. It's potentially exciting but it's significant that this capability is piggy-backed through Flash MX and ActionScript rather than being native to Director and Lingo.

In fact there is one area where Director MX does see the introduction of significant new power - accessibility. Nowadays making your content accessible to users with disabilities is a necessity and Director MX embraces the fact and turns it into a major all-round strength. This is most easily done with the ten new Behaviours available from the Utilities: Library tab. The first of these, including Target, Item, Group Order and Keyboard Controller, are designed to set up other ways of interacting with an application other than with a mouse - most obviously by tabbing from element to element.

The second set, including Speak and Speak Member, are designed to help those users with visual impairment by reading out text associated with a sprite when the end user tabs to or clicks on it. More advanced behaviours include the ability to hear each letter spoken as it is typed and to synchronize speech with onscreen captions. If you want to take absolute control you can create your own scripts with the relevant Speech Lingo commands, but the pre-supplied behaviours are all you need to quickly graft on accessibility to your existing applications.

New behaviours are the secret to adding accessibility to existing applications.

And it's not just those with disabilities who will benefit. Director's text-to-speech capability doesn't depend on screen reader software but on a new Speech Xtra and the underlying OS. The downsides of this are the almost inevitable explosion of unnecessarily self-voicing web applications and the fact that Microsoft Sam is not the most engaging of speakers. When used sensibly however, on projects such as kiosk-style presentations, Director MX's new self-voicing capability is a huge plus and speech can be seen as another string to Director's multimedia bow.

Improved accessibility is a step forward and another reason to turn to Director MX, but it's certainly not the kind of advance that version 8.5's move into 3D represented. One positive side of this is that, to take advantage of the latest Director-produced web applications, end users aren't going to need to upgrade their existing 8.51 Shockwave players. And according to Macromedia this means that Director MX content is immediately accessible to 63% of the web audience and over three hundred million users (though Macromedia does have a misleading tendency to bundle in all player versions to these figures).

Shockwave web publishing is certainly Director's unique selling-point compared to other multimedia authoring packages, but the format doesn't have the all-pervading 98% penetration of Flash. And this is Director's main problem. At one stage the benefits that Director offered over and above Flash were compelling. Nowadays Flash MX is so powerful with its own advanced programming language, multimedia capabilities and now integration with server-side technologies, that for most design-intensive web work it's all that's required.

Director still offers many strengths that Flash lacks - long format video, 3D handling, extensibility, advanced memory management and now text-to-speech - and it's worth remembering that the majority of Director work is still delivered via CD and DVD. However what makes Director stand out from the competition and makes it part of the MX platform is Shockwave's web-based delivery of rich content, and this is now under serious threat from Macromedia's very own Flash MX. Moreover, judging by the latest releases of each, it's clear where the momentum - and Macromedia's main development interest and effort -  currently lies.

By grafting on Flash MX support, Macromedia has ensured that Director MX isn't left behind. However a holding operation like this isn't really good enough for what should be the MX flagship.


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System requirements: Pentium 300MHz, 128MB of RAM, 100MB of hard disk space, Windows 98 SE, 2000 or XP, CD-ROM, 1024 x 768

Tom Arah

Dec 2002

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