Macromedia Flash 5

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With a new interface, workflow improvements, sophisticated interactivity and enhanced text handling, Flash 5 offers much for the developer - but less for the designer.

Trial downloads/special offers from Macromedia

Flash has certainly come a long way since its launch in 1996. Originally the program was conceived of as a simple way of adding a bit of dynamism and impact to your Web pages through frame-by-frame vector animations. Today, in its fourth incarnation, it’s the secret behind a third of the top 50 Web sites, providing a rich and dynamic alternative to the typically flat and static HTML experience. Success breeds competition however, and Flash is suddenly under attack, most notably from Adobe LiveMotion. With its rush release of Flash 5, Macromedia is determined to stop its rival in its tracks.

If it’s to succeed in this, one of the longstanding limitations that the new release has to tackle is the Flash interface. The program’s cartoon-based origins have always revealed themselves in its friendly - aka amateurish - look-and-feel and its idiosyncratic working environment. Now the childish icons and confusing menus have gone, replaced by a much more professional toolbox and command structure. Overall Flash 5 seems much more like the other Macromedia design applications right down to the ability to customise keyboard shortcuts.

With its redesigned toolbox and customisable keyboard shortcuts the Flash 5 interface falls more into line with other high-end design applications.

By far the biggest difference in the working environment though is the sudden proliferation of no less than twenty-four palettes. Some of these, such as the Info and Transform palettes replace existing Inspectors. Others such as the new Stroke, Fill, Character and Paragraph palettes replace former toolbox options, while the Effects palette allows transparency and other colour effects to be applied without having to dig through drop-down lists hidden away in tabbed dialogs.

Providing so much of the program’s power quickly to hand certainly boosts efficiency for the expert user but, as always with floating palette-based systems, there’s the danger of overload and confusion. Thankfully the Flash 5 system is advanced with the ability to group and dock palettes, to save and reload arrangements, and to quickly access the palette you need through the Dreamweaver-style launcher bar in the bottom right of the movie window.

The score of new palettes put plenty of power to hand – though managing them can become a problem in its own right.

In the past Flash’s tools have been just as unusual as its interface, centred on the painterly brush rather than the precision pen. Now these have been brought more into line with other drawing packages with the provision of a Pen tool for adding bezier-based lines and, crucially, a Direct Select tool for selecting and editing lines and shapes once they’ve been added. These drawing staples are long overdue and very welcome, but it’s disappointing that Macromedia didn’t take the opportunity to throw in tools for adding shapes such as polygons, stars and arrows.

Flash 5 now offers bezier-based drawing and node editing but its idiosyncratic background in cartoon-based painting remains strong.

Flash 5’s move towards the drawing mainstream is certainly going in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go before all the idiosyncracies are ironed out and productivity is maximized. While you can now apply fills by selecting an object and double-clicking on the Swatches palette, for example, to change a stroke you still need to use the awkward Ink Bottle tool. And it’s still all too easy to move fills independently of their outlines or to merge or slice objects unintentionally! Even more disappointing is the way that Flash 5 seems to have learned nothing from LiveMotion regarding animation with no significant changes to its complex frame and layer-based timeline.

The end result is that while the Flash 5 working environment is undoubtedly more professional and, in the right hands, more productive - you couldn’t say it was any easier. In fact in many ways it is even more intimidating. Bizarrely then, especially considering its new competition, Flash 5 largely ignores ease of use and, in the process, the majority of its entry-level and mid-range users. Instead all the effort in Flash 5 is focused at the high-end. The good news is that for these advanced users there’s no shortage of new power.

To begin with there’s the new Movie Explorer palette. This provides a hierarchical outline view of all the elements in the current project. You can quickly set the palette to show all the text, graphics, actions, multimedia or frames and layers in the current movie, or customise the settings to isolate just the elements you are interested in. Once you’ve found the item in the list, you can quickly jump to it, rename it, delete it or edit it. For simple animations this is probably overkill but for advanced projects, especially involving collaborative teamworking, it’s a godsend.

The Movie Explorer palette helps bring complex projects under control.

Also a boon for teamworking is the new concept of the shared library. This allows symbols used in more than one movie to be stored centrally in a single external location. Any changes to the symbols in the shared library are immediately reflected across all movies in which they appear. Even better, as the shared symbols only need to be downloaded once, the overall download times for multiple movie sites can be reduced.

Flash 5 also recognises that maximum productivity depends on leveraging other applications and fitting in with larger workflows. Central to this is the ability to work hand-in-hand with both FreeHand and Fireworks. In particular the new ability to map FreeHand pages to scenes while maintaining layers is ideal for storyboarding, while the ability to maintain vector information in Fireworks PNG files makes it easier to swap seamlessly between bitmap and vector output. In fact this support for native files is far superior to the previous SWF export-import system that Macromedia pushed so heavily with its recent releases of FreeHand 9 and Fireworks 3 and, interestingly, works just as well with earlier releases.

Flash 5 improves project management and workflow integration but much the biggest change for the power user is the new handling of interactivity. In the past control over actions was hidden away in sub-dialog drop-downs but now the new Actions palette brings this right into the mainstream. By default you still build up actions by dragging and dropping from the range of building-block commands but now the underlying ActionScript syntax is exposed. In practice this is very like Javascript and confident programmers can use the palette’s Expert mode to enter code directly and check it with the dedicated Debugger palette.

With its direct ActionScript support and debugger, Flash 5 foregrounds programming.

Once you’ve built up an instance of sophisticated interactivity the chances are that you’ll want to reuse it for another object or another project. You can now do this by exporting and importing scripts as text, but a more advanced option is the use of SmartClips. These are reusable interactive components designed to aid rapid application development. The Drop-Down List Maker shows what can be done with the ability to quickly add and delete drop-down menu commands from the dedicated Clip Parameters palette. Macromedia clearly expects a booming trade in third-party development but for such core functionality I wish that Flash would do the honours itself.

SmartClips are reusable components designed to help rapid application developoment.

As well as new means of tapping Flash’s existing programming power, Flash 5 has also extended the range of functionality available. The commands in the Actions palette are divided into folders of basic actions, operators, functions, properties and objects. The new Objects folder itself contains fifteen subfolders, such as Key and Sound which contain their own commands and functions for determining, for example, which key is being pressed or for managing the panning of sound. Particularly important are the new XML and XML Socket folders which contain all the commands you need to set up the transfer of information-rich XML between client and server and back.

The potential opened up by the new level of programmability is enormous with Flash now able to provide everything you need to design anything from an online game to an online shop complete with sales forms, customer surveys, stock availability charts and virtual shopping carts. Rather than acting as just a dynamic add-on, Flash 5 is now capable of running the whole show. As Macromedia puts it, "Flash has broadened from simple animations created by individuals to complex Web applications maintained by entire teams."

In many cases that’s true and, for the power-hungry Web sites that were previously hitting the limitations of Flash, the new functionality opens up huge possibilities. On the other hand those individual users with simpler needs haven’t just disappeared and I’m not sure how many of them had appreciated the existing power, let alone hit its limitations. More to the point, for those who were feeling cramped, the obvious solution already existed - move up to the fully programmable Director Shockwave Studio. As such, while the full-time Flash developer will be delighted by the advanced programmability, the part-time Flash designer will most likely be intimidated and many will be driven screaming towards LiveMotion or even the budget Swish (see page ).

There’s another fundamental problem behind Macromedia’s repositioning of Flash 5 as a self-contained, total Web solution. The dynamism and interactivity of Flash are ideal for adding style, but no site can survive on style alone. Ultimately the Web is about providing information - after all you’re unlikely to buy a product without knowing exactly what it does. Unfortunately Flash’s standalone, graphical, screen-based approach isn’t well suited to managing large amounts of copy and keeping it up to the minute.

It’s a problem that Macromedia has long recognised and tried to tackle on a number of fronts. In particular its server-based Generator product can turn database information into SWF files on the fly and Flash 5 has been designed to work closely with the latest Generator 2 extensions. Generator’s dynamic approach is ideal for personalizing the Web experience (assuming your site has the budget for the server software) but it doesn’t really solve the problem that a scalable Flash screen can only contain so much information compared to a scrollable Web page.

Macromedia has come up with an ingenious solution – Web-native printing. Effectively this allows a Flash SWF-based page to be accessed and printed without being viewed. This "WYPINWYS" (what-you-print-is-not-what-you-see – I kid you not) system has a number of advantages the most obvious being that, thanks to the vector nature of SWF, you can control the appearance of the page layout far more exactly than you can in HTML while still keeping download time down. The example Macromedia is pushing is of the Flash-based banner ad which can be used to print out a full-page product spec.

Web-native printing allows fully formatted pages to be printed directly without ever being loaded onscreen.

It’s clever, but it’s not a total solution. You really need to provide the information users are looking for how and when they want it - and that is immediately and onscreen. Ultimately SWF just can’t compete with HTML for handling text. Again Macromedia’s solution is ingenious. In addition to its normal anti-aliased display text, Flash 5 now also offers HTML-based rich text support. Using the HTML 1 tags this enables basic formatting and hyperlinks to be set up and in the browser the text will be selectable and copyable. The real strength of the system is that HTML pages can be loaded dynamically from the server.

Again the feature is welcome but it’s only a partial solution. In fact with its HTML support, Flash 5 seems to be tying itself up in knots with the Flash plug-in player now acting as the host browser. Clearly this Flash-only approach is as nonsensical as reinventing the wheel – will future versions of Flash try adding table and style sheet support and so on? Why not just accept that HTML / XML is better suited for handling text and work with it rather than against it? Unfortunately this is where the Flash SWF format’s history as a standalone movie format counts against it. SWF just wasn’t designed with scriptable integration into the wider Web page in mind. Much more worrying for Macromedia is the fact that the new W3C-approved, XML-based SVG (scalable vector graphic) format was.

Ultimately it is SVG, rather than LiveMotion, which is the real threat on Flash’s horizon. After all, while there are only a limited number of advanced sites that would suit a 100% Flash 5 solution, every site could benefit from integrated vector-based navigational devices, eye-catching headings and so on. This will be the real battleground for the future of Web graphics. And initially it looks as if Macromedia has given up the fight already by moving Flash 5 out of the mainstream and repositioning it in high-end Shockwave territory.

The company isn’t giving up that easily however and, coinciding with the launch of Flash 5, announced the availability of the Macromedia Flash Enterprise Kit for Internet Explorer 5.5. This takes advantage of the latest Explorer’s ViewLink and Behaviours technology to enable HTML and SWF to be intermixed and layered and for Flash content to be controlled through pre-defined XML tags. Suggested uses include the ability to update SWF-based charts and navigational menus through XML without the operator even having to open Flash!

This is exciting stuff and will pitch SWF directly against SVG. As both technologies are only now emerging however, it’s a future battle. For the present Flash has no competition - SWF is a format that is already out there and doing the job. In particular with more than 250 million downloads and a claimed market penetration of 92% of online browsers it’s the existing Web vector standard. If you want to produce Web sites with a difference, Flash is the obvious solution and, with Flash 5’s advanced new functionality, the ceiling on what you can do with it has largely been removed.

In terms of sheer power then there’s no question that Flash 5 leaves the competition trailing. Unless usability is addressed soon however, there’s a serious danger that it will also leave behind the majority of its current users. By favouring the high-end at the expense of the mainstream, Flash 5 ends up competing with its own Director/Shockwave Studio stablemate rather than with its real rival, Adobe’s LiveMotion.

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System Requirements: Pentium 133 or higher, 32+Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, SVGA, CD-ROM, Windows 95 or later.

Tom Arah

August 2000

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