Macromedia Flash MX 2004

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New timeline effects, behaviours and components are designed to boost ease of use, but it's the improved text handling, extensibility and speed that stand out.

Trial downloads/special offers from Macromedia

Macromedia Flash began its life as FutureSplash, a simple app designed to deliver cartoon-style vector animations over the Web. Since then it has changed out of all recognition by adding multi-media support for bitmaps, audio and video and grafting on the ActionScript programming language to handle everything from basic button-based interactivity through to full-blown data-driven web application development. Throughout all the changes however, the underlying principle has remained the same: delivering the richest possible experience through the narrow pipeline that the Web provides.

Flash's amazing versatility is its greatest strength - but also its greatest problem. Flash's long-standing designers have become increasingly intimidated and confused by the new emphasis on programmability while the developers who are now attracted to the platform are baffled by features such as Flash's idiosyncratic drawing system and timeline. Macromedia's challenge is to try and satisfy both its left-brain and right-brain users. Its solution is to first split the program into two. The new Flash Professional MX 2004 (see over) is designed to cater for the 20% of users involved in advanced application development which means that Flash MX 2004 can concentrate on improving accessibility for the majority.

Flash MX 2004 shares the new Studio 2004 look-and-feel including the Start page, document tabs and a new integrated Help panel. It has also seen a serious reworking and rationalization of its menu structure with many options moved to secondary flyouts. A good example is the Window menu's list of panels which have now been divided into separate Designer and Developer cascading menus - this means you can still quickly find the Debugger and Output panels if you want to, but they aren't so intimidatingly in your face.  

In terms of new design functionality there's only one new tool in the form of the underpowered PolyStar option. Much more useful are the improved snapping options which include smart lines which automatically appear onscreen to help object alignment. That's about it for new in-built drawing capabilities, but these days Flash is less about originating and more about bringing together elements from other sources. Particularly useful here is the new support for advanced PDF and EPS (Illustrator 10) files which means that you can design your work in your favourite drawing program, even if its not FreeHand. There's also a new Video Import Wizard which lets you pick out multiple clips from a single file and re-use encoding and processing settings.

There's one media element that just about every Flash movie contains and whose importance is often overlooked: text. The most important advance here is the one that designers have been crying out for: the ability to turn off the smoothing effect of the Flash player's automatic anti-aliasing to improve the legibility of text at small sizes and on lower-resolution displays. The other major text innovation is the new support for CSS which means that tagged HTML and XML files that are loaded at runtime can be automatically and consistently styled and formatted. Support for the <img> tag has also been added enabling embedded graphics and text run-arounds.

And for even more advanced text handling, users can take advantage of Flash MX 2004's new Unicode support to produce localized content in any language. And to help in this, there's a new Strings panel which collects and tracks all character strings throughout the development process. To my mind this is pretty advanced stuff and could have been usefully hived off to the Professional version, but the new Spell Checker and Find and Replace will certainly be useful to all users.

Once you've assembled your components, you're ready to bring them to life. Flash's animation capabilities might have driven its rapid expansion, but with their reliance on layers, frames, keyframes, nested movie clips and so on, it's actually always been surprisingly hard to set up even the simplest effects. And trying to retrospectively edit them is even worse. At last Macromedia has tried to tackle this major problem with its introduction of Timeline Effects.

Timeline effects are simpler than setting up keyframes - but only just.

These are designed to help you perform all the most common animation tasks, such as changing position, size, opacity and so on, along with some less common and more eye-catching options, such as setting up animated blurs and drop shadows. Each effect is handled within a single dedicated dialog so that when you set up a slide-in, for example, you can set the distance, scaling factor, change in opacity, level of acceleration and so on, all at the same time. Each effect is automatically added to its own named layer and, crucially, you can recall the dialog to retrospectively fine-tune its settings.

It's the right idea but the implementation is seriously disappointing. With the honourable exception of the Explosion effect, the range on offer is creatively uninspiring. Having to control the effect out of context through a semi-detached dialog is restricting, especially as you have to set values rather than interactively manipulating your elements. And you can't easily run one effect into another on the same layer, or synchronize effects, or edit the effect at the keyframe level without first breaking it apart. In fact, in some ways the new timeline effects simply add to the complexity of Flash animation.

An even bigger challenge than making animation easier is to make Flash MX 2004's programmability accessible to the average user. To help in this, it has taken a leaf out of Dreamweaver's book and added a Behaviours panel. Using this you can quickly add the necessary scripts for handling actions such as managing navigation, loading and playing media, handling stacking order and movie clip dragging and linking to web pages - and all without having to enter any code yourself.

Behaviours and components make application development easier.

Alongside its pre-written behaviour scripts, Macromedia provides a whole range of preset components that more ambitious users can use as the building blocks to create more advanced Flash-based applications. New options include a new Numeric Stepper, Pop-Up Manager and Progress Bar components. At the same time the existing components - Button, Combo Box, Scroll Bar and so on - have been rewritten to share the new V2 component architecture which, alongside support for presentational skinning, offers in-built accessibility features such as tab and focus control.

The other big advantage of the new architecture is that it is designed to make it easier for third-party developers to produce their own components, say for adding bitmap effects or charts, by taking advantage of Flash MX 2004's new Extensibility API. This should kick-start the sort of third-party development and user sharing that Dreamweaver benefits from. And to encourage all users to get involved, Flash MX 2004 provides a new Fireworks-style History palette. This is useful for managing undo operations but can also be used to select and apply sequences of actions. And you can save common sequences to the new Commands menu and download new commands from the Flash Exchange website.

The ability to save macros is the first sign of Flash's new extensibility.

Flash MX 2004's new in-built Behaviours, Components and Commands, with the promise of downloadable additions to come, seems to hold out the possibility of code-free development. Eventually though, if you want to produce anything useful, there's no alternative: you will have to get your hands dirty writing your own code. And despite Flash's copious help, samples and in-context reference this is still going to come as a shock for the average designer.

This is especially so as Macromedia has rewritten ActionScript to make it ECMAScript 3.0-compatible. The new ActionScript 2.0 is undoubtedly more robust and works in a way that will be familiar to Java programmers. However while its increasing use of object-oriented class hierarchies and strict data typing enables greater re-use, better debugging and code hinting this will only benefit the expert user. And the fact that ActionScript 2 coding is now more complex, case-sensitive, and no longer offers a user-friendly Normal mode, means that it's harder to become one. Thankfully users can still write in ActionScript 1 if they prefer, and compile back to it for playback on earlier versions of the Flash Player, but the new scripting language adds more room for confusion and another steep learning curve.

The bottom line is that Flash MX 2004 is undoubtedly more powerful than ever but, despite Macromedia's efforts and claims, it is also more complex. In particular I pity the beginner first opening the program to create a simple banner ad. And I can't help thinking that a user-friendly, cut-down Flash Lite would have appealed to rather more users than the turbo-charged Flash Professional.

So is this an upgrade for the average designer to steer clear of? It's certainly not the must-have upgrade that the MX release was. But Flash MX 2004 does have an important ace up its sleeve - speed. The compiler has been enhanced and offers seriously improved performance even if all you do is load an existing FLA and save it back out to an earlier version of the player. If you save it to the new Flash 7 format however, you'll see better use of memory and a runtime boost in speed of between two and ten times for common tasks such as graphics display, video playback, component initialization and XML parsing.

And when it comes down to it, speed is what Flash is all about. After all it was Flash's ability to deliver high-impact animations over the slowest modem connection that began the Flash revolution, and this latest release raises the bar of what's possible once again. While there's still much more that Macromedia could do to make Flash's power more accessible, ultimately it's the end results that count. If you want to deliver the richest possible web experience available today, the best solution is provided by Flash MX 2004.

Tom Arah

Flash Player 7 Boxout

The secret of Flash's success is the penetration that the Flash Player has achieved across operating systems and increasingly across devices. The figures are staggering with Macromedia claiming over 520 million users and access to a staggering 98% of all desktops! In other words Flash is the most pervasive platform you can write to, easily outstripping Windows or even Java.

Its popularity is undeniable but what Macromedia fails to point out is that these figures are for the downloading and installation of any Flash player - each new release of the player must start again from scratch. And that means that for each new release Macromedia must make it attractive for authors to save to Flash 7 format which will in turn encourage end users to upgrade their players. So what benefits does the new player offer?

The must-have feature for version 6 was undoubtedly the new video support and this will also be important for version 7 with its new support for progressive download and playback of external FLV files. This advanced video handling is only available for Flash Professional developers and it's these expert users in particular that will drive the take-up of the new format as they take advantage of advanced new features such as the latest text, media and data handling and ActionScript 2's new class handling and data typing.

One of the major drivers for player take-up is Flash's fast-improving video support.

The main reason for saving to the new 7 format though is the simplest: speed. Faster handling and better memory management means smoother animations, higher quality multimedia, faster response and an all-round better web experience - which after all is the whole point of Flash.

It's worth bearing in mind that unless your projects do require Flash 7's new power or speed, you're better off saving to an earlier format for a while yet so that your users aren't needlessly deterred by the need to upgrade before they can see your content. Eventually though version 7 support will also become near-universal. Macromedia is claiming a massive 89% penetration for the version 6 player in around 18 months and there's little doubt that the Flash 7 player will be just as popular. And with Flash Player 7's new auto-updating option, the take-up for version 8 should be even faster.

Tom Arah

Features
5
Ease of use
3
Value for Money
6
Overall
5

ratings out of 6

Flash
Software / Upgrade
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System requirements Pentium III 600MHz, 128/256Mb of RAM, 190Mb of hard disk space, Windows 98SE, 2000 or XP, CD-ROM.

Tom Arah

October 2003


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