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Design-focused web-authoring suite that offers unparalleled functionality across the board and a welcome focus on open standards.
Nobody could accuse Macromedia of a lack of ambition. The company's aim with its new Studio MX suite is to make it as dominant in the web-authoring arena as Microsoft Office is in office productivity. It's a tall order but with the latest versions of Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Flash and FreeHand in the box, and all at a bargain price, it's certainly an attractive starting proposition. However as Microsoft has shown there's a lot more to a successful suite than bundling - so do the Studio applications work together to turn MX into a coherent and attractive platform?
The centre of Studio MX is the new MX version of Dreamweaver (see review issue ). Back in 1997 Dreamweaver was the first professional application to offer both visual and code-based control over the HTML pages that make up the Web. Five years later it has almost 2.5 million users and has become almost as dominant for high-end web authoring as Photoshop is for professional photo editing.
However, in its new MX incarnation, existing users are in for quite a surprise. The familiar multi-windowed, floating-palette interface has gone and is replaced by the new MX look and feel. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but the dockable panel groups and tabbed document windows soon prove far more efficient. Other welcome interface changes include the new tabbed Insert toolbar, integrated file browsing and the revamped context-sensitive Properties panel.
Unlike alternatives like Adobe GoLive, Dreamweaver has always encouraged direct code editing and in MX this has been brought centre stage. New features include Code Hinting which automatically displays appropriate options as you type, a Snippets panel for storing common pieces of code and some greatly expanded reference material. The new emphasis is on the tag-based nature of web authoring with a HomeSite-inspired Tag Inspector for viewing an editable list of all tags and their attributes in the current document, and a Tag Chooser and Tag Editor to help you add new ones.
Dreamweaver MX's coding capabilities have been seriously enhanced.
The biggest change in Dreamweaver MX isn't the integration of the previously separate HomeSite functionality (incidentally HomeSite+ is still included for hardcore fans), but rather the complete incorporation of UltraDev. UltraDev 6 was the choice for high-end web application developers working with ASP and JSP to produce enterprise-level data-driven sites. Now this functionality has been made a seamless part of the core program with features such as the new Site Setup wizard and dedicated Database, Bindings and Server Behaviour panels making it relatively straightforward for users to move from creating static HTML to producing server-generated dynamic pages (see this month's RW Publishing/Graphics article).
Dreamweaver MX now supports all major server-scripting technologies.
What is particularly impressive about the Dreamweaver MX implementation is how broad its server-side support is. As well as ASP and JSP, new support has been added for PHP, ASP.NET, and ColdFusion. Users of the last two server platforms or JSP can also take advantage of the exciting new area of XML-based Web services. Thanks to Dreamweaver MX's dedicated Components panel this becomes a simple task of drag, drop and customize.
The support for all major standards means that users can choose the option that best suits their needs, but one technology is definitely first among equals - Macromedia's own ColdFusion server software. A Developer Edition of the newly rewritten, Java-based, cross-plat form ColdFusion MX Server is included in the Studio bundle to enable easy local testing. Other benefits include in-built debugging and tracing, the ability to create reusable ColdFusion components and to instantly turn these into universally accessible Web Services.
All told, there's a huge amount for the upgrading Dreamweaver user to get to grips with, let alone a new user. The real success of Dreamweaver MX is that it incorporates all this new power almost seamlessly into its new tag-focused working environment. One of the beta testers compared the program to a tricycle with a jet-engine on the back and that seems about right. The sheer power on offer might intimidate and unbalance the complete beginner, but as you pick up confidence and speed and want to explore new areas you'll certainly appreciate that there's nothing to hold you back.
Dreamweaver MX helps users move beyond the limitations of the traditional static HTML page and this can be seen as the aim of the Studio suite as a whole. In the past the means of achieving this was by adding some bitmap-based graphical impact with the dedicated Web imaging package Fireworks. The new Fireworks MX (see boxout) is still a crucial component but what makes the new Studio MX bundle stand out from its predecessors is that it now also includes the vector-based FreeHand 10 (see boxout) and Flash MX (review issue xxx).
The immediate difference between Flash and Fireworks is that it handles its images as efficient vectors rather than as profligate pixels. Flash MX though provides far more than just static images and rollovers. It offers state-of-the-art animation capabilities, advanced ActionScript-based interactivity, MP3 audio handling and now even dedicated video. Even better, it provides all of this in a bandwidth-friendly streaming format that, thanks to the market penetration of the Flash player, can be immediately accessed by up to 98% of the Web audience.
The advantages are just too compelling to ignore and, by including Flash and Dreamweaver together for the first time in Studio MX, it's clear that Macromedia thinks that it's time for Flash SWF authoring to go mainstream. As both Dreamweaver and Flash lead their respective Web page and Web plug-in fields in a way it's surprising that Macromedia hasn't already tried leveraging their use, but previously there was surprisingly little common ground between them. In their MX incarnations however, that's no longer the case.
To begin with, it was actually Flash MX that introduced the new MX look-and-feel with its use of dockable panel groups and the central role of the context-sensitive Properties panel. There are still some major and minor interface differences that should be tackled in future releases but once you're happy in one environment, you'll quickly feel at home in the other. More importantly, once you've got used to the changes, going back to the old ways is unthinkable. In the past Macromedia's old-fashioned, fussy and idiosyncratic interfaces were major failings, now the modern, streamlined and shared MX environment is a major strength.
Despite its design focus, Flash MX often acts more like a programming environment.
Another area in which the latest Flash fits in well with the new thrust of the MX platform is in terms of its integration with server-side technology. Its support for XML, the format used for client-server data exchange, has been radically improved and given a huge boost in speed. At the same time, Flash MX now provides a range of pre-built interface components such as scrolling text boxes and dropdown lists that, once programmatically linked to XML data sources, enable the rapid development of Flash-based client interfaces. Best of all, because the link from the Flash player to the server is live, there's no need for those awkward page refreshes necessary to process HTML-based data.
With features such as XML support and pre-built components, Flash MX can leverage server-side technologies.
Again Flash MX impresses with its support for open standards, but the tightest integration is with Macromedia's own ColdFusion solution. To begin with, ColdFusion MX offers a new charting engine for on-the-fly graph production (eventually ColdFusion looks likely to take over from Macromedia' dedicated Generator application). More importantly, it offers live server debugging from within Flash MX and natively supports the Flash Remoting Service with its high-speed data exchange. Best of all, ColdFusion MX provides support for server-side ActionScript for executing queries, preprocessing data and invoking Web Services.
With further server-side enhancements promised in the form of dedicated messaging and improved media streaming capabilities, there's little doubt that the richest Web experience for end users is going to come in the form of Flash interfaces interacting in real time with ColdFusion-hosted data and components. To be able to provide this performance and experience, Macromedia's MX platform effectively supplants the underlying HTML-based Internet architecture with the Flash MX player running in and taking over from its browser host and interacting with the ColdFusion MX Server which is itself running on and taking over from its own server host.
The resulting Rich Internet Application shows the MX platform working at its absolute best in terms of client, server and development tool integration, but of course this Macromedia-only route is only going to be a serious option for a small percentage of users for some time to come. What really impresses about Macromedia's MX platform and its Studio MX development suite is that it's just as comfortable letting a user add a basic Fireworks rollover to a simple HTML or XHTML page or a multimedia Flash extravaganza to an ASP, JSP, PHP or ASP.NET page. Whatever you want to do, you'll find Studio MX trying to help you.
Working together Freehand, Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks can produce state-of-the-art results.
Ultimately Macromedia's great success is to first make sure that Studio MX supports all standards and then to do everything that it can to ensure that its own preferred solution is the most attractive. Maybe it's Microsoft that has something to learn.
ratings out of 6
System requirements: Pentium II 300MHz, Windows 98SE, Me, NT4 (SP6), 2000 or XP, 128MB of RAM, 510MB of hard disk space, 1024x768 monitor, CD-ROM
Macromedia Fireworks MX
New interface, core Web navigation enhancements and advanced workflow features provide something for users at all levels.
Producing the HTML framework for your web pages is the job of a program like Dreamweaver MX but to make them stand out from the crowd you need to give them some graphical panache. This is where Fireworks comes in combining vector-based control, bitmap-based creativity, top-of-the-range image optimization and advanced coding and integration to help give your pages some design impact.
The first thing that strikes about this latest version is that it has been given the full MX make-over. All the previous floating palettes have been rationalized as panels that can be grouped and docked in the docking area down the right hand of the screen. An even more welcome change is the introduction of the new context-sensitive Properties panel at the bottom of the screen which has cut out the need for a whole swathe of former palettes such as Effects, Fill and Stroke. It wasn't bad in the past, but suddenly the Fireworks' environment seems far more productive.
Other interface enhancements include a new Zoom tool that is no longer limited to fix zoom levels and a revamp that splits the Toolbox into clearly marked vector and bitmap tools - though much of Fireworks' strength still comes from its ability to seamlessly mix the two technologies, for example to draw a charcoal-style brush stroke that can then be redrawn and given a new watercolour effect. Under the Toolbox's bitmap section you'll also find five new options - Blur, Sharpen, Burn, Dodge and Smudge - for applying local photo retouching. There's also a new interactive Gradient tool which can be used with bitmaps, vectors or text.
The Text tool has been given some much-needed new power. In particular you can finally type and edit your text directly on the image rather than in a semi-detached dialog. When working like this, control over typeface, point-size and so on, is most efficiently handled in the Properties panel though the dedicated Text Editor is still there if required. Also new is the ability to spell-check text and to import and export Photoshop PSD files complete with editable text layers. A feature I've not seen before is the ability to store a cached image of a file's fonts so that you can still work on your file on different systems and platforms.
Fireworks MX's new interface and on-canvas text editing seriously boost productivity.
Fireworks' primary function is to produce the navigational framework for your site and so its most common task is producing buttons. Here Fireworks MX has learnt from Flash with its new support for Symbols and Instance Level properties. This sounds intimidating but what it means in practice is that you can create multiple copies of a button and maintain their links to an updatable master while independently changing their text and URLs - ideal for creating and controlling navigation bars.
The creation of core Web navigation devices has been enhanced.
More sophisticated navigation comes in the form of Fireworks' support for pop-up menus. The Pop-Up Menu Editor wizard now offers much greater control over appearance with the ability to specify spacing, borders and colour shading. You can also now create horizontal pop-ups and all menus can be edited natively in Dreamweaver MX.
Not surprisingly Fireworks MX's favoured target applications are Macromedia's own and, using the new Quick Export Button, you have fast access to output tailored for Dreamweaver, Flash, FreeHand and Director. The integration with Dreamweaver MX is especially tight and this has been extended to include support for accessibility features and XMTHL. Again though, Macromedia deserves credit for supporting alternative standards such as GoLive and FrontPage. If you use the latter you can directly launch and edit an originating Fireworks PNG and, when you save your changes, Fireworks will automatically update all image slices and the code necessary to make them function.
The Reconstitute command could instantly save you hours of work - but it's unlikely to be used often. The new ability to create data-driven graphics on the other hand could regularly save you time, money and wasted effort. Much of web imaging work is by its nature repetitive, for example creating dozens of similar buttons or hundreds of eye-catching titles. Now you can mark up text and image slices as variables in your layout and then, using the new Data-Driven Graphics Wizard, associate them with fields in an XML-based data source, select the records to process, set up export settings and then batch process them.
Data-driven graphics production could lead to semi-automatic Web imaging workflows.
Features like data-driven graphics enhance Fireworks MX's high-end workflow credentials, but it's the changes to the interface and core text and button handling that ensure that all users will benefit from this latest release.
ratings out of 6
System requirements: Pentium II 300MHz, Windows 98SE, Me, NT4 (SP6), 2000 or XP, 128MB of RAM, 80MB of hard disk space, 800x600 monitor, CD-ROM
Macromedia FreeHand 10
The fourth and final standalone application in the Studio MX suite is the latest version of Macromedia's professional graphic design package, FreeHand 10 (review issue xx). It's a major application in its own right, but it's impossible not to think that its inclusion is something of an afterthought as it's the only application not to have been given the MX interface makeover.
Having said this, FreeHand 10 still has a serious role to play in the MX platform working as a design-intensive partner to Flash. FreeHand's page-based metaphor for example makes it ideal for storyboarding Flash sites and for preparing SWF files for print while features such as its support for vector transparency, blends and perspective grids enable it to create graphics and animations that would be impossible in Flash alone. And with version 10's dedicated anti-aliased Flash display and support for symbol libraries, it's clear that this role will become even more important.
FreeHand 10 offers advanced graphic design and Flash support.
FreeHand 10 is a slightly semi-detached member of the Studio MX suite but this is likely to change in future. In the meantime it's difficult to complain too much as you're effectively being given a professional graphical design package for free.
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