Macromedia Flash MX Professional

Macromedia Flash MX Professional must be one of the world's most revolutionary applications. It began life just five years ago as a simple utility for sketching cartoons, was transformed by its ability to provide efficient animations over the Web, was galvanized by its move into multimedia and interactivity and in its last release reinvented itself yet again when it grafted on ActionScript programmability to move into full-blown Web application development.

The power these revolutions have opened up has never been in doubt, but there's a wide divide between producing an eye catching banner and producing an e-commerce site and Flash has struggled to keep both designers and developers happy. This new release is designed to do just that. It's some task and, with over a thousand changes, Macromedia has decided that a simple release number doesn't do it justice. Rather than Flash 6, the new release is called Flash MX. According to Macromedia it's the most revolutionary release yet - but does it live up to the claim?

The difference in MX is immediately apparent. The first time you load the program a dialog appears asking if you're primarily interested in design or development and then sets up the workspace accordingly. More importantly, all the workspace panels are now dockable and, when docked, are easily collapsible and expandable. Docking doesn't suit all cases - you need more space when writing Actions for example - but it does mean that the vast majority of panels can now be brought under tight control.

The Flash MX interface is built on dockable palettes and the Properties Inspector.

Even better in this regard is the new Property Inspector, a horizontal panel that docks to the bottom of the screen. This provides context-sensitive control over the most common settings for everything from the current document through to the current shape, frame or tool and replaces no less than seven of Flash 5's floating panels. The control offered by the Property Inspector is comprehensive so that with text selected, for example, you can manage everything from font and size through to type and alignment (including new vertical options). Flash's working environment has grown organically over time, now for the first time it feels both planned and productive.

When it comes to drawing power, Flash's unorthodox origins are still very apparent - for example overlying objects still merge with or knock-out those below. Formatting also remains unusual with fills and outlines treated as independently selectable objects, but at least here there has been some rationalization with the Mixer panel now offering quick access to colour, gradient and texture set-up. Also welcome is the new Snap to Pixel option which is useful for exact positioning and for cutting down on anti-aliasing.

Much the biggest difference to Flash's core drawing capabilities is the addition of a new Free Transform tool which enables easy and interactive scaling, rotating and skewing - previously hidden away as sub-options of the Arrow tool. As well as greater convenience, the tool offers more power with Distort and Envelope options for creating eye-catching perspective and freeform distortions. These effects open up a lot of creative options but disappointingly can only be applied to shapes not symbols, which also means that they can't be used to automatically create tweened distortions.

New drawing power includes a free transform tool, enveloping and snap to pixel.

At least Flash MX adds some new animation power to compensate. You can now add a movie clip to a mask layer, for example, to quickly produce striking dynamic masking effects. The creation of text effects is also helped by new options for automatically breaking up text and for distributing each character to its own layer. It's certainly quicker than having to turn each letter into a symbol but it's still not exactly childs' play to set up an effect and horrendously difficult to edit once you have. Creating dynamic text effects is one of the most common uses of Flash, but Flash MX is still put to shame by the shareware SWiSH.

An even more fundamental limitation to Flash's animation capabilities is the reliance on the Timeline which has changed little since it was first introduced and constantly trips up beginner and advanced user alike. Flash MX brings in the ability to nest layers in folders which helps bring some sort of order to advanced projects which might well contain hundreds of layers. The handling of frames has also been improved so that you can resize, cut, and paste multiple frames simultaneously. This is fine if you know exactly what you're doing but can be dangerous in the wrong hands. Hopefully the Timeline will see a root-and-branch overhaul soon.

Animation handling is improved with layer folders and a distribute to layers command.

In many ways Flash's core animation capabilities have suffered as Macromedia has instead focused on adding high-end programmability. The creative options such high-end power opens up are almost limitless but currently just 16% of Flash's user-base takes advantage of the program's ability to produce full web applications while almost 40% never stray beyond its dynamic graphics capability. Clearly Flash has to make its high-end power more accessible and MX offers a number of features designed to do just that.

The first of these is the introduction of components. The new Components panel offers seven building blocks - checkbox, combobox, listbox, pushbutton, radiobutton, scrollbar and scrollpane - that can simply be dragged onto a design to quickly turn it into an interactive interface. Each component can be controlled by setting parameters in the Property Inspector so that the listbox, for example, can be populated with labels and data. You can also change the appearance of the component by changing its "skin" while you control its behaviour at runtime using tailor-made ActionScript methods.

New UI Components help user to set up Flash interfaces.

Another feature designed to get users off to a flying start is the New From Template command which lets you base your design on a range of pre-built designs. With just over twenty templates on offer the choice isn't exactly overwhelming especially as many, such as the Banner Ad and Mobile Device options, do little more than set the movie size and give some basic usage instructions. More advanced templates are also provided however, such as the Menu options which walk you through creating a dropdown or tabbed navigation bar by updating an external XML file. You can also save your own designs as templates which is particularly useful for workgroups.

It's also extremely helpful to be able to share work at a lower level and Flash MX enables this with its rethought and rationalized Library handling. To begin with, you can now create symbols and move them between documents using simple drag and drop with a Resolve Library Conflict dialog to sort out any name conflicts. More importantly, you can reliably share library assets both when authoring and at runtime thanks to options available from the main Create Symbol dialog. Runtime sharing is particularly useful as it not only ensures consistency but also minimizes file size by allowing fonts, bitmaps, sounds and clips to be shared between movies.

Improved library handling includes shared symbols.

In many ways none of these bridging features is new: Flash 5 offered component-style building blocks in the form of SmartClips, templates in the form of samples and, if you dug deep enough, even offered shared library assets. In each case though Flash MX integrates, extends and simplifies the feature to bring it into the mainstream. Flash still isn't an easy program by any stretch of the imagination - but MX does feel like its working to let you at its power rather than working to hide it. Even better, because components, templates and shared symbols are all well-suited to third-party development and user exchange, you'll soon be able to leverage your own work with other users' efforts.

Building blocks are a great help, but ultimately to get the most out of Flash you have to get coding. The scripting process is still built on selecting actions, operators, functions and so on from the panel on the left of the Actions panel and then setting the parameters on the right. The amount of help at hand though is in a different league with a Hint Line at the top of the screen explaining what each command is for, and a ToolTip indicating the correct syntax. If that's not enough, you can click on the book icon and a new Reference panel opens to provide full description, parameters and examples. For expert users, Code Hinting detects what command you are typing and prompts you with the correct syntax, while the ability to set breakpoints and the improved step-by-step debugger make it easier to track down errors.

Flash is now a professional scripting environment.

In terms of new ActionScript power, there are a range of improvements including a wider range of supported trigger events and objects. New actions and properties offer greater control over sound and especially text - including its formatting and layout - while the new drawing API enables the creation of whiteboard applications and creative Director-style runtime effects. Most welcome of all will be the ability to load JPEGs at run-time, which means that for the first time you can easily update graphical content without having to republish the movie.

Flash MX offers plenty to designer and developer alike, but ultimately what both are looking for is to be able to offer a better experience to the end user. One of the biggest criticisms of Flash has always been that its graphical approach immediately rules out a whole section of a site's potential audience - the visually impaired. With legal requirements coming in to demand accessibility this has become a major issue and Macromedia has been quick to respond by making all text fields and buttons accessible to screen readers. Using the Accessibility palette you can also control the spoken descriptions for other design elements.

Another major gripe has always been the way Flash pages behave differently to normal Web pages. In particular users are so used to using the browser's Back key to step back to the previous page that they often do the same in a Flash environment and find themselves returning to the previous site! Now you can set up named anchors that the browser will treat as separate pages. This is a huge step forward though for some reason it's not the default and has to be selected as a template option in the Publish Settings dialog.

Accessibility features and named anchors help improve the end user experience.

The Flash MX feature that the end user will appreciate the most is the introduction of video support. Adding video to your Flash projects couldn't be easier. You can import video files in QuickTime, Windows Media, MPEG, AVI and DV formats and these are automatically re-encoded using the Spark codec that Macromedia has licensed from Sorenson. This offers both intraframe and interframe compression within and between frames which, together with the ability to set quality, size and keyframe interval, means that you can seriously crunch your video's file size (though disappointingly there's no feedback on this in the dialog).

Once imported, you can treat the imported video pretty much like an imported bitmap. This means that you can drag multiple copies onto your design without adding to file size. More importantly you can scale, rotate and skew the video, add masking effects and even motion tween the video! By embedding the video in a movie clip you can also take programmatic control of it to add VCR-style Play, Pause and Stop buttons.

Flash MX offers in-built video support.

The creative potential is enormous but it's important not to get too carried away. To begin with adding video capabilities to the Flash player has increased its size to around half a MB which might affect its popularity. More importantly Flash isn't a dedicated video format and isn't about to replace the main Web standards (in fact you can simply link to a QuickTime movie if you prefer). The intention is to provide small, short, reasonable quality clips of low-motion content, such as a person speaking, rather than to provide a full-screen, TV-style experience. As such it's noticeable that the default option is to match one video frame to each Flash movie frame which, with a common Web playback rate of between 12 and 15fps, is around half normal video rates.

Flash video isn't a miracle but it does add a whole new area to Flash's existing multimedia capabilities. When a designer can choose just one format to mix vectors, bitmaps, text, animation, audio, interactivity, programmability and now video there's very little reason to look elsewhere. Especially as Macromedia provides players for all major platforms and, with well over 400 million downloads, now claims 98% player penetration. And, on top of everything, Flash provides this efficient, streaming, binary performance without requiring any server software!

This standalone, all-in-one nature of Flash is definitely its outstanding strength but it's also the technology's biggest drawback as it means that the program can act as a publishing bottleneck. By its nature a Flash site tends to be design-intensive and self-contained which means that new content can't be added as organically and easily as it can with traditional sites. The end result is that while Flash offers dynamic playback it has always tended to be used for sites where the information is largely static - ideal for a band site for example, rather than a record company's.

Macromedia has recognized this limitation and believes that the solution is integration with Web application servers to enable the two-way movement of content. Much of this depends on data handling and Flash MX's XML processing has been made up to 20 times faster. MX also introduces a new high-performance binary protocol Action Message Format (AMF) that works over HTTP and is specifically aimed at speeding up the transfer of data between Flash ActionScript and any server-side programming language.

Macromedia has done just as much work on the server-side. A new optimized server framework, Flash Application Server Gateway, will be bundled as a component with the next version of ColdFusion and will also be available for other J2EE and .NET servers. Also in the pipeline is the Macromedia Communication Server and a set of services built on Real Time Messaging Protocol (RTMP). For the first time this means that rich client applications can be shared and used by multiple users.

Flash can now act as a rich client for servers.

The typical form all this new power is likely to take is a Flash-based, portal-style web interface linked to a business server to provide two-way communication with dynamic up-to-the-minute content. In addition to its multimedia strengths, the killer advantage that the Flash front end offers over existing client-server set-ups is that the XML connectivity is continuous so that there is no need for awkward, page-refresh-based processing. The end result is that the Flash player effectively takes over from the host browser to provide an experience that is like interacting with a dynamic computer application rather than inefficiently browsing through a collection of semi-detached and semi-static Web pages. The advantages especially for eLearning and eCommerce applications are obvious.

It's yet more new ground for Flash, but it's important to stress that the technology still isn't a panacea. The new client-server capabilities will provide an attractive option for many high-end users while Flash's server-free dynamic strengths are ideal for smaller, self-contained sites. Even so, the vast majority of sites still don't fall into either category and demand a more open and less design-intensive authoring approach. Having said this, of course, even these sites could benefit from some well-chosen Flash elements and a little bit of Flash panache.

Ultimately Flash is the best way to provide the end user with the best possible Web experience. What makes Flash MX so exciting is that it begins to make that power accessible to everyone. Now that really is revolutionary.

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