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Although Macromedia Director is still the program of choice for authoring stand-alone interactive multimedia titles, Tribeworks' iShell 2.2.1 is a viable alternative for those frustrated with Director's difficult learning curve and inconsistent user interface. iShell's drag-and-drop approach lets even nonprogrammers start producing sophisticated content quickly, and the software itself is free--you purchase a membership if you want to distribute commercial projects. However, the more powerful features are so well hidden in the free version that those who give it a try may find Director a more obvious choice for advanced projects.
Outlines, Not Timelines
iShell's interface is unusual: its interlocking, L-shaped panels, called outlines, collapse or expand when you double-click on them and tile neatly inside one another. iShell is built closely around QuickTime and its supported file types (fewer than Director, but enough for most projects).
An iShell project consists of a list of URLs pointing to local or remote media and to one or more K files, which resemble Flash symbols in that they can be edited independently and nested within each other. Opening a K file brings up a layout window--similar to Director's Stage--as well as an outline listing its attributes and contents. You drag media files, or other K files, from the Finder or the project palette onto an object's outline, where they become attributes of that object. To rearrange the hierarchy, you drag nested attributes to another part of the outline.
Although individual objects can have time-based actions, iShell has no timelines, as such. You drop events onto an object's outline so it can respond to mouse actions or messages from other objects. To configure the response, you drop commands onto each event. The command set is tiny compared with Director's, but iShell handles many complex tasks automatically or with a single command.
Your delivery options are limited considerably by the absence of an installed base of browser plug-ins; you have to distribute finished projects with the iShell player. Users of the free version can distribute only noncommercial titles, which feature a Tribeworks-branded splash screen, whereas Silver or Gold members aren't restricted in what they can distribute (they pay an annual fee). The Gold membership lets you extend iShell using C or its scripting language, Key. Unfortunately, the free version conceals these features, so advanced Lingo programmers are bound to come away feeling that iShell is no match for Director.
Unlike with Director, you can distribute Windows-based projects from the Mac-based authoring tool and vice versa. Tribeworks says that a Mac OS X-native version of iShell is in development. Performance in OS X's Classic mode is adequate, if a little slow.
Macworld's Buying Advice
iShell is ideal for anyone who wants to create cross-platform CD-ROMs and stand-alone multimedia titles, particularly those containing QuickTime content. Although its feature set remains slim compared with Director's, iShell's easier learning curve and free authoring tool make it more accessible. Seasoned Lingo programmers, however, will find little in the free version to prompt them to jump ship.Inside and Out: iShell's nested outlines, which replace the timelines of other authoring tools, help reduce complexity.