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July 24, 2000 -- Today Macromedia ( raised the curtain on a new version of its Flash application. Flash files can combine motion, sound, and interactivity into one file that's relatively small, thanks to its vector-based underpinnings.

The changes in Flash 5, which will ship in September for $399 ($149 upgrade), are both large and small. One of the most significant -- and probably the one most welcome to new users -- is a redesigned user interface.

Designers, developers, clients, and viewers are drawn to Flash files (called "movies") because they can push the limits of the Web far beyond static graphics and vanilla HTML. But the program's interface hasn't been exactly user-friendly, which means a correspondingly steep learning curve.

Flash's new interface is a combination of elements from other Macromedia programs, such as Dreamweaver's Launcher Bar; tool palettes that resemble those in Photoshop and other popular Adobe products; and customizable keyboard shortcuts. With small variations between programs, the Flash 5 interface will appear in other Macromedia Web applications.

In another nod to traditional interfaces, Macromedia included a Bezier pen tool in Flash 5 that should be familiar to users of Macromedia FreeHand and Adobe Illustrator. Flash can also now import native FreeHand files.

Developers may benefit from changes to ActionScript, a scripting language that debuted in Flash 4. ActionScript still exists, but the syntax and structure are now similar to JavaScript, and so presumably easier to understand for the thousands who use JavaScript to add interactivity to sites. Smart Clips are chunks of complex ActionScript, such as multiple-choice forms, that you can use as is or modify. In another development for the geeky, Flash 5 supports XML data interchange.

Flash 5 has other additions that may make it easier to use. The Movie Explorer maps all elements within movies so you can, for example, see at a glance that you used Times New Roman in frame 10 of scene 2. And to help the fervent Flash community communicate, Macromedia created the Dashboard, a collection of Flash-authoring resources online.

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