Flash animations could be coming to a store near you -- an online store, that is. Macromedia (800/326-2128, http://www.macromedia.com ) has announced Flash 4, an upgrade of its vector-animation software that includes new electronic-commerce capabilities.
The Flash format lets you create compact Web-based vector animations that download much more quickly than the equivalent bitmapped animations. You can produce Flash animations using Macromedia's Flash software or other applications that support the format. Apple's QuickTime 4 software supports Flash, making it possible to include Flash animations in QuickTime movies.
The new e-commerce capabilities are made possible by a feature that lets you set up data-entry fields within Flash animations. You can thus create eye-catching, animated forms that bear little resemblance to conventional data-entry screens. You can set up password fields, restrict text length, and define borders and background for the fields. Entered data can be passed on to a CGI script for integration with database or other server software.
Flash 4 also adds support for audio compression using the increasingly popular MP3 format, allowing you to set up Flash movies in which hitting a button or launching an animation triggers an MP3 audio stream. A new Actions feature makes it easier to create customized interfaces, menus, and buttons for Web sites. A Publish command places updated Flash animations on the Web in a single step.
In addition to these new Web publishing features, Flash 4 includes numerous interface enhancements, some borrowed from Macromedia FreeHand. These include FreeHand-style inspector palettes that provide control over objects, transformations, frames, and scenes. An edit-in-place feature lets you modify objects in relation to other artwork on screen. The revamped Timeline makes it easier to create keyframes and tweening effects.
Macromedia has made a big effort to build support for its Flash technology, and versions of Flash Player --needed to view Flash animations-- are bundled with the Mac OS, Microsoft Windows and Internet Explorer, and Netscape Navigator. As part of its campaign to promote the format, Macromedia has announced that it will make Flash Player available as free source code, permitting developers to incorporate it into their applications more easily. The company cites survey research indicating that about 77 percent of Web browsers have the ability to view Flash content. You'll need an upgraded version of the Flash Player to view Flash 4 animations, but it is a small download -- less than 400K.
Flash 4 should be shipping in June for an estimated price of $299 ($269 if downloaded from Macromedia's Web site). Current users can upgrade for $129 if they have the boxed version or $99 if they have a downloaded version.
Along with the new software, Macromedia has announced a Web site, Shockwave.com, devoted to showcasing Flash and Shockwave content. Building on Macromedia's previous Shockrave Web site, Shockwave.com will feature cartoons, music, and games, including content from Comedy Central, Fox Interactive, and Marvel.com.
When you download the Shockwave Flash Player, you'll receive Shockwave Remote -- complete with rewind and fast-forward controls -- which you can use to access Shockwave or Flash movies on the new Web site or the sites of other companies. By paying a $20 upgrade fee, you can turn Shockwave Remote into Shockmachine, an enhanced controller that lets you scale content up to full-screen size as well as store an unlimited number of Shockwave movies or links in virtual carousels.
Shockwave.com will be run by a new Macromedia business unit of the same name. Heading the division is Stephen Fields, previously general manager of Disney Software.