Flash, Macromedia’s Web-animation and interface-design software, has been instrumental in bringing the Web out of the staid laboratory and into a Technicolor world of on-demand information, entertainment, and e-business. The program’s rise has been meteoric, establishing the SWF file format as the de facto standard for streaming, interactive, animated Web content. In recent releases, Flash has also evolved from a mere animation tool into a powerful programming environment ideal for creating Web applications, user interfaces, games, and presentations.
The newest version, Flash MX, continues this trend with an emphasis on building dynamic, database-driven sites. As the first program to emerge from Macromedia’s new, tightly integrated MX product line, Flash MX offers an improved interface, new video support, OS X compatibility, and a host of powerful scripting tools that, when used in conjunction with the new Flash Player 6, produce leaner–and significantly meaner–Web sites.
The New Face of Flash
The ascent of Flash as a serious programming tool has left its users divided into two camps–those who use it primarily for design and animation, and those who use it for programming. In Flash MX, Macromedia caters to both designers and developers with tool enhancements and interface improvements geared to each group’s specific needs.
The most noticeable change in the program is its revised user interface. Flash MX unifies the mass of floating panels that cluttered previous versions and condenses them into dockable panels that you can expand, collapse, or hide–a tidy way of organizing and customizing your workspace.
Another major interface improvement is the addition of a Property Inspector similar to the one in Macromedia Dreamweaver. The Property Inspector conveniently lists all the parameters for a selected tool or object in one place, thus reducing the total number of panels required for any one task. Click on a symbol, for example, and the Property Inspector lets you name the instance, set its position, or change the color effects. This feature alone will save a lot of time.
Flash’s timeline also received some fine-tuning. One of the most noteworthy additions is the ability to group layers together in folders for ease of management. Given that it’s common for a simple animation to contain 30 layers or more, being able to organize, collapse, lock, and hide multiple layers at once by using folders is a real advantage. The new timeline also makes it easier to select multiple frames and to simultaneously manipulate objects from different layers.
Flash MX offers several new or refined tools geared specifically to the needs of designers, including a more robust color mixer, a new Free-Transform tool (which combines the abilities to scale, rotate, skew, and warp graphic elements all into one tool), and improved integration with applications such as Adobe Illustrator and Macromedia FreeHand and Fireworks. For example, designers can import native FreeHand 10 files and preserve layers, text blocks, Library symbols, and pages. Libraries–used to store symbols–have also been improved to make it easier to share common elements across a number of movies while keeping them up-to-date with any revisions. Also, you now can import symbols directly to the Library without first placing them on the Stage.
With the introduction of Components, Macromedia has ensured that even the most code-shy user can harness the power of ActionScript, Flash’s scripting language. Components, which replace the largely ignored SmartClips of version 5, are drag-and-drop behaviors that add functionality without requiring any scripting. For instance, you can create a scrolling-text window simply by dragging the scroll-bar Component onto a text field. Components are customizable and can be downloaded from Macromedia’s community Web site (www.macromedia.com/exchange/).
If anything’s been left out, it’s linear-animation enhancements; camera panning and zooming would have been welcome additions. Macromedia’s only nod to this is to support files from the $374 animation program Toon Boom Studio.
While Flash 5 supported linked QuickTime video, Flash MX lets you embed a variety of compressed-video formats directly into the SWF file for playback in Flash Player 6. This is achieved using the Sorenson Spark codec, which embeds the video file into the Flash movie as it’s imported. This means you can integrate the video seamlessly into the rest of the movie environment, making it great for creating custom video players.
Flash MX also adds dynamic support for JPEG images and MP3 audio, which can now be downloaded into the movie at run-time as the user requests them. This means you can create an image-viewer application, for instance, that loads images from a database when needed, rather than requiring all the images to be imported into an SWF file first.
For programmers who use Flash’s ActionScript language to provide advanced interactivity such as in Web applications, there are lots of new enhancements–both to the scripting language and to the tools.
The ActionScript programming window has been overhauled, finally providing a proper coding environment that had been sorely lacking in previous versions. It now offers colored syntax highlighting and code hinting (which offers a list of relevant parameters and events as you type code). And a Reference panel lets you quickly access more information about the correct syntax and parameters of a command.
Flash MX also adds an improved Debugger panel, which offers standard features such as breakpoints and code stepping to help track down and isolate errors in your script.
Access for All
One of Flash’s major weaknesses in the past was its inaccessibility–both to visually impaired viewers and to anyone who relied on the navigation conventions of Web browsers, such as bookmarking and the Back button. With Flash MX, Macromedia has responded on both counts. First, developers can now define frames as anchors, which viewers can use to navigate through a Flash movie using the browser’s Forward and Back buttons or even bookmark.
Second, a new Accessibility panel lets designers add text descriptions to every object for use by screen readers–the Flash equivalent of adding <*alt*> tags to images in HTML pages.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
For Flash developers looking to build sophisticated ActionScript-based Web sites, applications, or games, this is an essential upgrade. While there’s less reason for designers to upgrade, there are enough enhancements–particularly the new user interface–to make it worthwhile.