Flash may have started out as a vector-animation tool, but thanks to Macromedia’s steady improvement of its authoring program and its Flash Player, the application has moved closer to being an application-development tool. Since Flash can now handle media types such as MP3s and incorporate flexible and in-demand Web technologies such as XML and database integration, it’s the development tool of choice for anyone wanting to create rich Internet content, including animation, games, Web sites, and Web applications.
With Flash MX 2004, Macromedia has extended the functionality of previous versions, and released a Professional edition with some exciting new features for power users, albeit at a cost: sluggish performance.
Simultaneously Simple and Complex
As Flash has become increasingly more complex and feature laden, Macromedia has tried to lessen the intimidation factor for new users by providing easy-to-use design templates, behaviors, and timeline effects. Behaviors offer drag-and-drop functionality for common actions such as loading a movie clip or going to a Web page; they automatically create the required ActionScript code, thus allowing nonprogrammers to quickly add functionality and interactivity to movies.
Timeline effects are a quick way to add transitions and animation to objects onstage, such as fade-ins, blurs, and so on. The number of timeline effects is a bit limited, and if you have prior Flash experience, you can achieve the same effects without resorting to the Timeline. However, timeline effects are easy to use, and the architecture of the software allows programmers to create and add additional timeline effects.
Flash sports some minor improvements for handling text. You can now specify whether text should display with an aliased font — this can be useful when working with small font sizes. However, the antialiased fonts can be a fuzzy mess. There’s also some support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), so you can ensure consistency between any fonts used in Flash and other fonts across a Web site. But the support for CSS is limited; it manages only a small handful of properties, such as font family, color, margins, and text alignment. Flash has also added a built-in spelling checker, and a new Strings panel lets you track where a particular chunk of text is used across a site, thus making it easier to localize content into different languages.
Bring In the Professionals
Flash MX Professional 2004 is intended for people who want to develop advanced Web applications, develop Web sites for mobile devices, or work with advanced video features. Like the basic edition of Flash MX 2004, the Professional edition features a new version of the proprietary scripting language, ActionScript 2.0.
For Web applications there are a number of additional components, such as a calendar, a data grid for laying out dynamic information, and a data connection that lets Flash exchange information with an external data source such as a database. Previously, this kind of functionality was available only via the Firefly Components of the separately available Data Connection Kit.
An interesting new feature of the Professional edition is a Project mode, which manages multiple Flash movies as part of the same project and integrates with a source-control application.
A new Forms view provides a different format for developing applications that does away with the Timeline in favor of forms, a more familiar development environment similar to programming languages such as Visual Basic. Both of these bolster Flash’s move toward being a comprehensive development environment.
The video integration within Flash MX is something of a revelation, because it means Flash is now a viable video-playback tool. You can integrate database information into your Flash movies; you can also control and stream external video files in Flash Video (FLV) format, so creating Flash video-jukebox applications is a snap. You can export directly to FLV from leading video applications such as Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Discreet’s Cleaner, or from an improved video encoder built into Flash itself. The Professional version’s video capabilities make it the best value for Flash users who want to upgrade.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Flash MX 2004 is a comprehensive update of a fantastic application. It’s got some great new features for rookies, experienced users, and ActionScript aficionados alike. The introduction of separate standard and Professional editions lets the high-end application really take off as a solid development platform without eliminating the ease of use that made Flash so popular in the first place.