By Michael Hurwicz
Macromedia has released Flash MX 2004, the latest version of its popular Web development software, which has evolved from a simple vector animation tool to a worthy application development environment. The new program includes sophisticated user interfaces and integrates databases, audio, and video. Every serious Flash developer/designer should upgrade to Flash MX 2004, if for only one reason: it creates Flash files that run faster.
Flash now comes in two flavors: Standard and Professional. Most users will likely purchase Professional, priced $200 higher, just to ensure they're not missing anything. The main reasons to purchase Professional are its data-handling capabilities; new data, media, and interface components; and "slide-based" programming (for PowerPoint-style presentations). Those who want to do just traditional frame-based animation need only the Standard version.
|Electric Rain's Swift 3D Xpress plug-in enables users to create 3D objects, including text, in Flash MX 2004.
Users who work a lot with video might want Professional for the FLV Exporter, a free add-on that enables users to export Flash Video (FLV) files directly from programs such as Adobe After Effects and Discreet cleaner. It achieves better quality and performance than the built-in capabilities of the previous version of Flash MX. However, I question how often professionals will use the FLV Exporter, considering better quality can be had at the same file size (or a smaller file with the same quality) by exporting to the QuickTime format, for instance, and using a stand-alone compression utility such as Sorenson Squeeze ($119 for the Flash-specific version).
FLV files are necessary to use Flash's new progressive video loading feature, which provides an alternative to streaming video and embedded video. Progressive FLVs offer a number of advantages, including reduced memory requirements, which improves overall performance; the flexibility to use different frame rates for different clips within the "container" movie; more control, such as the ability to set the size of the video buffer; and less likelihood that the loaded video will interrupt the movie into which it is loaded.
Flash is now extensible. This new capability already has given rise to nearly a dozen add-ons, ranging in price from $50 to $150, for features like 3D animation, complete with lighting, materials, specular highlights, shadows, and reflections (Swift 3D Xpress from Electric Rain); text and button effects such as distortion, drop shadows, blurring, and extruding (Distort FX, Text FX, and Pixel FX from Red Giant Software and SWiSH Power FX from SWiSHzone.com); and charting and graphing, including many variations of traditional line and bar graphs, pie charts, as well as more exotic formats like donuts or combined styles (Swiff chart from GlobFX). These add-ons expedite bread-and-butter tasks like creating a rotating logo or attracting attention to a text block by stylizing and animating it. Many effects that either were time-consuming or took specialized knowledge are now quick and within reach.
New features, including Timeline Effects and Behaviors, assist users in creating simple effects and behaviors without keyframing or scripting. These features will be particularly useful to beginners and occasional users, and they hold promise for future evolution.
Macromedia made some nice improvements in text, including a spell checker, simpler multi-language support, the ability to turn off anti-aliasing (often necessary to keep very small type from blurring), and support for a small but welcome subset of Cascading Style Sheets, so one style sheet can define typographical styles for both Flash and HTML content. Data connectivity is easier, particularly for Web services using the Simple Object Access Protocol. Macromedia didn't enhance its own Flash Remoting data access technology in this release, but the user community already is filling in the gaps with Flash MX 2004-compatible Remoting components.
Scripters will have their hands full with a major upgrade to the ActionScript scripting language. ActionScript 2 is another giant step toward making Flash a hard-core development tool that programmers will love. And although early users reported chronic crashes and slow downs with this new version, Macromedia has released an update to fix the problems.
Michael Hurwicz (firstname.lastname@example.org, www.hurwicz.com) is a freelance writer specializing in Web technologies.
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