Flash MX

Macromedia sees Flash users falling into one of two basic types: the designer, who is interested in using Flash to create animations, character animations, user-interfaces (UIs), Web templates and so on; and the developer, who wants to create applications and interactive content. Whether you’re a designer or a developer, Flash MX has been restructured to focus on your particular requirements. For Flash regulars, the new UI is worth the price of the upgrade alone. It helps to unify the previous mass of floating palettes, providing dockable palettes that can be expanded and collapsed at will – a very tidy way of organizing one’s workspace according to the commands required. The new property inspector, reminiscent of Dreamweaver’s, displays parameters related to the selected object or tool, such as text or movie-clip options. The timeline has been enhanced, primarily by allowing layers to be nested together in folders for ease of management. Given that each symbol needs to be in its own layer to apply motion tweening, it isn’t uncommon for a complex animation to contain 30 or more layers. Being able to organize, collapse, lock, and hide folders in layers is a real advantage. There’s also a Distribute to Layers command, which spreads a number of objects on to unique layers. Frames can also now be specified as anchor frames. These can be used to create ‘pages’ that can be navigated using standard browser forward and back buttons. This is all part of Macromedia’s drive to improve usability and accessibility – two sticks with which Flash has been beaten in the past. The other accessibility enhancement comes in the form of an Accessibility panel, that lets you add text descriptions to every object for use by screenreaders – the Flash equivalent of adding ALT tags to images in HTML pages. One of the most apparent new features of Flash MX is its video support. This opens up great possibilities, such as customized video players, and Web animations with integrated video. This video support is provided by the integration of Sorenson’s Spark codec within Flash – the video is embedded within the Flash MX file, and can be synchronized to movie playback. For the designer, the other big bonuses are the enhanced library and template tools, and the improved integration with applications such as Illustrator, FreeHand and Fireworks. FreeHand and Fireworks files, when imported, retain layers, text, and other data. Libraries and templates let users store common elements and share them across movies – Flash MX comes with a range of them. Files can also be saved as templates to be used across a number of projects. If anything has 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 Toon Boom Studio files – which is welcome, but incomplete. For Web developers used to masses of ActionScript, there are lots of new things with which to get to grips. The new ActionScript programming window has been overhauled, with the inclusion of proper syntax highlighting and code hinting to speed-up the writing of code and use of correct syntax. MX’s new Debugger supports breakpoints and code stepping to help isolate errors. A built-in code reference lets you easily see the syntax and parameters for a command. This is invaluable, since the printed manual is rather slim – nothing like Flash 5’s ActionScript Reference tome. There are few new ActionScript commands in this release compared to the last upgrade, but operation has been improved in many of them. For instance, the XML text parser can deal with HTML formatting such as lists. Under the surface, the new Object and Event model gives a more structured OOP (Object-Oriented Programming) approach to scripting, and will change the way many users write ActionScripts. It also means it’s easier to write code segments and generic functions that can be applied to movies and projects. A number of Flash UI Components are included in the application. These can be drag-&-dropped onto a relevant object to add functionality. For instance, dragging the scroll-bar UI component onto a text field allows it to display text in a scrolling window. This is a great way for users to add interactivity without needing to know too much ActionScript, and is reminiscent of Director’s Behavior support. Developers can create bespoke components and share them with Macromedia Exchange. For the first time, developers can write code that dynamically loads JPEG image files and MP3 sound files at runtime, rather than requiring them to be imported into the movie at authoring time. Not only does this keep file sizes down, it means images can be loaded dynamically. Applications such as image browsers, or audio jukeboxes are finally possible. The list of minor enhancements is endless. However, the documentation and significance of many of them isn’t always explicit – so keep an eye on Flash developer sites. While there’s plenty to be getting on with, there are also hints of things to come when Macromedia launches the MX version of ColdFusion. This will allow ColdFusion and Flash to exchange data in a more efficient way, through the forthcoming Flash Application Server Gateway. Also on the horizon is a Communication Server that will add real-time communication in Flash, for applications such as chat, video-messaging, multi-user games, and so on. SWF files created with MX can be played using the new Flash Player. You can also export to previous versions of Flash, as well as to video, and a number of bitmap and vector formats. Playback with the new Flash player is generally faster, especially for heavy XML-based applications.

OUR VERDICT

For the Flash developer looking to build sophisticated ActionScript-based Web sites, applications, or games, this is a no-brainer. While there’s nothing essential here for designers using Flash as a visual creative tool, there are enough enhancements to make it worthwhile. And, of course, for anyone who wants to use it on OS X.

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