There are two levels of membership available for “Tribe” members, entitling you to support, developer’s kits, tutorials and the company’s eternal love – well, for a year, anyway. It’s an interesting approach, but one that is more likely to be greeted with scepticism than rampant enthusiasm in this country. Here, people are generally suspicious of the hidden catch in the something-for-nothing offer – especially when there’s no box or printed manual. iShell’s feature set is certainly rich, and more advanced than other commercial multimedia tools – such as Katabounga. It allows the creation of cross-platform applications whichcan be distributed across a wide range of platforms and the Internet, and features a fully object-oriented visual programming environment, designed to build applications quickly. The most obvious comparison to iShell is Macromedia’s Director, and on a feature-by-feature basis they stack up pretty equally. However, the development environment between the two is very different. Director has a theatrical metaphor – with a score, stage and scripts – and its object-oriented talents, such as behaviours and properties, are hidden. In iShell, the object-oriented approach is brought to the fore and given a visual overview. This makes iShell more complex to get to grips with, and it has none of the rich frame-based animation capabilities of Director. Old lags in the new-media game might recognize the approach as being similar to mTropolis before Quark managed to screw it up and call it Immedia. An iShell project consists of one project file and a number of related documents. The documents are the basic containers for media elements, such as text, images, sound and video. iShell has complete integration of QuickTime 4.0, so it supports all the file types and other technologies of Apple’s media architecture. On launching the program there are two windows – the display window, and a tabbed tool palette where all aspects of the project are controlled. After defining assets for the project – all media are stored externally – you can then drag them onto the display window to activate them. iShell has no built-in creative tools – such as a painting tool – except for boxes and text fields, and the scantiness of the text tools is frustrating. Once an element is activated, you can double-click to apply parameters to that instance of the object, and then apply interactivity – for instance, a link to another screen or to load a movie. Experienced Director users will soon grasp the concepts even if they find the method initially confusing. One of the powerful things about iShell is that any asset or element can be externally referenced as a URL, so that in effect, the application you’re building is a customized Web interface, pulling all it’s content in from the Net. FTP and RTSP protocols are supported, as is HTTP. This is great for Internet-connected kiosk work. The free Tribeworks player is distributed with the document and project files, and it can be launched from a Web browser as well as from CD and DVD. iShell files have smaller overheads than Director, meaning that identical presentations will be more compact if authored in iShell. iShell projects are automatically cross-platform, both for authoring and for playback, and if built using a logical file structure should be easily transferable to another computer, or created as a CD image. In order to playback on a PC, you simply need to ensure that the PC version of the iShell Runtime is included. The concept of being able to author on a Mac and deliver on a PC with no requirement to own a PC is one that may be appealing to many Mac owners, though hardly constitutes good practice for commercial developers.
Since it’s free, there’s really nothing stopping you from trying iShell out. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but then Director isn’t either. For the experienced multimedia developer it may be useful to have a weapon like iShell in your armoury. If you’re prepared to put the hours in learning it, then iShell can deliver the goods, but it’s a major commitment to sign up to the Gold Membership program at $1,500 a year.