Flash MX 2004 & Flash MX 2004 Professional

Introduction

It might have started out as a vector-animation tool, but Flash has come a long way. Each version has added more functionality and an evolving ActionScript language for dynamic programming, turning Flash into an application-development tool. With Flash MX 2004 and MX 2004 Professional, this evolution continues. What has powered the Flash revolution has been the ubiquity of the Flash Player, making it an almost uniform cross-platform media player, more widespread than Java, QuickTime and Shockwave. Macromedia has steadily being adding new media types to the player, including MP3 and video, and functionality such as XML and database integration. All this makes Flash the development tool of choice for anyone wanting to create rich Internet content, including animation, games, Web sites and Web applications. It has become the Swiss Army knife of Web development. With MX 2004, Macromedia has extended the functionality from MX, and released a Professional edition with some exciting new features for power users. It has also tinkered with the underlying program engine, but with little success. Performance of the application for authoring mode seems slower and clunkier than in previous versions, with the rainbow wheel appearing too often for my liking, and prone to the occasional crash. While Flash gets increasingly complex and feature-laden, Macromedia has sought to ease the pain of introduction for new users with design templates, behaviours and timeline effects. Behaviours offer drag-&-drop functionality for common bits of functionality such as loading a movie clip, or going to a Web page. This automatically creates the ActionScript code required, allowing non-programmers to quickly add functionality and interactivity to movies. Timeline Effects are a quick way to add transitions and animation to objects on stage, such as fade-ins, blurs, and so on. But these add little value, and there are other applications – such as Swish – that offer similar functionality. Text-engine tweaks There are, however, some great improvements for handling text. You can now specify whether a text field should display aliased or not – useful when working with small font sizes. Secondly, there’s support for CSS, so you can ensure consistency between Flash font usage and across the rest of a site. Finally, a built-in spell-checker can inspect the copy across the whole document. Huzzah! Components extend Flash’s functionality. In this release, they can modify the authoring environment as well as the functional capabilities. The Flash JavaScript application programming interface (JSAPI) lets anyone develop scripts, commands and plug-ins to extend and improve the authoring environment. There are also components that provide support for Microsoft Access Accessibility (MSAA) standard screen readers and access devices – all part of the increasing importance of making content accessible to all. This JSAPI feature, combined with a History Panel that records previous actions, makes it easy to record macros to automate repetitive tasks – a nice touch. ActionScript 2.0 offers a more structured, class-based approach to programming, and is more akin to Java in scope and syntax. It shows Macromedia’s desire to get Flash taken seriously as a development environment. For Web applications, there are a number of additional Components such as a calendar and a Datagrid for laying out dynamic information. It also features Data Connection Components for exchanging information with an external data source such as XML or a database. Similar functionality was previously available to Flash with the Firefly Components of the separately available Data Connection Kit. An interesting feature in Professional is a Project mode. This manages multiple Flash movies as part of the same project, and integrates with a source-control application. This is another important step in moving Flash towards a comprehensive development environment. Another development is a Forms view. This provides a new format for developing applications that does away with the Timeline in favour of forms, a more familiar environment similar to programming languages such as Visual Basic. The video integration within Flash MX was something of a revelation, making the application a viable video-playback tool. With 2004 Professional, these video capabilities have been taken to the next level, and for my money, makes the Professional version the best-value option. You can now control and stream external FLV video files, making Flash video-jukebox applications a snap. You can export to FLV format from video applications such as Apple Final Cut Pro and Discreet Cleaner, as well as an improved encoder in Flash.
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