Macromedia Generator 1

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Developer's Studio, Flash Edition

The ability to automate and even personalise the creation of advanced Flash  content offers huge potential but only comes into its own with the accompanying  server technology.

Macromedia Generator Flash edition

Macromedia Flash has long been the secret weapon of the professional web designer. By offering advanced motion, shape, colour and now transparency-based animation together with sound and interactivity and all in a highly-compressed vector file format, Flash 3 (reviewed issue ) is the de facto standard for creating web sites that stand out from the crowd. However up until now the format has had one major drawback. The creation of Flash movies is labour-intensive and so the time required for producing the dynamic site has virtually ruled out the use of dynamic content. In other words, although the average Flash site might look exciting and up-to-the-minute, the content it contains is usually static and often outdated. Flash Generator is Macromedia's solution to the problem.

At its simplest Generator can be seen as a mail-merge for Flash. This extra functionality is provided in the form of template authoring extensions to the underlying Flash 3 program. A Flash movie is created in the usual way but with placeholders used for text and graphical elements. These placeholders are linked to variables in an external data source, and it is these variables that are used to generate the final Shockwave SWF image. The set-up of the template involves considerably more work and planning, but updating the data source and generating a new Flash movie then becomes quick and simple.

The most obvious use of a Generator template is in the production of a movie with text that needs to be regularly updated to show the latest headlines or share prices. The text placeholder is created simply by inserting the text as a variable name within curly braces, while the link to the data source is established with the Set Environment command in the new Template tab in the Frame properties dialog. The data source can be a comma-delimited text file, database or Java class and can be specified as a URL. To see what the final movie will look like, you use the Test Movie command to create a preview SWF file after making sure that the Create Generator Template option has been selected.

Naturally Generator has to deal with graphics as well as text and these are controlled with new Template Commands available from the Insert menu. These are most commonly used to insert existing symbols or movies, but can also be used to link to JPG bitmap files. Once inserted the graphic appears as a grayed-out box ready for positioning and sizing. It is also possible to set whether the graphic scales to fit the box - though irritatingly there is no option to scale-to-fit while maintaining aspect ratio. Replacing the graphic can be achieved simply by double-clicking on the place-holder box and entering another name or, more commonly, by linking to a variable in an external data source. This latter option is particularly useful when managing multiple symbols simultaneously, for example, when updating a weather map.

As well as symbols, movies and JPGs, Generator offers two types of dedicated graphical insertions. The first of these is used for adding simple charts. Depending on the type of chart selected - bar, line, area or scatter - these are generated based on a data source listing values and, where relevant, colours. The control provided is just about adequate for simple graphs, but misses basic features such as the automatic inclusion of data values. The second dedicated insert format is the scrolling list which can be set to scroll like tickertape either horizontally or vertically. The set-up process is pretty laborious, as it involves setting up symbols with placeholders for heading and text variables as well as managing the link to the data source, but the end results can be impressive.

After the various placeholder elements have been added to the Generator template they are ready to be controlled. For the most part they can be treated like any other Flash symbol so that using special template commands you can set attributes such as color, tint, brightness and transparency while tweened animation effects are applied as normal with the timeline. You can also set most attributes dynamically so that the Transform command, for example, can be used to scale, rotate and offset elements based on supplied variables. Variables can also be used as parameters for the Flash action commands, such as Load Movie and GetURL, so that the interactive elements of the Flash movie can also be controlled completely via an external data source.

Once the Generator template and external data have been set up, you're ready to prepare your movie for browser access. Support for the Flash Shockwave format, SWF, is now built in to the latest versions of Explorer and Navigator while downloadable plug-ins and ActiveX and Java players cater for older and less common browsers. For those increasingly rare cases where SWF files still cannot be read, Generator offers the ability to create static GIF, JPG or PNG alternatives or even animated GIFs. The settings for the creation of these bitmap formats, including advanced features such as GIF palette optimisation, is controlled with the Frame Properties dialog's Template tab.

In Flash 3, the finished movies would then be exported as SWF and the supplied Aftershock utility would be used to create the necessary HTML code. The system in Generator is very different as the template has first to be processed. This can be done in one of two ways: offline or online. In offline mode the Generator Dynamic Graphics Server is run from the command line whenever necessary - or scheduled - and the Flash SWT template file is automatically converted into the desired SWF and alternative file formats based on the internal template commands and external variables. In other words, once the template has been set up, the new web content can be generated as required without even loading Flash. The improvement in production efficiency is immense.

The online mode takes things even further as it processes templates on the fly to create live web content. This is achieved by linking the HTML page directly to the Generator SWT template file. When the page is opened by a client browser, the Web server starts the online generator to process the embedded template commands and to substitute variables to generate the necessary SWF or alternative files as required. As variables can be linked to any JDBC/ODBC-compliant database it's possible to enable the live update of information such as ticket sales and share prices. By linking to cookies you can even create completely personalised, one-off content and presentation that is unique to the current visitor - and all this happens automatically.

The power this opens up is immense so it's not too surprising to find there's a catch. Flash Generator can only provide such capabilities if the Macromedia Generator Dynamic Graphics Server extension has been installed on your web server. The extension is compatible with Microsoft Internet Information Server on Windows NT, Personal Web Server for Windows and Netscape Enterprise Server and Apache Web Server on Sun Solaris, so support isn't too much of a problem but the price is. The Dynamic Graphics Server extension costs around 2,000 per processor and Macromedia recommends at least dual-processor set-ups for such on-demand graphic generation.

This is clearly a lot of money, but for online, on-the-fly creation of personalized content it's still a small price to pay - after all the server is producing new graphical content for every visitor. The problem is that the system doesn't only apply to online generation, but also to offline updating no matter how occasional. While Macromedia bundles a trial version of the Generator Dynamic Graphics Server in the Developers Studio this has been tampered with so that any graphics generated with it are automatically watermarked with the Macromedia logo. Effectively this means that the Developers Studio on its own can only be used for prototyping sites and to actually implement them you, or your provider, will need to shell out for the full Graphics Server.

This is a pity as the cost of the server extension will mean that only the most popular sites will be able to justify the investment. Admittedly it's on these advanced sites that Generator's combined template/server solution really comes into its own, but the technology is so good that every Flash user will want to take advantage of it. Generator might be complex, expensive and occasionally awkward, but it certainly solves the long-standing problem of providing up to the minute web content in state of the art style.

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System Requirements: Pentium 200 or higher, 32Mb of RAM, 50Mb of disk space, Windows 95, 98 or NT 4

Tom Arah

Jan 1999

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