Macromedia Flash 4

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Support for MP3 streaming sound and data gathering improve functionality but it's the overhaul of the whole production process which really takes Flash 4 onto a new level.

Trial downloads/special offers from Macromedia

Macromedia Flash 4

Macromedia Flash is the de facto standard for high quality animation and interactivity on the Web. The format's vector nature provides fast, scalable playback over ordinary modem connections which is why high profile companies like Disney, Audi and Pepsi have chosen it for their sites. Flash's end results are unmatched, but the process of achieving those results has always been complex and has limited the format's take-up to bleeding-edge web designers. With Flash 4, Macromedia is determined both to set a new standard in high-end power but also to rework the entire production process to broaden the program's appeal.

The first area that has been overhauled is the toolbox. In the past, rectangles and ovals were only available as options under the Pencil tool, but now they have their own dedicated tools. Formatting has also been updated so that you can specify both a line style and a fill when you add your rectangle rather than having to first create an outline and then fill it with the Paintbucket. You can also set rectangles to have rounded corners by specifying a radius. Under normal circumstances this could hardly be called revolutionary - there's still not even a polygon option - but if you've grappled with previous versions of Flash you'll immediately appreciate the difference.

Once you've added your objects you'll also appreciate the greater control offered by Flash 4's new Inspector palette. This is a tabbed floating palette giving access to four sets of controls each of which can be dragged off separately. The new Object Inspector replaces the previous Inspector window to give feedback on exact position and size and also now allows these to be specified. The Transform Inspector enables precise scaling, rotation and skewing to be applied to the current object or to a duplicate - ideal for the creation of symmetrical patterns. The Scene Inspector is used to add, delete, rename and duplicate the separate sections of an animation and replaces the former confusing system of named tabs running down the right of the screen. Finally the Frame Inspector gives feedback on the current frame's label, sound file and action.

For handling symbols - the major elements in each Flash movie - the Library palette has been completely redesigned. You can now organise symbols into customisable folders so that you can keep sounds, bitmaps, buttons and movie clips separately - a godsend for complex jobs. There's also a new wide view of the Library which gives details on when the symbol was created and how often it is used in the movie. Another major advance is the ability to edit symbols in place with the rest of the movie temporarily grayed-out. If you've ever tried to create rollover buttons that affected other onscreen elements, you'll know just how complex this was when you had to work in a separate symbol editing window.

With such a major overhaul it's no surprise to find that the Timeline has also been tackled. To begin with the window is now floatable so that you don't have to have it permanently docked at the top of the screen. Much more regularly useful is the new handling of layers. Previously all options such as locking, hiding and outlining had to be handled through a single layer icon and its pop-up menu. Now there are three separate icons indicating the view, lock and outline status for each layer. Even better, by clicking on the icon header at the top of the column you can instantly toggle the status of all layers. Clicking on the outline icon, for example, represents each layer's objects as coloured wireframes.

Each of these interface changes is undoubtedly important, but perhaps the biggest improvement is the new Create Motion Tween command. Tweening automates the creation of animated effects by smoothly interpolating all the movements between two keyframes. In fact this functionality has always existed, but in Flash 3 it was hidden away as a drop-down option on a tab in the Frame Properties dialog. Now this crucial command is available directly from the right-click pop-up menu. Another improvement is the ability to reposition a symbol in the middle of an existing animated sequence and have Flash automatically add a new keyframe and split the existing tween into two. The program will even automatically convert objects into symbols where necessary.

In many ways the changes to tweening-based animation are more cosmetic than fundamental and must have taken the Flash developers around ten minutes to program. Their real significance is the way that they highlight Macromedia's new concern with usability. In fact it's these small changes that make all the difference. Other examples include the new ability to drag symbols onto the stage from the list of file names in the Library rather than just from its preview window and the fact that traditional Windows-style Shift-selection is now the default for selecting multiple objects.

These are all steps in the right direction, but there's still a long way to go. Flash still has bizarre and totally inexplicable idiosyncracies such as the way in which fills and outline are treated as completely separate from each other. Dragging a rectangle only to find that you've left behind its outline is profoundly irritating. Even worse are Flash's connection and segmentation features. These mean that overlapping objects of the same colour automatically combine while overlapping objects of a different colour knock each other out. This can easily ruin hours of work and offers no discernible benefits. To really become a mainstream package, Flash should try and operate like every other drawing program rather than trying to re-invent the wheel - and starting off with a square.

Users will still find themselves occasionally pulling out their hair then, but there's no denying that Flash 4's usability has been massively improved throughout the production process. So what about the program's functionality? Much the most important new feature is the new MP3 support. In fact Flash has always supported sound but in the past this was only really practical for "event" sounds, such as button-clicks, as longer sections of sound, such as background music, were simply too download-heavy. Now thanks to the amazing compression capabilities of MP3 this problem has been solved.

Taking advantage of MP3 is simple. WAV files can be imported just as they always have been and automatically appear in the Library palette. Right-click on the filename in the list and you can access the Properties dialog. Select MP3 from the drop-down list in the Export Settings section and you can then select a target bit rate and preview the sound in the context of its size. The maximum compression, to 8 kbps, will cut the file by around 99%! Unfortunately the quality is unlikely to be good enough at this setting, but 16 or 20 kbps is likely to be acceptable and results in files of only around 2 to 3% of their former size. This means that Flash can offer high quality streaming sound over normal modem connections.

The way of incorporating MP3 sounds into your animation is just as straightforward. You simply create a new layer and keyframe and then drag the file onto the stage. The sound is represented in the timeline by its waveform which makes it possible to synchronise animations. Double-click on a frame and you can even set up simple effects such as fades and loops. All told, Flash 4 now offers all the power you need to set up everything from realistic talking characters through to fully animated jukeboxes.

The second major area of new power in Flash 4 is its form handling capabilities. In the past it's always been possible to set up features such as drop-down lists and option buttons and a selection of such pre-prepared form controls are provided as libraries. However there have always been two huge holes in functionality: users haven't been able to enter information and there's been no way to collect feedback. As such, even in the most exciting interactive Flash sites, the only option has been to link to an ordinary HTML form.

Now both problems have been solved. Using the Text Field option of the Text tool you can quickly add editable text areas to the stage. Right-click on these and you call up the properties dialog. This offers various controls for managing word wrap, multiline boxes and text length. You can also set the field to be a password in which case characters will only appear as asterisks. At the bottom of the dialog are controls over the text outlines. The Flash player has serif, sans serif and typewriter fonts built-in, but other fonts can be embedded in the movie. To keep file size to a minimum you can specify exactly which characters should be included.

At the top of the dialog is the variable name for the text field and its via these that Flash 4 can now be used to retrieve information. The Get URL action now supports sending variables by POST or by GET so that you can pick up data, such as user names and addresses, using your existing ASP, ColdFusion or CGI server-side systems. Using the Load Variables parameter of the Load Movie command you can also pick up new information, for example, to return an order number once credit card details have been received. The uses for e-commerce sites are obvious.

In fact such sending and retrieving of variables is only the beginning. Two new action commands, If and Loop, have been added that can be used to evaluate variables and so proceed on an intelligent conditional basis. Before processing an order, for example, you can check that credit card values are numerical and that passwords match. Using the Set Variable, Get Property and Set Property commands you can also control the running of the movie as it plays depending on user input. Using the Call command you can even re-use sections of code and bring repetitive tasks under tight control - and cut file size at the same time.

Macromedia provides an example of just what can be done with actions with a sample game. This takes advantage of another new capability - the Drag Movie Clip command - to create an interactive puzzle where you have to reorder the numbers in a grid. Looking at the actions involved it's clear that Flash is beginning to tread on the toes of the full Director/Lingo programming combination. When allied with Generator's variable-driven graphic creation the potential should be enormous. Which is why it's particularly disappointing that Flash 4 doesn't currently support the Generator extensions. Clearly this will come, but for the moment it means that Flash's most advanced current users will have to stick with version 3.

Of course creating your movie is only part of the story. For anyone to actually be able to see it on your site you have to integrate it into your web pages. Again this used to be a nightmare involving hand-coding the necessary <object> and <embed> tags and all their multiple parameters. With version 3 Macromedia included the separate Aftershock utility which created the customised coding for you. With version 4 Macromedia has gone all the way and integrated the necessary functionality into an entirely new Publish Settings dialog. By default this outputs both the Flash SWF file and its associated HTML and offers dedicated tabs to control every aspect of each from load order and audio compression to movie size and alignment. To make things simpler Flash 4 offers eight in-built templates that allow you to choose between the major viewing options such as creating output for Java-based playback or providing visitors with a choice between downloading the new player or viewing a static bitmap. For absolute control these templates can be fully customised.

As well as handling SWF and HTML, the Publish Settings dialog also offers a number of other file format choices all of which can then be simultaneously output with a single Publish command. For each format that you select another tab appears in the dialog so that selecting any of the bitmap formats - GIF, JPEG or PNG - enables full control over image optimisation and compression (though with no preview or feedback on file size). In addition you can now output Flash 4 files as standalone projector EXEs in both PC and Mac format (though you will have to run the latter through a file translator utility first).

It's the new support for the QuickTime 4 MOV format though that is the most impressive. This includes support for features such as alpha channel transparency and QuickTime sound compression. More importantly QuickTime 4 now supports the Flash format itself so that Flash movies can be incorporated as a layer within the video. This means that an existing video can be brought into Flash, and a semi-transparent layer of animation and control buttons can be added and the combined result again published to MOV format. This ability to swap between bitmap video and vector animation and interactivity really does look to offer the best of both worlds in a single web-friendly streaming format. Sadly the QuickTime 4 application isn't bundled with Flash so you'll have to buy it separately.

There are some other disappointments when it comes to output. Flash 4's integration and simplification of the publishing process certainly makes life easy - but rather too easy. The default HTML template - "Flash Only" - simply creates a SWF version of your movie. If your visitors don't have the Flash player installed they'll see nothing. It's crucial that you cater for this by outputting an alternative static GIF or JPEG or animated GIF and getting Flash to produce the necessary detection and handling routines. Flash 4 does let you do this but again makes it more difficult than necessary. For instance with Aftershock you could interactively preview the movie to choose alternative bitmaps, but with Flash 4 you have to set up frame labels in advance. Where Aftershock was honest about the complexities and helped you pick your way through them, Flash 4 pretends the process is child's-play and ends up making it more difficult as a result.

Of course the publishing process is just as simple as Macromedia would have you believe so long as your visitors already have the Flash player installed. That's why Macromedia makes so much about its installed user base. Thanks to over 150 million downloads from the Macromedia site and the bundling of the Flash player with the latest releases of both browsers and operating systems, an independent survey has recently claimed that 77% of browsers can now view Flash content. As Macromedia points out that means that Flash has greater market penetration than Java, Navigator or Explorer. With the decision to open up the source code of both the SWF format and now the Flash player, Macromedia clearly hopes to make Flash as universal a standard as GIF or JPEG.

I'm slightly more sceptical. To begin with the figure for Flash compatibility on my own site is more like 50%. More to the point, it's important to remember that these figures refer to Flash 3. If a Flash 4 movie is viewed by the Flash 3 player most of the graphics will appear but much of the interactivity will not function properly. In many ways this means that Flash 4 has to start again building up its audience from scratch. It certainly means that if you're creating movies that don't use version 4 features you'd be better off saving them to Flash 3 format. Having said this, I'm also sure that eventually the Flash 4 player will outstrip the penetration of version 3. To be able to provide streaming MP3 playback with a 200k download is impressive enough. When you throw in the animation and interactivity enabled by the Flash 4 player it's the one plug-in that's an absolute must-have.

The same is true of the Flash 4 authoring environment. The major new features - MP3, QuickTime 4, form handling and advanced actions - extend Flash's power on all fronts: sound, video, interactivity and programmability. Ultimately though it is the overhaul of the entire production process which really makes the difference. Flash still isn't the right program for dabblers, but it's no longer the preserve of experts. Flash 4 is definitely ready for the big time.



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System Requirements: Pentium 133 or higher, 32+Mb of RAM, 20Mb of disk space, SVGA, CD-ROM, Windows 95 or later.

Tom Arah

July 1999

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