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Style and Substance in Flash 8

by Trevor Zion Bauknight

Because a large portion of our Web application user interface is done in Flash, we here at Cafe ID took special interest in Monday's official announcement of Flash 8 by Macromedia. With Macromedia shareholders set to vote August 24th on a proposed buyout by graphics software giant Adobe, the announcement takes on added significance. Macromedia appears to be taking its customers' concerns to heart and is making a push to move Flash beyond gee-whiz website trim into the world of serious custom application development. How that plays out against Microsoft's (and others') efforts in the same arena isn't any clearer, however.

What's New?

Macromedia identifies three areas as its primary focus for improvement with the new Flash authoring environment, code-named "8Ball": Expressiveness, User Experience and Video. Under the Expressiveness category, Macromedia has added filters like Blur and Drop Shadow, run-time control over blend modes, a new font-rendering engine called FlashType that represents a vast improvement to the text rendering capabilities, bitmap caching, custom easing control and other improvements to the authoring and delivery of graphics.

Improvements to the authoring environment's User Experience include the return of "normal mode", only this time it's New and Improved. Script assist, as it's now called, is a visual script editor that provides automatic syntax completion and parameter description. Improvements to the Library, panel management, object- and document-level Undo and Redo, a new object drawing model and the addition of SWF metadata that improves the visibility of SWF files to search engines round out this second category.

Video is where Flash 8 now shines. Macromedia has added a video codec, On2's VP6, that gives excellent video quality and small file sizes. The addition of a run-time alpha channel allows authors to overlay video on top of dynamic Flash content. A centralized video import workflow puts all video options in one place and a new, easily-skinnable playback component rounds out some very impressive improvements to this aspect of Flash authoring.

Other improvements to the authoring environment are designed to further the use of Flash in smaller, mobile devices. An interactive mobile device emulator allows you to test your Flash content on a variety of devices that run Flash Lite, and an improved Actions panel makes it easier to use different versions of ActionScript.

Sounds Great. Who Cares?

Approximately 98% of computers have some version of the Flash Player installed, and the Flash Lite mobile player is seeing a tremendous surge in its deployment. It's estimated that in the year after Macromedia releases a new version of the Player, about 80% of the installed base upgrades, with the remainder following closely.

What this means is that Macromedia has a huge head start on its competitors when it comes to popular acceptance. Looming on the horizon, however, is Microsoft, itself very popular even if its audience is a captive one. Microsoft's plans for Avalon, the vector-graphics layer of its forthcoming Windows Vista release, represent a threat to Flash hegemony, though Apple's Mac OS X has shipped with a vector graphics layer called Quartz, based on PDF, no less, since its release and there doesn't seem to be an inherent conflict between Apple's and Macromedia's technologies.

With Adobe's impending purchase of Macromedia, something Adobe sees as a tremendous growth opportunity, the weight of several largely complementary technologies, including SVG and PDF, presents a formidable challenge to Redmond in terms of both installed base and potential. The two companies are giants in content delivery, and it's not clear that Microsoft even wants to compete on that playing field.

"8Ball" represents a renewed emphasis on the designers and animators who use the product, focusing less on the developer side as the last two full-point releases have done. And while many developers including our own are less than satisfied with the inconsistent approach Macromedia has taken with each new release of the authoring environment, the company does appear to recognize the increasing importance of Flash as a cross-platform GUI builder for Internet-centric applications.

More improvements will be needed on the developer side before professional PHP and Java gurus will be comfortable working alongside designers in the Flash idiom. That said, however, we're eagerly awaiting the new release later this summer, and you should consider it a worthwhile investment if you're using Flash to build rich front-ends for your Web applications.

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