Web Content Gains New
Macromedia Inc.s Flash MX is a complete rearchitecture of the leading platform for rich-media Web applications, offering improved performance, greater support for video and other media formats, greater ability to deal with databases, and a completely redesigned and very customizable development environment.
In another critical area, Flash MX, which shipped earlier this month, includes much-needed accessibility features, making it possible for those with disabilities to use screen readers to understand Flash content. However, although this is an important step for Macromedia, especially in making Flash acceptable in government and education sites, it is very much a first step that comes up short with regard to compliance with standards.
Still, in eWeek Labs tests, Flash MX proved to be a major improvement, especially in the area of ease of development. Site authors and designers who may have been intimidated by previous versions of Flash will find Flash MX much easier to work with and will instantly find its Dreamweaver-like interface very familiar.
A new feature lets users choose whether to use a designer- or developer-oriented interface, so those who prefer to work mostly in code can choose to work in a more familiar developer environment, which also includes an excellent new ActionScript Editor.
Flash MX is priced at $499 and is available for Windows and Mac OS platforms. The free Flash Player 6.0, which is being released at the same time, is also available on those platforms. Many of the new features, including video and accessibility, require the 6.0 player. However, Flash MX does allow developers to save work for Flash 5.0, enabling them to take advantage of the improved development environment while supporting the greater number of users who wait to upgrade.
One of the main new capabilities in Flash MX is the ability to have video files or streams embedded within the Flash application. When embedding a stream, it is simply a matter of adding a pointer to the streaming media file. However, to embed a video file, that file must be imported into Flash MX; during the import, the file is converted into the new Spark format from Sorenson Media Inc.
Macromedia went with the Spark format, rather than using more common formats such as QuickTime or Windows Media, because of the greater compression Spark brought without a corresponding hit in quality. This allows users to embed video without greatly increasing the size of the Flash application.
Flash MX can now also dynamically import external image and audio files, making it much easier to update media content without having to redeploy the Flash application.
With the new accessibility properties, it was simple to add descriptive information to some elements of our application, although it becomes much more difficult to add this information to some advanced user components. Also, although it is possible for very basic Flash documents (essentially little more than a static Web page) to be compliant with the governments Section 508 requirements, most other Flash applications will come up short.
Accessibility support for the player is provided through Microsoft Corp.s Active Accessibility, a user agent technology in Internet Explorer. This means that the accessibility feature works only on Windows platforms and only on the Flash Player within IE, not in the stand-alone player.
New custom components—the ActionScript Editor and a full-featured debugger—are among the tools that make life much easier for developers of Flash applications. Flash MX can also now handle XML data within scripts, making it possible to send and receive data from databases and application servers. Later this year, Macromedia plans to release a new version of ColdFusion, which will make it much easier to develop data-based Flash applications.
One area where Flash MX could do more for developers is in group development, especially when it moves to more server-oriented environments. Although it is possible to share components and libraries, Flash MX doesnt provide much for projects where groups of developers need to work on a task.
eWeek Labs tested the Windows version of Flash MX on Windows XP running on a Pentium 3 system. The Mac version was tested on Mac OS 10.1 running on a Dual one Ghz Power Mac G4.
East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.
Developers will find that Flash MX is now suitable for a lot more than animations and annoying site intros. Macromedias updated content generation tool provides improved media, accessibility and data features that make it possible to create a wide variety of rich media applications for the Web. The much-improved development interface should make Flash more accessible to Web authors and designers.
SHORT-TERM BUSINESS IMPACT // Even if companies dont plan to use a lot of the new MX/6.0 features, which require the 6.0 client, developers can take advantage of the improved development interface now and save apps in the 5.0 format.
LONG-TERM BUSINESS IMPACT // Flash MXs improved support for XML is the first step toward becoming a true platform for dynamic Web development. Companies whose Web applications now rely on application servers will want to evaluate upcoming server releases, which should increase Flash MXs ability to work with data-rich applications.
PROS // Improved, flexible development interface; now supports video within Flash application; some support for accessibility.
CONS // Accessibility features work only on Windows Internet Explorer client; limited group development features.
Macromedia Inc., San Francisco; (415) 252-2000; www.macromedia.com