Collaboration Made Flexible

Macromedia Flash MX platform imparts powerful collaboration capabilities, has reasonable price.

Macromedia Inc.s Flash Communication Server MX brings powerful, flexible collaboration capabilities to the popular format for media-rich Web applications, making it attractive to businesses that have had a hard time finding a collaboration platform for their needs.

eWeek Labs used Flash Communication Server MX, in conjunction with the Flash MX development environment, to build a variety of collaboration applications, from videoconferencing to chat to e-seminars. Since these are simply customized Flash applications enabled through new ActionScripts and components that work in conjunction with Communication Server MX, we could combine these capabilities and many others to build almost any collaboration application we needed.

Of course, for some companies, the fact that you have to build these applications may be a turnoff. Prepackaged collaboration applications or services are probably the best bet for companies without the ability—or the desire—to devote in-house development resources to collaboration applications.

But for any company that has in-house Flash expertise and has been disappointed by collaboration products that lack needed features and include unwanted bells and whistles, Communication Server MX, which shipped in July, is a robust platform that enables excellent collaboration features and might finally make Flash an important investment for corporations.

And not a terribly large investment, at that. Starting at $499 for 10 connections and topping out at $18,000 for 2,500 connections, Communication Server MX costs much less than most collaboration products and services, which sometimes charge more than the Macromedia product costs just to host one meeting.

Communication Server MX developers can work on Windows or Mac OS systems, although they will require a copy of Flash MX. The server component, however, runs only on Windows, which could be a drawback for businesses that prefer to run this type of system on Unix or Linux. Nevertheless, applications can be designed to work with any other Web server or application server.

In addition, businesses should keep in mind that since Communication Server MX leverages many new features in Flash, applications built with it will require the latest Flash player to work.

Upon installation, our copy of Flash MX was updated to include support for new ActionScripts and components related to building collaboration applications. Also added were a Communication App Inspector and a NetConnection Debugger, which allowed us to view and test live applications.

Several sample applications were available after installation. These included an online meeting room with shared slides, interactive streaming video and chat; a videoconferencing application; an e-seminar with audio, video and slides; and several smaller applications. By using these samples as templates, we were able to quickly figure out the added functionality of Communication Server MX and begin building custom applications.

Also included are several new Flash components that in tests made it possible to drag and drop collaboration functionality into any application. These include a whiteboard component, a bandwidth management control and a RoomlList component for managing content and user access to collaboration areas.

Anyone who has ever built a Flash application should have no problem creating collaboration applications that leverage Communication Server MX. And with the increased usability of Flash MX, even beginners should be up and running quickly.

One new wrinkle is the inclusion of server-side scripts, which handle most of the core collaboration and interactivity capabilities. These scripts are based heavily on JavaScript, so most Web developers will pick them up easily.

In addition, in the browser-based management interface for Communication Server MX, we could access and search a full listing of all the server and client-side ActionScripts.

The only other capabilities in the somewhat bare-bones administration console were user management, application loading and some very basic reporting.

East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at