APRIL 09, 2002
Prodigal Mac: Let The Macromedia Obsession Continueth
I've only got 10 days left, and by the time you read this, it will probably be even less. I've been slowly, and with increasing sadness, watching the "days left" counter on my Flash MX trial version tick down from thirty. I'm at ten days and counting before I have to break out the old credit card and plunk down my hard-earned $199 for the upgrade from Flash 5. I'm not all that pleased about that, since the version 5 upgrade was fifty clams less back in the summer of 2000, but I feel I have no choice. That's because in the span of less than three weeks, I have come to completely love and depend on Flash MX.
But why all the increasing sadness, you might ask? Good question. I shouldn't be sad that I'm going to have to actually purchase Flash MX; after all, I've just finished expressing my fondness for the product. (The very fact that I am proclaiming actual love for any piece of software probably hints at deep-seeded emotional problems on my part, but I can live with it if you can.) I'm sad because I was secretly rooting for Flash MX to suck, and it most decidedly doesn't. Curses! Foiled again! The only real beef I had with Macromedia was that they were taking their dear sweet time in bringing their products over to OS X, and that was frustrating. It's a frustration that still stands, because we continue to wait for Director, Dreamweaver and Fireworks to even be announced for OS X, and ColdFusion and whatever the replacement for Generator will be to even be so much as rumored to come over to the Mac, period. While I'm not holding my breath on the last two, I would have expected something even approaching official to be uttered forth from Macromedia about the other three. I don't usually like to address rumors in an official capacity, but I'm sure I'm not the only one to have seen the screenshots of Dreamweaver MX floating around, and if they are to be believed, at least Dreamweaver is on the radar screen. So no, my malaise doesn't really have anything to do with Flash MX itself. The overall goodness that is Flash MX makes me sad for two reasons:
1) I was kind of (foolishly) hoping Macromedia would stumble a bit on this upgrade in order to give other developers a chance to catch up in the Flash authoring space.
2) I wonder what's going to happen to Director now.
The first point is, admittedly, more or less just a pipe dream. For the last few years the whole Flash format has been something of an oxymoron, in that it is simultaneously an open and proprietary format. While the guts of the format are freely available for anyone to have their programs publish to, it still is a single company that ultimately controls where the "standard" goes, which gives Macromedia a huge built-in advantage. By retaining tight control of future versions of the SWF file format, they will always have a leg up on competitors who want to incorporate Flash authoring into their products. And while standards bodies and corporations alike have been attempting to develop a standard for Web animation, Flash has swooped in and arguably made those efforts futile. This fact really riles up some, as evidenced by some message threads I've seen that feature Flash haters ("it is the death of the web") and Flash lovers ("it is the rebirth of the web") verbally duking it out with a passion I've previously seen only in the Mac vs. Windows debates. But love it or loathe it, nearly everyone who has spent any time online knows what Flash is and, more importantly, can probably tell you with some degree of certainty what Flash can do. That's the kind of mindshare that many companies would kill for, and Macromedia seems well aware of what it has.
Therefore, it would be really, really dumb for Macromedia to intentionally do anything that would allow competitors to narrow the gap between their offerings and whatever the latest version of the Flash authoring tool happens to be. You don't need Flash to create Flash content, but if you want access to the newest SWF bells and whistles, nothing else but Flash itself will do. So I understand why Macromedia needs to have a compelling reason to keep their Flash authoring products ahead of the pack, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. As I said before, I was hoping Flash MX would suck because while that may not have been the best thing for Macromedia, it would probably have helped the Flash format itself, at least from an end-user's point of view.
Here's why: I'd like to see Flash eventually become the multimedia equivalent of an image format such as TIFF or JPEG. Hundreds upon hundreds of programs, from screen capture utilities to 3D animation suites and beyond, can create images in a number of common formats that other programs can ultimately understand and use, and I'd love to see that same level of interoperability with SWF files. That particular Flash Utopia is somewhat of a reality already, as more and more programs (especially in the animation space) have the ability to export to, and in some cases import, SWF files. And while QuickTime 5 only currently offers Flash 4 support, it nonetheless can be effectively used to make Flash understood in even more programs. It's the scripting side of Flash that's the sticky wicket. Not every Flash-compatible program is designed to deal with the ActionScript that lives in an interactive SWF, nor is there really any way at present for programs that do have scripting capabilities to import SWF files and have them work within each different authoring environment (outside of the loadMovie command, that is). Maybe it's not that big a deal; after all, 3D programs generally don't have an interoperable file format or compatible scripting language, but they can export out images other programs can use to varying degrees. Maybe I'll just have to be happy with where the SWF format is today, and let tomorrow take care of itself. If Flash MX was indeed a less-than-desirable upgrade, maybe it would have cleared the path for the LiveMotions of the world to become truly feature-parity Flash authoring alternatives and push the SWF format into true "standard" status, but such is life.
Anyway, I can more than live with Flash MX being good. The other issue I have is that I can't help but wonder where Flash MX and Macromedia's "Flash everywhere" initiative will leave my favorite (up until now, anyway) Macromedia product: Director. Even "way back" in the days of Flash 5, I found myself being able to do more and more work in Flash that I previously would only dream of using Director for. Combining Flash 5 with version 1 of Wildform Flix, I could do things like interactive video clip reels entirely in Flash. What's more, I could publish both Mac and Windows projectors from a single copy of Flash, dispense with needing to include multiple versions of the same clips, and distribute on CD without the "Made With Macromedia" branding requirements Director imposes. In short, Flash became just as good as Director for certain projects, and with less hassle. Flash MX is raising the bar, as it were, with features like video encoding and a number of common interface components built right in. But (and it's a big but) while Flash is becoming more useful as an all-purpose multimedia authoring tool, Director can still do stuff that Flash simply can't. Interactive 3D, almost infinite extensibility through Xtras, and heavy-duty interaction with a variety of video formats are just naming a few. Sure, Shockwave hasn't caught on the way Flash has (but just might if the Shockwave player were a less bandwidth-hungry download), and the CD ROM authoring space isn't what it once was, but are issues like that enough to relegate future versions of Director to niche status, a la Authorware? I sure hope not. There are a couple of things, like adding DVD Video authoring to Director or folding parts of Director into Flash, that could conceivably keep Director, or parts of it, relevant, but at this point, it's hard to say what Macromedia has up their sleeve for Director.
OK, so maybe I'm not all that sad. Flash is a great tool that, as it continues to evolve, is becoming my first choice for interactive projects, regardless of where and how it will be delivered. I find myself asking first, "can I do this in Flash, or is there something here that really necessitates moving up to Director?" And I'm finding more often than not that Flash will fit the bill just fine. And all that means is that I guess I'll just stick with Flash and enjoy the ride, even if it means letting Macromedia get away with making us OS X users wait so long.
Kevin Schmitt has been a working with just about every aspect of digital media since before anyone really knew what to call it. An award-winning animator, artist, and multimedia producer, he is currently the head (and only) honcho of Kevin Schmitt Digital Design, located in the enormously bustling megalopolis of Charlottesville, Va. Whether you're looking to hire a digital artist for your next project or just wanting to give him the business about his latest musings, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He's ready to believe you!
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