Opinion: Page (1) of 1 - 03/20/03 Email this story to a friend. email article Print this page (Article printing at MyDmn.com).print page facebook

The Accidental Switcher

Or, the more I use Flash... By Kevin Schmitt
Man, I sure do love my Flash MX. I find myself using it to some extent in each and every interactive project I do, and it's even creeping its way into my motion graphics workflow on video projects as the straight-up QuickTime-friendly animation tool it certainly is capable of being. There's only one little, nagging problem. I'm finding that the more time I spend in Flash MX, the less time I'm spending on a Mac.

On the surface, this shouldn't be so. There are several reasons why I've more or less completely migrated away from Director and towards Flash as my main interactive authoring tool: a ubiquitous browser plug-in, the addition of native video, the maturation of ActionScript, a robust (for lack of a better word) Component architecture, and cross-platform Projector publishing from a single copy of Flash, just to name a few. On that last point, I thought I had finally found my own personal multimedia Holy Grail. Flash MX gave me a lot of what I used to only be able to do in Director, with the added bonus of a playback engine that more or less eliminated any specific cross-platform "gotchas" that would sometimes crop up in Director. Then, to be able to publish projectors for Mac and Windows simultaneously, and pretty much be assured that both versions would "just work" on their intended platform, well, let's just say that I was a pretty happy camper.


At first, all was good. I could develop in Flash on Mac OS X with relative impunity and know that Windows users would see things exactly as I intended. Then a couple of things happened that threw the proverbial monkey into the proverbial wrench (or is that put the proverbial foot on the proverbial other hand?). Anyway, one night I was in the middle of a heavy render in LightWave, which I had set to output as a QuickTime file and which I didn't want to interrupt. I know, I know. You can lecture me about using image sequences instead of QuickTime later. Rather than fire up Flash MX on OS X to test out whether a particular snippet of ActionScript that had popped into my head would work or not (doing so, I figured, would slow down LightWave as well as Flash MX on my single 867 G4 processor), on a whim I went over to my Windows test box to do it there. I was nothing short of astonished. Here was a generic, home-built Windows 2000 box, with no internal component less than two years old, literally running circles around my relatively new PowerMac in both Flash MX authoring and playback. Frame rates ran at the speed I actually intended. SWF files built themselves quicker. UI elements were much snappier. And let's not even begin to get into browser playback performance. I guess, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. I had known from my Windows-only days that Flash authoring and playback were something of a second-class citizen on the Mac, but I guess that in my zeal of having an OS X-native version of Flash MX that was stable and feature-rich I had given myself a case of selective amnesia.

Incident number two happened when I began to investigate the various Flash add-on packages for a project that already existed in Flash that had to be converted to a Windows-based CD ROM. Third-party Flash "extenders" are a growing software segment, and include titles such as SWF Studio, Flash Studio Pro, and FlashJester Tools, among others. These programs are designed to extend Flash's capabilities through methods like custom FSCommand libraries or other proprietary ActionScripts, then bundle SWF movies into executables that work hand-in-hand with the embedded Flash content to do stuff Flash was never designed to do (such as save files locally and retrieve documents over FTP, to name a couple). Many Mac-based Flash folks may not be familiar with these tools, because as far as I know, none exist on the Mac. (As an aside, with a little bit of AppleScript prowess and Flash MX's built-in "EXEC" FSCommand that allows you to run external executables, much of this added functionality can be replicated on the Mac side with no additional software.) Now, before you go screaming to me that Director MX can do a lot of this stuff while still reusing my Flash content, keep in mind that my budget was extremely limited. Most of the Flash extender products hover in the $150 range (I ultimately selected SWF Studio at $139), which was a far more attractive option to me than laying down four Benjamins for an upgrade from Director 8.5 to MX. Plus, considering the aside I just mentioned about AppleScript, a lot of stuff was still possible in the cross-platform realm without shelling out $800 to upgrade both of my Director licenses just to add on to some Flash content.

Between these two events, I now find myself turning to my PC when I am going to be doing more than just casual development in Flash. I have to be realistic. When working on a product for Windows users, it makes more sense to develop on Windows in the first place as opposed to using Flash on the Mac for what pretty much amounts to the sake of doing so. It all comes down to the fact that, for whatever reason, Flash is much, much faster on Windows, and there are a lot more development options available than on the Mac. Curious to find out what others had to say on the issue, I turned to Google and uncovered no shortage of user stories, anecdotal evidence, and other tales that re-confirmed to me that Mac OS X and Flash MX haven't closed the speed gap between it and Windows at all since the OS 9 and Flash 5 days. Indeed, it may even have gotten worse. Just a few days ago, I was talking to a developer who told me that his 400 mHz Pentium II displays Flash quicker than his top-of-the-line (before MWSF, anyway) dual 1.25 gHz G4 with a GeForce 4 Ti card. I can't disagree; I have a project that contains a few sliding panels that runs damn close to 120 fps on a below-average Windows machine, but slows to between 2-10 fps on an average Mac. So where does it end? When I'm doing Flash development, by extension, it becomes easier to plug my LightWave Duo Dongle into the PC and keep working rather than move over to the Mac to do the same thing. Ditto for Combustion. The same goes for Photoshop, etceteree, etcetera. Bam. Suddenly, I find that I'm using Windows more each day than the Mac. And you know what? It doesn't bother me all that much. I'll get into why I think that is in a minute.

Look, honestly, I don't know who is more at fault here. Is it Macromedia, who hasn't ever had a version of Flash that ran faster on the Mac than on Windows in the first place? Or is it Apple, who doesn't seem to think that this is a big deal, and who hasn't offered (at least publicly) to help make Flash on the Mac a best-in-breed application the way they have with other developers like Alias/Wavefront? Who's fault is it? Both. Neither. It doesn't matter, I suppose, because the problem doesn't seem to be a priority for anyone in a position to do anything about it. And while I've heard rumblings that Macromedia is working hard on the speed gap for Flash MX2 (or Flash MY or whatever they're going to call it), I'll only believe it when I actually see it.

The reason I'm not bothered doing things in Windows is because I'm using programs that run more or less identically on either platform. Sure, Windows is uglier to look at, but if you're spending all day within a single application, what does it really matter how elegant or inelegant the underlying OS is or isn't? I mean, once I retrained myself to hit the Control key with my pinkie finger rather than the Command key with my thumb, I just didn't notice that much of a difference. And therein lies Apple's larger problem. While I'm sure I'd feel differently if I needed Final Cut Pro or DVD Studio Pro on a regular basis, which do not have Windows versions (but which certainly do have perfectly capable Windows competitors), Apple is offering me, as a creative professional, fewer reasons to use the Mac, not more, when in reality Apple needs all the help it can get in the pro space these days. I want to use a Mac. I prefer to use a Mac. I go out of my way some days to spend some time working on my Mac, even when I don't really need to. Mac OS X, for me, is absolutely the greatest OS I've ever used. I really don't have enough flowery adjectives in my limited vocabulary to describe how much I love OS X. But I've also faced the reality that Windows 2000 and XP just don't suck as badly as earlier Windows versions (security concerns aside), at least not enough to run fleeing from the platform at any cost. Add in the fact that everything, and I do mean everything, I use regularly on a Mac is available in an identical (or at least highly comparable) version for Windows, and Cupertino, we have a problem.

I'd argue that if you're a consumer today, you can do no better than to own a Mac. The iLife apps really are first rate (iMovie 3's initial stumbling out of the gate notwithstanding), setup is easy, and maintenance is even easier. Everything you could want in a consumer experience is right there from the start, and wrapped up in a very attractive package to boot. But on the professional end, as desktop Macs lag further behind PCs in performance and remain comparably expensive in spite of recent price cuts, it's becoming harder and harder to justify continued investment in pro Mac hardware for a lot of budget-conscious shops, not to mention "one man band" setups like myself. Personally, I think to save the professional segment Apple would do itself well to move OS X to AMD's forthcoming Opteron processor or even to regular old x86 (hell, it might even make sense to open just the desktops back up to cloners -- can you imagine buying a Dell workstation with OS X preinstalled?), and extend as much help to possible to flagship developers in making their offerings run as fast and as well as possible on OS X. Would it be difficult, time consuming, or even technically feasable to integrate Flash playback as a function of Quartz Extreme in Jaguar? I don't know, but something needs to be done. Because all it took was crappy Flash performance to make me an accidental switcher, and the thought of that happening on any semblance of larger scale doesn't exactly give me the screamin' happies about Apple's professional future.

When not fleeing the paparazzi or spending his vast fortune associated with the fame and notoriety of being a DMN contributor, Kevin Schmitt can be found with his eyeballs glued to his computer screen, attempting to use some of the hardware and software he rants so incoherently about. An award-winning animator, artist and multimedia producer, he is currently a freelance designer located in the enormously bustling megalopolis of Charlottesville, VA. Whether you're looking to "give him the business" of either the figurative or literal type, feel free to drop him a line. He's ready to believe you!

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Though the fame, riches, and notoriety of being a DMN contributor are both tantalizing and substantial, Kevin Schmitt still stubbornly insists on continuing his work as the Director of Interactive Services at EFX Media, a production house located just outside of Washington, D.C. Feel free to follow his updates and contact him through Twitter if you have something to share - he's ready to believe you!
Related Keywords:Flash MX, QuickTime, animation, Mac, Director, Windows

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