[ Go to September 1997 Table of Contents ]|
-- by Warren Ernst
Macromedia's Shockwave is a great idea, but it may be overkill if all you want are some clever visual and audio effects to add to your Web pages. Enter Macromedia's Flash 2, a new vector-based multimedia-creation tool that makes it easier than ever to incorporate animated and interactive elements-including animated GIFs, or even AVI and QuickTime movies-into your Web pages.
Flash 2 is especially well suited to creating interactive navigation toolbars in a Web site. It can define elements on the toolbar as graphics buttons that, when clicked on, actually appear to depress and make a clicking noise. You can link these buttons to a local or remote Web page (clicking on a button loads a new HTML file) or to a specific sequence within a Flash 2 movie. For example, you can click on your Flash toolbar to morph it into another toolbar, with changes in font, color, size, shape and other attributes to create a wide range of special effects. Even with sound, these features only required about a 30KB file size.
Flash 2 produces a great variety of multimedia, including animation sequences that you can export into common movie formats or into a new Web-friendly SWF movie format. The SWF sequences are vector-based (as opposed to the bulkier raster- or bitmap-based) artwork, so Flash movies are incredibly compact and naturally stream when they are placed into Web sites. (Streaming video can begin to play before the entire file has been downloaded.) The response time of Flash movies is about as quick as that of an ordinary GIF image within a Web page.
Because they aren't bound by the conventional limitations of HTML, Flash movies can use virtually any font or color at any time, include embedded or background sounds, respond to a mouse click or the positioning of the mouse without a click (called a "mouse over"), or rescale the size of graphics or text based on the size of the browser window or frame.
The process of creating a Flash 2 animation is a little tricky, even with the program's intuitive drawing tools. Probably the best way to visualize the process is to imagine creating a sequence of screenshots in which each frame can consist of multiple layers of objects. Flash can automatically create intermediary frames between your key frames, so objects move smoothly from one position to another. In addition, you can insert sounds that play when either movie events or user interactions occur.
Although Flash multimedia works well in Web pages, the process of preparing your site for this content can be a bit complicated. First, in your Web page, you'll have to insert a small snippet of HTML code that automatically downloads and installs a plug-in onto the user's hard drive. Viewers need either the Shockwave Flash animation player plug-in or the ActiveX module, which are available from the Macromedia Web site. Additionally, you'll have to add the Flash 2 MIME (Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions) type to your Web server before your Internet audience can see your work. However, Flash's documentation walks you through both steps and provides several examples.
Flash 2's clean visual interface and intuitive set of tools make complex tasks about as simple as one could expect in a program that can do so much. The program also provides a comprehensive online tutorial that walks new users through most of Flash's features interactively, though there's far too much material to go through in one session. In addition, there's a good context-sensitive online help system, a well-written printed reference manual and more than a dozen sample movies to show you how everything works together.
Many of Flash's capabilities will be incorporated into the new, free Dynamic HTML scripting, but Flash has several advantages over Dynamic HTML. For instance, you don't have to handwrite code or wait for specifications to be finalized. In addition, Flash will work with older browsers.
Web sites with Flash 2 multimedia components are nothing less than spectacular, yet using Flash to create them isn't complicated. Due to Flash movies' small size and high quality, Flash 2 might become as indispensable for a cutting-edge Web site as a good paint program and as common as the GIF file. It has already earned a position on our WinList of recommended products.