Macromedia promises better Web apps

The company moves ahead with an ambitious upgrade cycle that it says will offer new Web development and server tools--including Dreamweaver MX--improved for Internet applications.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
7 min read
Macromedia will launch the next stage of an ambitious product upgrade cycle Monday with new Web development and server tools that focus on better delivery of Web applications.

The new products include Dreamweaver MX, an updated version of Macromedia's market-leading Web design tools used by more than 80 percent of professional Web designers; ColdFusion MX, a set of server scripting tools for creating Web applications; and Fireworks MX for creating Web graphics. The generation of products is also combined in Studio MX, a suite of developer tools that includes the newly released Flash MX.

Most of the new products are meant to improve the way Web applications are created and presented, an effort vital to the continued growth of the Web, according to Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia. By integrating Web design and development tools with ColdFusion server tools that Macromedia acquired from Allaire, Macromedia can help developers offer more useful Web services and present them in a smoother way.

As an example, Lynch showed an e-commerce transaction page designed with Flash MX and other Macromedia tools. When a person changes the quantity of an item in the order, the page automatically updates the total, using event-driven applications embedded in the page and Flash instructions that allow the person's PC to do the math.

The traditional way of designing a transaction page would require people to click on an "update order" button, wait for a server to recalculate the total and wait some more for the screen to refresh, a cumbersome process for presenting such basic information.

"We think that's a bad model for Web applications," Lynch said. "It reflects the way the Web is built; it's built to deliver documents, not services.

"I think the delivery of applications on the Internet has been defined by the infrastructure, and the end-user experience has been kind of secondary. We think that needs to change."

Dreamweaver: Too daunting?
Joseph Lowery, a Web developer in New York and author of the "Dreamweaver Bible" series of books, said the focus on Web applications fits with the general trend in Web development. But it means current Dreamweaver customers who aren't involved in applications development may feel little need to upgrade.

"All those developers of static Web pages are now going to have the ability to create applications and services staring them in the face," he said. "I think that's going to be a little daunting."

As with other Macromedia products, the new Dreamweaver will also require developers to learn a new user interface. But Lowery said Dreamweaver MX makes a big step in the right direction.

"The learning-curve issue, I think, is Macromedia's biggest challenge, especially for Dreamweaver," he said. "But (Dreamweaver MX) is a significant advance, as far as usability. Everything is pretty much where you expect."

Rikki Kirzner, an analyst with research firm IDC, said the new MX packages show a comprehensive approach to Web site design, from creating graphics elements to defining server processes. The integrated approach, she said, is the result of Macromedia taking the time to fully digest the Allaire acquisition, a financially risky approach that meant Macromedia going through 2001 with no major product introductions.

"You've got to give them credit," Kirzner said. "They spent all last year working on the Allaire products, instead of just bolting on the new stuff to generate new sales. The result of that effort is far superior to what you'd get just rushing something to market.

"These products really work together in an elegant way. For the people doing Web design and development, this is like going from a Honda Civic up to a Lexus. It really allows people to expand beyond the limited version of Web applications you see now."

Getting flashy
Macromedia critics have expressed concerns about a single company having so much control over how the Web works. But Steve Frankel, a software analyst for investment bank Adams Harkness & Hill, said the real obstacle for corporate customers is likely to be the novelty of Macromedia's push for Flash-centric Web pages. Among the implications are the PCs would go from being dumb "thin clients" for Web data, where central servers have to do all the processing work, to smart terminals that can use the Flash player to handle certain tasks.

"Anytime you talk about a major realignment of the way you do things, there are going to be reservations," Frankel said. "I think this will happen in baby steps. I don't expect the Web is going to be retooled overnight to a fat-client model."

Gartner analyst Lou Latham says Flash's popularity gives Macromedia a strong head start in the race to deliver enhanced interactivity for Web users.

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The tough overall economic climate, especially for Web-based businesses, will also make it tough for Macromedia to convince customers to upgrade, Frankel said. But the company can make strong arguments that the new products will pay for themselves in cost savings, he said.

Pre-built templates and a uniform user-interface will mean Web developers can churn out pages more quickly. E-commerce pages that are easier to navigate should help in customer retention. And by not forcing browsers to redraw an entire page just to present one new bit of information, Flash-centered pages save bandwidth and associated costs.

Lynch points to the new Flash-based stock quote system used by online broker E*Trade. By using a Flash-based application, the broker can deliver quotes with less than 2KB of data, as opposed to the old HTML format that required a 100KB download and up to 20 seconds of waiting for each quote.

"It costs less, and it's actually a better experience for the user," Lynch said. "That's the advantage of having a rich client...that can take advantage of local processing power...We think we've really lowered the barriers to creating applications that work well."

Frankel said the bandwidth argument is likely to be Macromedia's biggest asset as it tries to convince cash-strapped customers to spend money on new technology.

"That to me is probably the argument that will resonate most with the market now," he said. "There's a powerful argument there for direct cost savings as far as developers being able to finish their work more quickly and fewer pages being served...And there's the hope that a better user experience should mean fewer abandoned shopping carts."

New and improved
The new Dreamweaver includes improvements in a number of areas that users of previous versions have complained about. Lowery said major enhancements include accessibility compliance tool checks that help designers ensure that Web pages will work with screen readers and other tools for disabled users, better support for new formats such as XHTML and cascading style sheets, and code-writing shortcuts that dramatically speed up development work.

"It's always been one of Macromedia's strengths that they really pay attention to what people are asking for, and they really do their homework," Lowery said. "You can really see that in this upgrade."

Dreamweaver MX is expected to ship in May for $399, or $199 for those upgrading from a previous versions of Dreamweaver or ColdFusion Studio. A preview version is available for download now from Macromedia.

The other new products are as follows:

• ColdFusion MX is the new version of the server software Macromedia acquired from Alliare. Besides expanded tools for working in XML, the lingua franca of Web services, the new version supports both of the competing standards for delivering Web services: Microsoft's .Net and Sun Microsystems' Java 2 Enterprise Edition.

"I think that's a very smart move for Macromedia," Frankel said. "Customers don't want to be forced down one publishing path. It makes sense for them to be agnostic."

ColdFusion MX Server Professional Edition, the basic package of application development tools, is set to ship in June priced at $799 per server, or $549 for those upgrading from an earlier version. ColdFusion Enterprise Edition, for large-scale Web sites, will ship at the same time priced at $4,999 per server, or $2,499 for the upgrade version. A preview version is available for download now.

IBM is also set to announce Monday that it will support ColdFusion MX in its WebSphere family of products for creating and delivering Web services. IBM will resell ColdFusion MX to WebSphere clients, and J2EE applications written in ColdFusion MX will be able to run on WebSphere servers.

• Fireworks MX is Macromedia's set of tools for creating interactive graphics, such as pop-up menus and buttons. The new version includes enhanced tools for exporting graphics to other applications and expanded XML support.

The software is expected to ship in May priced at $299, or $149 for those upgrading from a previous version. A preview version can be downloaded now.

• Studio MX combines the new versions of Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, the FreeHand 10 illustration tool and a developer version of ColdFusion MX. Besides being priced considerably lower than buying individual versions of each program, the suite includes an integrated interface that makes it easier to switch from one application to another.

Studio MX will ship in May at $799 for the full version, $599 for those upgrading from a single Macromedia product or $399 for those upgrading from two products.