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Macromedia courts mainstream developers

The software maker unveils the first major update of its MX line of Web development and design tools, including a version of Flash for developers who prefer traditional interfaces.

Software maker Macromedia announced Monday the first major update of its MX line of Web design and development tools.

The San Francisco company introduced versions of its Flash animation tools, Dreamweaver Web design package and Fireworks graphics tools, all of which were overhauled last year to reflect a new emphasis on Web applications.

Macromedia CEO Rob Burgess said the company's software lineup reflects the evolving role of Web professionals who have moved from working strictly as designers or developers to a combination of roles.

"It's more a factor of what we've learned about Web site design," Burgess said. "If it's just done by developers, then the interface and the user experience is a real bottleneck for the people who use the site. It really has to be more like product design; you have to think about how people interact with the product."

The most significant changes are planned for Flash, the set of development tools built around the Flash Player, one of the most widely distributed pieces of software on the Web. For the first time, Macromedia will offer two versions of the Flash developer tools. Flash MX 2004 will use the timeline-based interface familiar to existing Flash developers, but Flash MX Professional 2004 will sport a forms-based interface similar to that used by developers accustomed to programming interfaces such as that in Microsoft's Visual Basic.

"It's really going to bring the power of Flash to folks like the 1.5 million Visual Basic developers out there," said Al Ramadan, an executive vice president at Macromedia.

John Dalton, an analyst at Forrester Research, said the professional version is a needed addition as Macromedia tries to broaden the use of Flash. The timeline interface reflects Flash's origins as an animation format rather than its expanded role as a foundation for designing Web applications, he said.

"The timeline metaphor has never been easy to work with," Dalton said. "It's kind of intuitive if you're used to working with animation and video, but even for them, the tool set is pretty difficult. If you're a traditional developer, especially someone familiar with Visual Basic, it's pretty much impenetrable.

"If they want to grow (the use of Flash), they have to chip away at these traditional developers who have always regarded Flash as a suspicious platform."

Joshua Duhl, an analyst for research firm IDC, agreed. "I think they ran into a wall with people who found that the timeline interface was foreign to them," he said. "To reach a broader audience, you need to tie into the same skills those developers are using for other tools."

Chris MacGregor, a Web designer and creator of Flash critique Web site Flazoom, said the professional version will do much to encourage businesses to experiment with using Flash applications to make their sites more attractive and useful.

"This is going to remove a lot of the excuses for IT departments not to develop in Flash," MacGregor said. "Flash has been something that really heavily favors people with a graphics design background. But with this, you're putting people into an environment where all they have to do is write code."

From Flash to HTML
Flash MX 2004 will also include new tools of its own and tighter integration with Dreamweaver. This is designed to allow developers to easily switch back and forth between creating content in the Flash format and in HTML (Hypertext Markup Language).

Macromedia launched Flash MX with a vision of pages and whole Web sites created entirely in the Flash format, but real-world use has been more restrained, Dalton said.

"The reality is HTML is not going to go away," Dalton said. Mixing HTML and Flash tools "is an admission that you're not going to see as much rip-out-and-replace implementation as Macromedia might have hoped two or three years ago. You're going to see more things where you have a little Flash applet running on a HTML page."

Ramadan said Macromedia customers had made it clear that they needed to work in both Flash and HTML worlds. >

"What we got feedback about is, it's the judicious use of technology that's really the tipping point," he said. "There are some things that are well-suited to a page orientation--flipping through manuals, for example--and that works really well with HTML. There are situations where's there's a constant refinement of what you're trying to do, and that's where Flash can really help."

Flazoom's MacGregor said that fits in with a general wising-up among Flash designers over the past few years who have come to favor useful features over useless graphical dash.

"We're much better now at realizing what the strengths are of Flash and what's inappropriate for Flash," he said. "Most people realize Flash is really good for displaying smart widgets on pages, and it's not really good for doing large amounts of text. Developers are becoming more and more aware of creating interactivity instead of just throwing in motion and sound."

Additions to Dreamweaver, one of the leading professional applications for designing Web pages, include support for Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), an increasingly popular method for easily imposing a design scheme across a site.

"The whole notion of separating presentation and style from the content is important," Ramadan said. "CSS is pretty much the main approach to do that, but it's very difficult to use."

Round the corner
The following are the new Macromedia products, all set for release next month in Windows and Mac versions:

•  Dreamweaver MX 2004, which includes new CSS tools, integration with Microsoft's Word and Excel office applications and new tools for validating a page design on multiple browsers. It will sell for $399 for the full version, $199 for customers upgrading from Dreamweaver MX or Dreamweaver 4, and $99 for the academic version.

•  Flash MX 2004, which includes CSS support and other features for blending Flash and HTML content, plus a revamped version of the ActionScript scripting language. It is tagged at $499 for the full version, and $199 for those upgrading from Flash MX or Flash 5. •  Flash MX Professional 2004, which sports a new forms-based interface and tools for integrating video content with professional video-editing applications. It will sell for $699 for the full version and $299 for the upgrade edition. •  Fireworks MX 2004, which includes new drawing and text tools and support for basic photo-editing functions. It will be priced at $299 for the full version, $149 for customers upgrading from Fireworks MX or Fireworks 4, and $99 for the academic version. •  Studio MX 2004, which packages together the new versions of Flash, Dreamweaver and Fireworks, alongside FreeHand MX illustration tools and ColdFusion MX tools for creating Web applications. The package with Flash MX 2004 will sell for $899 for the full version, $399 for customers upgrading from Studio MX, $499 for those upgrading from another eligible product, and $199 for the academic edition. A package with Flash MX Professional 2004 will sell for $999 for the full version, $499 and $599 for upgrades, and $249 for the academic version. •  Flash 7, which is the new version of Macromedia's free animation player and Web application client. The new player in beta testing now, focuses on performance improvements that will run applications significantly faster.

Burgess said performance has become an increasingly important issue as Flash has expanded into an application vehicle and migrated to cell phones and other devices. "Performance is probably the No. 1 bottleneck," he said. "People want to interact with applications the way they interact with their TV, where everything's pretty much instantaneous."