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Big changes ahead for Flash

Macromedia promises significant changes to Flash interface and video capabilities, and talks about tech for cell phone carriers.

SAN FRANCISCO--Macromedia took center stage at the Flashforward2005 conference here Thursday morning to promise significant changes in its Flash animation software.

Chief Software Architect Kevin Lynch addressed a nearly full Herbst Theater to describe the bells and whistles in store for Flash authors in the company's upcoming release of the Flash 8 player, code-named Maelstrom, and authoring tool, code-named 8Ball. Lynch also outlined plans for FlashCast, a new system in development to help mobile phone carriers run a variety of Flash-based applications.

"This is the biggest Flash update ever," said Lynch following his Flashforward address. "We've dramatically improved the performance of the player as well as adding more graphical expression than has been possible in the history of Flash. We've included radical new video and text-rendering quality. This is a larger number of improvements than in any previous update to the player."


What's new:
Macromedia said it will soup up its Flash animation software and introduce a product for mobile phone companies that want to offer Flash-based applications.

Bottom line:
The changes could advance Flash in both the hotly contested streaming-video and mobile-computing markets.

More stories on Flash

Updates due this year in Flash 8 include both interface changes, to make things easier for designers familiar with other Macromedia applications, such as the Dreamweaver Web-authoring tool, and eye candy for end users, which Macromedia hopes will lure video publishers as well as designers to the Flash format.

Macromedia's signals the company's desire to go toe-to-toe with streaming video technology providers Microsoft, Apple Computer and RealNetworks. Macromedia displayed a presentation mocking the process by which end users have to choose their bandwidth rates and player before watching a video clip on the Web, and hawked Flash as a way to bypass those steps.

"This is a real opportunity for video to become a first-class citizen on the Web," said Mike Downey, Macromedia's technical product manager for Flash authoring.

Flash 8 will include new filters and special effects for text and images, and an improvement in rendering performance, designed to solve what Lynch termed "a slowdown problem in Flash 7."

The Flashforward audience responded enthusiastically to comparative demonstrations of Flash 8's speed over that of Flash 7. Lynch also elicited ovations with a comparison of font clarity between Flash 7 and 8, and with his demonstration of new compositing capabilities that allow the juxtaposition of video and other graphical elements.

Within the Flash 8 authoring tool, Macromedia's senior director for product development, Doug Benson, demonstrated an emulator that will show developers how their work will show up on cell phones. Currently, developers of Flash cell phone content have to download that content to a phone to test it out.

Benson also said Flash 8 would continue the company's project to unify the user interfaces of its various products. That will bring Flash developers features such as tabbed panels within the development interface.

"8Ball and Dreamweaver are literally sharing all the code," Benson said.

The Flash 8 development interface will also introduce an "object drawing" button that will let shapes retain their integrity when they are overlaid. The way Flash works now, shapes take bites out of one another when overlaid.

And Flash 8 will provide for beveled or hard-angled strokes. Current and previous versions have only offered rounded strokes. Flash 8 authors will be able to apply color gradients to strokes.

Lynch touched briefly on Macromedia's plans for FlashCast. After his presentation, he described it as a container for applications built in Flash Lite, Macromedia's scaled-down version of Flash for small devices.

Flash Lite has made some inroads among mobile-phone manufaturers despite competition from the World Wide Web Consortium's open standard SVG Tiny (Scalable Vector Graphics Tiny). Lynch told the audience that Macromedia had signed distribution deals with Nokia and Samsung and that the company was in negotiations with the No. 2 cell phone provider, widely seen as Motorola.

Lynch began his keynote with a response to Stanford professor and copyright reformer Larry Lessig, who addressed the Flashforward crowd Wednesday about the Creative Commons system for less restrictive copyright protection, and about antipathy toward Flash in the open-source and free software world.

"There's more progress we can make as a community," Lynch said in his keynote. "The Creative Commons thing is great and could be very helpful to us."

Lessig had urged Macromedia to consider how Flash authors could more easily share their source code, citing HTML's source code transparency as an example of how free exchange of intellectual property helped make a technology ubiquitous.

Macromedia appeared to have taken Lessig's words to heart, and Lynch displayed a new software button that Flash authors can use to automatically make their source code available.

After the keynote, Lynch said the company was open to the idea of including such functionality within Flash itself, but said optional add-ons such as the source code button were sufficient.