At the end of the 1990s, "usability guru" Jakob Nielsen published an article entitled Flash: 99 per cent bad, in which he lamented the proliferation of pointless and useless Flash animations and applets.
Any average Web browser connected to the Internet via dialup would probably have agreed - waiting an age for pages to load their Flash-originated gadgets, gimmicks and general gimcrackery was an experience akin to water torture.
While improvements in the intervening half-decade have not entirely removed all of Nielsen's complaints, the situation has got a lot better - and not just because of the spread of broadband. Flash and the Shockwave for Flash (SWF) format have, more than anything else, provided the potential for the Web to become a rich multimedia environment. Indeed for many, multimedia is Flash (an example can be seen here).
Flash! Saviour of the universe!
This is not to say, however, that Flash has suddenly become 99 per cent good. Overloading a site with futile animations and bandwidth-hogging audio is only slightly less frustrating for someone who downloads it at 512Kbps rather than 56Kbps.
Nonetheless, the capabilities of Flash have been hugely extended in recent years. When Macromedia originally purchased the application, its principal use was as an animation editor, with the more established Director providing a fully fledged multimedia environment that could be fine-tuned using Lingo, the built-in programming language.
This is no longer the case and, although Director still remains the better choice for disc-based multimedia - particularly in terms of MPEG video support for DVD - it is not unusual to see CDs and DVDs that are at least partly constructed using Flash. The younger contender has not only beefed up its own video format in recent years, but it has also expanded the features of its scripting language, ActionScript. With the release of a professional version of Flash MX, it is even possible to create database-driven Web sites.
Yet this complexity has created its own problems for the army of Web designers whose requirements are much more modest. Not least of which is cost. While Director MX 2004 will set you back the best part of $1800, the recommended retail price for Flash MX Professional 2004 tops $1000 (though there are cheaper versions available). In addition, the sophistication of later releases means that Flash is almost as difficult to come to grips with as the notoriously complex Director.
Many companies have spotted a potential opening for their own products as Flash has moved ever onwards and upwards. The trick, for the most successful, has been to focus on specific requirements that users may have.
One such company is Swish (www.swishzone.com). Some of its products concentrate on very specific features, such as producing Flash-compatible video or creating executable files for CD/DVD from your Flash movies. Three of its products, however, are worth considering. The cheapest and simplest is Swish Lite (formerly Swish 1.5, $28), which is one of the easiest programs on the planet for creating straightforward animations. Swish 2.0 ($69) has more features, including greater scripting support, while SwishMax ($138) is the company's nearest direct competitor to Flash (shown here). Although a tenth of the price, it is a complete studio that is the most effective competition - and is nearly as difficult to use.
A major advantage of the Flash format is that it is widely supported by the majority of browsers. You can publish video and interactive animation on your site without worrying about users having to download plug-ins.
Wildform (www.wildform.com) provides a video encoding tool that is superior even to Flash itself. Flix, which comes in Pro ($US149) and Lite ($US39) versions, simply and easily converts MPEG and AVI files into Flash Video (FLV) or SWF formats. It is also a quick way to create 2D-style animations from video footage.
And don't forget other apps that produce Flash-compatible output. Corel's Rave, available with some versions of CorelDraw, deserves consideration. It doesn't compete with Flash in terms of creating interactive apps but, combined with Corel's drawing tools, makes an excellent animation program.
Flash provides a multimedia authoring environment that rivals products such as Director.
SITES TO SEE
You'll find numerous sites devoted to teaching Flash, and product pages such as those for Macromedia and Swish often include demos and tutorials. The best place to go, however, is Flash Kit (www.flashkit.com), which provides plenty of lessons covering basic and advanced features, as well as forums, chat and galleries to share knowledge and tips (see screenshot). Because it's not aligned to any one product, this is also a good source of alternative tools for producing Flash movies.
CREATING A BANNER WITH SWISH LITE
If all you require is simple animation, I would strongly recommend Swish Lite (see Screenshot). Not only is it one of the cheapest tools around, it has a delightfully simple interface which makes creating animated banners a breeze.
1) When you open Swish Lite, you are presented with two windows: the main application and an editing window where you can enter objects and preview effects. In the application, click on the General tab, enter the banner size you require, background colours and frame rates (number of frames per second) and press < Enter >.
2) Click the Text tool and enter text that you wish to animate. Then, under the Timeline tab click the Add Effect button to display animated presets that you can modify (in this instance 3D Spin). Experiment with the various properties that Swish provides, such as direction and scale, then press OK.
3) You can preview your animation by pressing the Play button at the top of the application window. When you're happy with the effect, go to File-Export to SWF and choose a name for your file. Note: any exports from the Swish Lite demo will be garbled until you purchase an upgrade key.