Pieces of Eight: A First Look at Macromedia Flash Professional 8
Posted Aug 21, 2005

A few years back, a friend of mine showed up wearing a pin on his jacket lapel. Bright gold, it featured the letters "TCB" and a lightning bolt. I'd seen it before, but I couldn't quite place it.

"Elvis, man," he said. "Stands for ‘Taking Care of Business--in a flash." Turns out it was Presley's official motto, and my friend's pin was based on the original design the King had given to the no-nonsense members of his personal entourage, the Memphis Mafia.

Were it not for the potential of a trademark infringement lawsuit from Elvis Presley Enterprises, Inc., Macromedia would do well to crib the motto and its attendant logo for their Flash and Flash Video products. After all, they're both designed to get high-impact, knock-your-socks-off animations and film clips up on the Web with a maximum control for the creator and minimum hassle for the viewer. Flash has gotten even better with the introduction of Flash Professional 8, officially announced on August 8 and set to ship in September.

We've all seen Flash movies, and most of us have seen Flash Video (the former is an animation that may or may not have video embedded in it; the latter is Macromedia's proprietary video format). After all, the Flash Player is installed on about 98% of the world's desktop computers, or so Macromedia claims. But even if they've fudged that number a bit, the Flash Player's market penetration still has Windows Media and Real beat. And Flash allows the graphics-savvy among us to design their own player environment; for instance, instead of the typical WMP or Real player window, you could use Adobe Illustrator or Flash itself to create a "virtual screening room," complete with screen curtains and seats, or a "video gallery," with videos displayed on the walls. Or you can simply make the Flash Video screen an unintrusive part of your Web site—either way, there's no additional player to download or open. So why aren't more videographers taking advantage of Flash to deliver their online demos?

Part of the answer surely lies in the simple fact that Flash Video isn't a commonly encountered export option in nonlinear video editors; you need either Flash Professional (a $699 investment) or a third-party compression tool like Sorenson Squeeze for Macromedia Flash MX or On2's Flix Pro, both of which sell for around $100. Flash Professional does include the Flash Video Exporter, which allows you to export from most popular NLEs.

But perhaps a greater impediment has been a lack of understanding of what it takes to deliver Flash on a Web site. Contrary to popular belief, you don't absolutely need a Flash Communications Server—you can embed a QuickTime, AVI, or MPEG video clip directly into the timeline in Flash 6 or higher, and the video becomes part of the SWF file. Problem is, viewers must download the entire SWF file before they can play it back, unlike streamed video that plays immediately (at least over a broadband connection) or progressive download video that begins playback before the entire file is downloaded. For these reasons and more, Macromedia recommends embedding video in flash as a last-resort option.

If you want to maximize what Flash has to offer, though, you'll need to use either Flash 7 or the new Flash 8. You can still avoid using a Flash Communications Server or a third-party content delivery network if you don't mind delivering Flash Video via progressive download. While progressive download is great for low-bandwidth connections, and it's the easiest way to get video on your Web site, viewers can't navigate forward and backward until the entire clip has downloaded. Plus, viewers who know how to find their browser cache or temporary Internet files are can locate the downloaded video and use it however they like—a serious problem for videographers concerned with protecting their content.

If you want to stream Flash Video you need to either configure your in-house Web server as a Flash Communications Server or house your video on a content delivery network that offers Flash Video Streaming Service. The Flash Communications Server software marks a $499 investment, and handles up to ten simultaneous connections and up to 1Mbps data transfer. Since that's probably sufficient for most videographers' Web sites, and since a monthly contract with a streaming service provider will cost much more, we'll leave those prices out of it.

But that's still an investment of between just over $600--if you're using a third-party encoder and the Flash Communications Server--and nearly $1,200 if you go with Flash Professional 8 and the Flash server, which may be more than you're willing to spend on your Web presence. The new Flash Professional 8 promises enough of an upgrade in both quality and features, though, that now might be the time to consider Flash.

First and foremost in the new version of Flash is a new video codec, On2's VP6, and early reports based on a beta version of the software released in July indicate that it's an improvement over Flash Video 7 in terms of quality, efficiency, and encoding options, including batch encoding. The new codec also allows for an 8-bit alpha-channel video compositing for layering video, including chromakeyed green-screen, and embedded cue points that can trigger Web events, such as text changes, during playback. Speaking of text, Flash 8 also includes FlashType, Macromedia's new font rendering engine, which offers increased readability in both animated and static text, especially at small sizes.

But if you're going to use Flash Professional, you're also going to want to take advantage of its 2D animation. The frame-based timeline user interface remains, but the program's custom easing tool allows greater control of animation speed and motion, as well as greater control over vector shapes. Additionally, when content generated by Flash Professional 8 is played back on Flash Player 8, viewers also should get smoother, faster playback of vector shapes with the new "cache as bitmap" feature, which saves already-drawn vectors as bitmaps, thereby relieving the processor of the need to recalculate vector shapes every frame. Finally, Flash Professional 8 offers more filters than before, including animation drop shadows, all of which are rendered in real time by the Flash Player.

While the standalone version of Flash Professional 8 retails for $699, it's also available in the new Studio 8 suite of applications for $999. Of most interest to videographers in Studio 8 is the new version of Dreamweaver, which was one of the first Web development tools to combine design-based and code-based Web site creation, meaning that a deep knowledge of HTML coding isn't necessary. Also included in Studio 8 is Fireworks 8, Macromedia's Web graphics application; Contribute 3, a collaborative Web-content workflow solution; and FlashPaper 2, which converts any printable document into SWF or PDF files.

Aside from the very Illustrator-like features in Fireworks, the new tools suggest little impact of Adobe's purchase of Macromedia, which was still under review by government antitrust regulators as of press time. (Even those similarities have more to do with Illustrator's ubiquity as a graphic design tool than with the proposed merger, and all the tools in Studio 8 were under development long before the merger was announced.) Both companies' shareholders were set to vote on the merger on August 24.