Hot Flash

by Cye H. Waldman, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1997 Cye Waldman. All rights reserved.

| Introduction | Macromedia Flash | Brief Book Reviews | Resources |


In these times of rapid expansion of the Internet and World Wide Web you can hardly take a breath without hearing about the Web. From movie trailers to mass suicide, it seems to be everywhere. And there is such a glut of information and products that it is sometimes hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. I've become so jaded by it all that I rather feel like yawning with each new product announcement that promises to make my Web site bigger, better, louder, faster, etc. The Web sites that excite me tend to have been created with powerful programs like JavaSoft Java or Macromedia Director/Shockwave, neither of which are something to be taken lightly. In both cases the learning curve is long and steep. I know people who have been using Director for years and are still "students" of the program. But if you would like to make interesting, dynamic Web pages without making an occupation of it, take heart! Now there is Macromedia Flash, the animation program for the rest of us.

This program is so good that when I first heard Macromedia purchased it from small San Diego-based FutureWave Software I thought their intent was to bury it, not praise it, lest it knock down their flagship program, Director. (After all, it does a lot of things Director does, only better and more cheaply.) But not so. Macromedia has embraced Flash with a passion. Macromedia has positioned Flash as the tool of choice for creating small, vector-based Web content, and Director as the tool of choice for complex Web pages, hybrid Web CDs, and fully interactive Web pages. They have redesigned their entire Web site around Flash. I think you can't even get into the site without the Shockwave Flash (or Shockwave Director) plug-in.

Macromedia Flash

Macromedia Flash is arguably the easiest way to create small multimedia content. It is designed specifically for the Web and can be used to create animations, interactive advertising banners, navigation buttons, logos, technical illustrations, and whatever your imagination can conjure up. Flash is strictly interactive; there is no scripting required. (By contrast, Director is heavily dependent on scripting and has its own scripting language, Lingo.) Flash animations must be viewed with a player or plug-in. These are currently available for Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer, and also available as a Java player.

Flash animations use vector-based drawings which are described mathematically, rather than as a collection of pixels, thus storage requirements are greatly reduced and the images can be scaled or zoomed to any size with no loss of detail. Indeed, more detail can often be viewed by zooming in. Moreover, they are streamed, so they can start playing while still being downloaded. If you don't have Shockwave Flash installed in your browser by all means go to Macromedia and get it. After installing it, go back and look at their site and some of the sites they recommend that are using it, as well.

Flash Features

Flash documents consist of pages, each of which can contain static images or animations. The pages may also be interactive, thus allowing you to create a complete interactive "book" of related drawing and animations. An example of this is the excellent built-in tutorial that comes with Flash. Allow me to digress a moment to say that this is the best program tutorial I have ever seen. It draws you into the program through a series of exercises which you do yourself, thus enabling you to gradually learn all of the program's features. What makes it doubly interesting is that it is created entirely with Flash, so it stands as a shining example of what can be done with the program.

Each page may contain any number of transparent layers, each of which contains a series of cels. Each cel contains one frame of an animation. Thus, each page contains a complete animation with action occurring independently on several layers. This allows you to concentrate on the action of a single object in each layer instead of having to juggle them all at once as you would for a flip-book-type animation (or a GIF animation, for that matter).

Flash contains the usual drawing tools (e.g., pen, brush, paint bucket, text, etc.) and each one has a set of modifiers.

For example, the arrow tool allows you to smooth, rotate, straighten, or scale an object. The smoothing tool is particularly nice because it will clean up your wiggly freehand lines into smooth curves.

Not to be outdone, the pencil tool has a shape recognition modifier that allows you to freehand sketch an ellipse (or circle) and rectangle (or square) and the program will smooth or straighten the curves to produce the desired shape.

The brush tool also has an interesting modifier that allows you to paint behind or inside an object without worrying about the image border! Just slap the "paint" on and it will go only where it's supposed to, in less time than it would take to lay out the masking tape. Of course, the brush tool also supports the usual complement of gradients with up to seven colors.

The eraser mode has similar features that let you cross the lines without erasing the border unintentionally. And a faucet modifier allows you to erase, or drain a color, from a fill area (sort of the opposite of the paint bucket fill).

Even text created with the text tool can be modified (character by character) with the other tools to create customized text effects. All text is created with outline fonts (again, mathematically described and scaleable).

But the real power of Flash is in its animation capabilities. This is the crux of the program; the drawing tools are but the icing on the cake. Flash uses a timeline and layers to create animations. Each animation is composed of a number of layers (like a series of cels or frames) that may be static or dynamic over the timeline. The images in each layer may be drawn individually frame-by-frame or interpolated between fixed positions. The interpolation is automatic; the user just specifies the end points. Moreover, interpolated motion can follow user-defined motion guides and can have the objects either retain their orientation or rotate with the path. The object may also change size over the motion guide.

Flash also supports onion skinning, which allows you to view several frames concurrently, to assist you with editing and placement of frame elements. It also has on-the-fly anti-aliasing to give images a smooth appearance on any monitor.

Flash provides a special kind of animation, called a button, which is designed specifically for navigation. Each button has four states corresponding to up (what the button looks like initially), over (what the button looks like when the mouse cursor is over it), down (what the button looks like when the mouse is clicked over it), and hit (the active area where the button can be clicked). A button can have a number of properties associated with it, such as: play an animation, go to a URL, advance a frame, rewind, play then go to a URL, go to another page, and so on. It would take very little time to create animated link buttons for your Web site with Flash, even less if you use one of the many sample buttons that come with program. In fact, the program comes with many sample HTML pages. There are also precise directions as to how to embed the Flash animations in your Web page in order to satisfy the requirements of both Internet Explorer and Navigator.

Flash can even be used to create animated GIFs. It's one of many export options. However, it would be better to put Flash movies on your Web site because they are smaller, download faster, can be zoomed, and support interactive buttons. Of course, the HTML code allows you to provide optional graphics for the Flash-challenged among your visitors.

I think that Flash is the most exciting program I've seen for the Web to date. I'll go a step further and say that I would like to see it replace GIF as the graphic standard for Web pages. Even if you don't design for the Web, I think you can get a lot out of the program.

Just as I was sitting down to pen this article, Macromedia announced Flash 2, now in beta testing and available on a trial basis from their Web site. Flash 2 features sound for the first time (both Windows WAV and Macintosh AIFF formats are supported).

Flash 2 includes enhanced bitmap editing, enabling vector and bitmap integration. It also supports digital photographs that can be modified with Flash tools. Flash 2 also features the ability to convert GIF and JPEG files into ultra-small resolution-independent vector-based graphics. Wow!

Flash 2 will be available this spring for an estimated street price of $199 with upgrades available at $99. (Peeve Patrol Alert: Have you ever noticed that when you see the estimated street price listing in a magazine review that every single mail-order house and retailer has the exact same price? Helloooo, is anybody home? They used to call that price fixing. The only exception I've seen to this is at Price-Costco, where they always seem to have the best prices.)

Brief Book Reviews

The New Hacker's Dictionary, 3rd Ed. compiled by Eric S. Raymond (MIT Press, $16.50/$32 Hardcover).This is a rather amazing book, being at once a thorough and authoritative dictionary of computer terminology and a totally off-the-wall irreverent (some might say irrelevant) collection of computer hacker aphorisms and jargon. I've recommended computer terminology books here before, but this one is about three sigmas out of the norm. It's full of fun and surprising definitions that I suppose make it the most complete lexicon of the legendary computer hacker. The book is thoroughly cross-referenced so that terms defined elsewhere in the book are printed in boldface. On the whole, I'd say the book is more entertaining than informative, but the information is all there.

1001 Java Programmer's Tips by Mark Chan, Steven Griffith, and Anthony Iasi (Jamsa Press, $50/CD-ROM) is an unusual Java reference. It is designed to ask and answer specific questions about how to do various things in Java. The book is large in both format and pages (over 600). It is full of useful information, arranged in a very accessible way, that you can put to use immediately. Among the many topics covered you'll find detailed discussions of programming for platform independence, multimedia and animation, event processing and exception handling, 2- and 3-D graphics, file I/O and scripting, and multithreaded code. Code is provided where appropriate, and ranges from small snippets to full pages. All of the code in the book is available on the CD-ROM.

Client/Server Programming with Java and CORBA by Robert Orfali and Dan Harkey (Wiley, $45/CD-ROM) tackles the question of the state of the CORBA/Java integration in depth while giving a gentle guide to client/server programming. This book introduces CORBA to Java programmers (but not vice versa) and assumes a working knowledge of Java. The book begins with an overview of what Java and CORBA do for each other and ends up with a full-blown Web-based client/server application. The book is specifically written for anyone involved with (or evaluating) client/server programming or distributed objects. The CD-ROM contains all the source code in the book. The book is also supported with an authors' companion Web site.

Converting Content for Web Publishing by Janine Warner, Ken Milburn, and Jessica Burdman (New Riders, $50/CD-ROM). With all the rush to publish everything in the known world on the Web it's surprising that this book wasn't published a year ago. In this volume you'll find out how to convert files from the most popular word processing, spreadsheet, desktop publishing, and graphics programs—over a dozen in all. But the book goes beyond that, covering the basics of graphics, HTML and, most importantly, tailoring your converted files so they don't look like they were done by an automatic conversion program. If you or your company are contemplating even a modest amount of file conversion, this is definitely the place to start. The PC/Mac compatible CD-ROM contains a variety of Web conversion tools and editors plus some demo software.

I have a gripe about this book. It doesn't include my personal Microsoft Word conversion program of choice, Jill Swift's Ant, which I think is infinitely better than Internet Assistant. (See my reviews of Ant in WWWiz for September 1995 and January 1996.)

JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Ed. by David Flanagan (O'Reilly & Associates, $33). Last September I recommended the beta edition of this book; now I'm recommending it once again. The new edition covers JavaScript as shipped with Netscape 2 & 3, and an appendix looks at Navigator 4.0 beta, a.k.a. Netscape Communicator (which has all the same flaws as Navigator 3—how do they do that?). The book is divided into three parts: the first part covers the basics of the language, the second part covers its interactive features, and the third part is a rather complete reference section. The book is totally revised and updated, and somewhat larger, including, I'm sorry to say, the chapter on known bugs in JavaScript. Once again I recommend this book for experienced JavaScript programmers; it's not a tutorial for beginners.

Hacking Java: The Java Professional's Resource Kit by Mark Wutka (Que, $60/CD-ROM) is an excellent resource for programmers who have been programming in Java for a while and want an overview of a variety of more-advanced Java topics. Among the chapters in this book are discussions of the two main Java HTTP servers (Jeeves and Jigsaw), discussions of Java and CORBA, examples of how to write protocol Handlers for HotJava, and much more. I especially liked the discussion of writing simple agents using Jeeves servlets. The CD that comes with this book comes with five other books in HTML format, and also a version of Microsoft Visual J++. The amount of really good information in this unique book, along with so much more on the CD, make this book quite a bargain. It's a welcome addition to my Java book library. [Guest review by Stephen Pietrowicz.]

Finding Images Online by Paula Berinstein (Pemberton Press, $30) is a rather unique book as I haven't seen this material covered elsewhere. The premise of the book is simple: where can you find images online? Well, okay, they're everywhere. So, where can you find the images you want online? This book answers the question in detail. The book covers the Internet and the online services (AOL, CompuServe, MSN), and many more. Did you know there's a Kodak Picture Exchange where you can find copyrighted images to license or an Eastman Exchange where you can find public domain images? I didn't think so. (Don't worry, I'd never heard of them either.) That's just the tip of the iceberg. If you need images in your business, you should start your search here.

In keeping with the theme of images, Olin Lathrop's The Way Computer Graphics Works is a good first book on graphics that will guide you through the basics of graphics primitives, 3-D vectors and transformations, modeling, animation and more. The author tries to explain some complex subjects like 3-D transformations without getting into the mathematics. And he gets away with it through clever use of 3-D images to demonstrate the point.

For those who can't be satisfied to look at images and have to get their hands on it, try Classroom in a Book: Adobe Photoshop 4 (Adobe Press, $45/CD-ROM). This book/CD-ROM combination takes you through a series of lessons, using hands-on experience to teach the basics of working with Adobe Photoshop. The cross-platform CD-ROM (Macintosh and Windows) contains the files you need to work through the lessons. Of course, you'll have to supply Adobe Photoshop. As you would expect, the book makes extensive use of images to demonstrate what to do or how to do it.

I like the idea of small, specialized books that cover a particular topic in detail. There's also something to be said for a book that doesn't require a back brace to lift. One recent find is Java Threads by Scott Oaks & Henry Wong (O'Reilly & Associates, $30). This is an in-depth coverage of threaded programming in Java by two Sun Microsystems engineers. Among the topics covered are synchronization, scheduling, and threaded groups. The book is sprinkled throughout with example code.

Professional Web Site Optimization by Michael Tracey and Scott Ware (Wrox Press, $40) is a very interesting book on a subject I have never seen covered elsewhere. The book is aimed primarily at Web server administrators and anyone else responsible for the server. It focuses on the many aspects of Web server speed. The book begins with an overview of the factors that affect Web site performance. This is from the point of view of the individual Web page and should be of interest to anyone with a Web site. From there the book goes into some detail on networks and servers, including optimizing the network and the Internet connection. There are also chapters devoted to each of the big three server platforms (UNIX, Macintosh, and Windows NT) detailing the advantages and disadvantages of each and how best to use each one. Finally, to my surprise and joy, there is a chapter on modeling server performance. (I joy over modeling—not servers in particular.) Overall, I'd say this is a serious book on a complex subject and is not for the casual reader.

Java Network Programming, a new book published by Manning Publications (Prentice Hall), is a great resource for people who would like to know more about using Java's networking classes. It gives a clear explanation of how to create servers and clients, and goes into detail that some of the other "Here's everything about Java" books can't go into. If you know something about networking already, there is some good information in this book for you, too. This book goes the extra step by answering people's "second round" of questions they usually have about networking. By that, I mean that usually you can find explanations about how to write clients and servers, but that's about it. If you have follow-on questions, most books make you go elsewhere. Java Network Programming takes that extra step and gives you an introduction to cryptography and issues in writing fairly complex clients and servers. It gives special attention to Java-specific areas such as stream filters and RMI. This is a book that gets a lot of action around the office here...people are constantly borrowing it. I highly recommend it. Keep in mind there are two books named Java Network Programming. The other book is published by O'Reilly. I have not seen it, so I really can't comment on it either way. Java Network Programming by Merlin Hughes, et al, published by Manning, $44. Pages: 95,519; includes CD-ROM. [Guest review by Stephen Pietrowicz.]

Whiz Bang Web Site F/X by Tom Lockwood (Que $35/CD-ROM) is an interesting collection of tips and tricks, as well as an introduction to advanced Web page development for those who already know some HTML and want to go further with graphics, animation, and sound on their Web sites. The book covers plain text (fonts and more, tables, and frames), images (basics, backgrounds, image maps, GIF animations, dynamic pages), sounds, multimedia, and how to use Java and CGI to your advantage. The CD-ROM contains the usual panoply of freeware, shareware, and demo programs.

HTML Sourcebook, 3rd Ed. by Ian Graham (Wiley, $30) is out in a new edition. It was exactly a year ago that I recommended the second edition of this venerable classic. The third edition continues the tradition of excellence and has kept up with all of the latest developments. There is no CD-ROM with this book, but it is supported with companion Web sites from both Wiley and the author.

The deluge of books on Office 97 has begun. I've decided not to include these books on this list even though the Office 97 programs generally support Web publishing. I feel that this is beyond the scope of my intentions with the WWWiz Web site. Nevertheless, I will list and feature books of particular merit if their main focus is on Web publishing. Now, if you would like to start a list like mine devoted to Office 97, please contact me about hosting it here at WWWiz.

Wiley has established itself as the premiere publisher of books about CORBA (common object request broker architecture). It's not within my purview to review books on CORBA, but I recognize its importance on the future development of the Web, so I feel it's important to inform those of you who might be interested. Instant CORBA by Robert Orfali, Dan Harkey, and Jeri Edwards (Wiley, $20) is about the marriage of distributed objects and the Internet. This book is a guide to understanding this new technology. The authors have even provided a quick tour they claim will make you CORBA-literate in four hours or less.

Java Programming with CORBA by Andreas Vogel and Keith Duddy (Wiley, $30) introduces Java programmers to object request brokers (ORBs) and how to build CORBA-based, object-oriented applications that interact with CORBA objects anywhere on a network regardless of differences in operating system or language. How far we've come from the first primitive Java animation applets!

Shockwave Studio: Designing Multimedia for the Web by Bob Schmitt (O'Reilly & Associates, $40/CD-ROM). This book is written for people who are already familiar with Director and its scripting language, Lingo. There are chapters on designing multimedia for the Web, animation, mouse rollovers, managing files sizes, palettes, Lingo language extensions for the Web, user interaction, and more. The book relies heavily on examination of real Director/Shockwave projects that live on the Web. Where Lingo scripts are discussed, the author goes through them step-by-step to explain exactly what is being done. The book is very richly illustrated, but only to exemplify what's in the text. Somehow the author manages to do all this in less than 200 pages, so the information density is very high. The CD-ROM contains the Lingo source code from the book, as well as some Shockwave examples and demo Director programs for Macintosh and Windows.

Fundamental Photoshop 4, 3rd Ed. by Adele Droblas Greenberg & Seth Greenberg (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $35), now in its third edition, is a thorough guide to Photoshop. The book is written for all levels of user from novice to professional. There are three sections at the introductory, intermediate, and advanced levels. A final chapter covers watermarks and copyrights. The book goes into detail on all aspects of Photoshop and should serve equally well as a tutorial and a reference. It is punctuated throughout with real-world examples of "Photoshop in Action" inserts. This book is very large (over 800 pages), as is appropriate to the scope of the program. There are many enumerated instructions to describe how to create the various effects possible with Photoshop, several of which are accompanied by graphical examples or illustrations. In lieu of a CD-ROM, there is a Web site where you can download images (that appear in the book) on which to practice.

Web Marketing Cookbook by Janice M. King, Paul Knight, and James H. Mason (Wiley, $40/CD- ROM). This book is essentially written for nontechnical people who want to set up a business Web site without taking a minor in computer science. The book discusses the basics of developing a Web site for business applications. The first part of the book discusses the basic guidelines for setting up a Web site, and the second part gives specific techniques for improving content and presentation of your information. To underscore its appeal to nontechnical people, the authors provide 20 templates for Web page designs that can be customized for your business (e.g., advertisements, brochures, catalogs, company profile, and so on). Of course, these are available on the CD-ROM. This book is the first of a new series of "cookbooks" from Wiley. Look for JavaScript Cookbook in May and Web Catalog Cookbook in July.







The New Hacker's Dictionary, 3rd Ed. compiled by Eric S. Raymond (MIT Press, $16.50/$32 Hardcover)

1001 Java Programmer's Tips by Mark Chan, Steven Griffith, and Anthony Iasi (Jamsa Press, $50/CD-ROM)

Client/Server Programming with Java and Corba by Robert Orfali and Dan Harkey (Wiley, $45/CD-ROM)

Converting Content for Web Publishing by Janine Warner, Ken Milburn, and Jessica Burdman (New Riders, $50/CD-ROM)

JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, 2nd Ed. by David Flanagan (O'Reilly & Associates, $33)

Hacking Java: The Java Professional's Resource Kit by Mark Wutka (Que, $60/CD-ROM)

Learn Java Now by Stephen Davis ( Microsoft Press, $40/CD-ROM)

Finding Images Online by Paula Berinstein (Pemberton Press, $30)

Classroom in a Book: Adobe Photoshop 4 (Adobe Press, $45/CD-ROM)

Java Threads by Scott Oaks & Henry Wong (O'Reillly & Associates, $30)

Professional Web Site Optimization by Michael Tracey and Scott Ware (Wrox Press, $40)

Java Network Programming by Merlin Hughes et al. (Manning, $44.95/CD-ROM)

Whiz Bang Web Site F/X by Tom Lockwood (Que $35/CD-ROM)

HTML Sourcebook, 3rd Ed. by Ian Graham (Wiley $30)

Instant CORBA by Robert Orfali, Dan Harkey, and Jeri Edwards (Wiley/$20)

Java Programming with CORBA by Andreas Vogel and Keith Duddy (Wiley/$30)

Shockwave Studio: Designing Multimedia for the Web by Bob Schmitt (O'Reilly & Associates, $40/CD-ROM)

Fundamental Photoshop 4, 3rd Ed. by Adele Droblas Greenberg & Seth Greenberg (Osborne/McGraw-Hill, $35)

Web Marketing Cookbook by Janice M. King, Paul Knight, and James H. Mason (Wiley, $40/CD-ROM)

Cye H. Waldman, Ph.D., is a technical and engineering consultant based in Encinitas, CA, and a chronic Webaholic. He can be reached at