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Top 5 Flash joys and annoyances

July 20th 2005 | Jens C Brynildsen

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Top 5 Flash joys and annoyances

Flash MX 2004 has been with us for a while now. What's improved and what did Macromedia not do right? This article will tell you why an update to FMX04 is required and why Macromedia just announced that. November is the loose date set for this updater.

First of all, let me say this: Macromedia has done a great job with Flash MX 2004. The focus of this article is what is good and what is bad with the new program. Some things are truly great and other things are really annoying to seasoned Flash users.

Flash MX was a total change for Macromedia and Flash. With this version, Flash really took a big step. Some will say it was a step away from its roots in animation, but others will praise the shift of focus towards programming and application development. Truth is, programs like ToonBoom is currently better suited for animation than Flash is. If Flash were to evolve into something bigger, Macromedia had to focus on programming capabilities rather than new tools for animation. That said, the new JSFL scripting language will make it possible to extend Flash further in just about any direction. This could be really beneficial for designers and users that are new to Flash (if they understand how to extend, that is).

What's Hot?
With every new version, there are new features that you love. Video support had been wanted for such a long time that it's hard to beat, but there are plenty of cool new features in FMX04. This time, they are rather on the programming side, whereas with the previous version they were more on the designer and UI side.

Flash MX Hotlist
1. Stability over previous versions
2. ActionScript 1.0 and its extensibility
3. Video playback
4. Properties panel
5. Movie Explorer

Flash MX 2004 Hotlist
1. ActionScript 2.0
2. Playback speed increase
3. JSFL extensibility (Guru's autosave will save you literally!)
4. Real preview of streaming content in the Bandwidth profiler
5. The new data components in Flash MX Professional

The new AS2 language will take some time getting used to, but it will do wonders for attracting developers currently using other tools. With its Java-like syntax and declaration, this is clearly a more mature and professional language. The speed increases in general and for video in special will make the viewing experience better for all and the extensibility in the form of Behaviors, Commands and new tools will make it easier than ever to get started with Flash. The new bandwidth profiler will finally show the real streaming of external content and the data components in FMX 2004 Professional are simply great timesavers. (For our full list of new features, read here)

What's Not?
Now on to the things that are not so pleasant. With every release of such a complex program as Flash, some things fall through or fail. The more Flash can do, the more potential bugs there will be. Back with version 5, Macromedia had to release several updates to the player to fix bugs. Some of these were serious and affected things such as XML parsing. If there were any such problems with the Flash 7 Player, they would be easily fixed thanks to the new auto-update feature. This time, none of the serious bugs can be found in the Flash Player, but rather the authoring program itself.

What worries us is the fact that several of the major bugs from Flash MX still is in the new product and some are even worse in the new version.

Top 5 Flash MX annoyances
1. Faulty debugger
2. Flaky panels
3. Poor ActionScript editor
4. Poor documentation
5. Playback speed

Top 5 FMX04 annoyances
1. Faulty debugger
2. Flaky panels and IDE
3. Poor ActionScript editor
4. Poor documentation
5. Sandbox security change

The debugger still does not list all objects as it should, so developers creating advanced dynamic websites and applications have to resort to the "List variables" and "List objects" menus to debug their applications properly. If you i.e. have created a dynamic textfield, it will not always be visible in the debugger even though it's visible on the stage. Custom classes and objects are also affected.

In Flash MX, all the panels but the timeline would sometimes disappear upon export. Since there was no way of assigning shortcuts to the panel sets, you had to go to the Panel sets menu and bring it all back after exporting. Upon exporting a file in FMX04, all your panel info will be reset to default so that the script editor that used to fill the screen will be minimized. This does not affect all Flash installations, but it's really annoying for those affected.

The solution is not to use the internal editor at all, but this was hardly Macromedias idea. Serious Flash developers gave up on the internal editor a long time ago and FMX04 gave them nothing new. Programs like SCITE Flash is still the best way to edit ActionScript if you are a serious programmer.

It's not only the positioning of the panels that fail. Sometimes the panels show up without any content at all. Closing and reopening them will fix this, but it's still very annoying. Some users have also reported about crashes where the program itself simply disappear with a corrupt FLA as the result. We have not been able to reproduce this, but its surely a serious bug and we have heard about it from several sources.

The help files is another thing and Macromedia know this. When Flash MX04 was shipping, only parts of the documentation was shipped with it. With the new help-system, you can just press the update-button to get the latest help files. An update was released just after FMX04 shipped, but there is a lot of room for improvements here, so expect more updates to the help files in the months to come. Several people made blog comments about the removal of the reference panel. If you highlight a keyword and right-click to open the context menu, you'll find "View Help". This will open the help system for that keyword, just like you could in the FMX reference. There are some situations where this will not work as intended and this should be fixed.

In Flash Player 7, Macromedia made a big change in the security model that requires you to add a special XML file to sites using dynamic content if the domain name is not exactly the same. If you don't do this, the user will get a small popup claiming that loading external content is a potential security breach and ask if they want to continue. To do the changes is pretty straightforward, but it means that you have to contact all your clients affected and add this file. Read more about this at Colin Moock's site.

This file is required on any server you wish to pull data from so if you are using the new and great data components in FMX04 Professional to access public web services, you must ask all providers of such services to add the file to their server. For some developers, this is very bothersome, as the file must be served from a web server. Many sites don't require this and site owners don't want to add such services. FCHS - Flash CrossDomain HTTP Server is potential solution to this.

What's to be fixed?
Macromedia has been very open about finding the bugs and through their community blogs, they asked people to tell them what was wrong with the new version. They got plenty of answers and a lot of it was not pleasant reading. This openness is indeed a rare sight among software companies. Most companies prefer to keep this kind of info off the public parts of the web, so the end user input is usually filtered through support personnel with little hands on experience. By doing this, Macromedia opened a direct channel between the end users and the developers of the program and they got all the feedback they needed.

"The community gave us a ton of great feedback. Too soon to be specific and no promises on anything specific in this release, but we are working hard!" said David Mendels of Macromedia.

According to Macromedias FAQ, the updater will address the following:

- Bug fixes for the most important bugs identified in the Flash MX 2004 or Flash Professional MX 2004 release- Stability and performance improvements
- Improved and extended Help documentation

These annoyances affect the content developers that are responsible for the popularity of the Flash format, so for Macromedia, this is grave. If the tools we rely on get in the way, we'll loose interest over time. We do sincerely hope that the bugs on our little list are among those that Macromedia consider "most important". If not, we'll have to live with these annoyances, like we had to with Flash MX.

The update should be available from macromedia.com in November this year.

 

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