Review: A striking balance

Review: A striking balance

The new Macromedia MX product line, slated to ship this month or next, is centred around the Studio MX development suite and emphasises the combined use of the Flash Player 6 client and the ColdFusion MX server. But unique to Macromedia's toolset, which runs on Windows and Macintosh systems, is robust support for several popular non-Macromedia Internet application environments: Java/J2EE, ASP, ASP .Net, and PHP. Those who choose to code to Macromedia's client and/or server still have uncommon flexibility. The ColdFusion MX scripting server runs as a standalone, linked to a J2EE application server such as IBM WebSphere, or paired with Microsoft .Net. The Flash Player 6 client operates as a standalone or as a plug-in for Microsoft, Netscape and Opera browsers.

The eyes have it

Comparisons between Studio MX and Visual Studio .Net are inevitable, but the tools address different audiences.

Visual Studio .Net is optimised for programmers who also want a little help with Web and Windows interface layout. Macromedia's tools appeal to graphical designers, or to those invaluable developers with a knack for graphics, who also want a little help with their script code. Visual Studio .Net enforces structure with its emphasis on project management, code control, and modelling.

Macromedia serves developers who, after being handed a set of requirements, skip the diagramming and dive straight into graphics editing, layout, and scripting. Studio MX seeks to strike a better balance between coding and visual design, but it's still an environment for developers who eschew modelling and management in favour of just knocking it out.

Beyond Dreamweaver

The $A1,999 Studio MX bundle includes Dreamweaver MX, Flash MX, Fireworks MX and FreeHand 10, along with a single-user edition of ColdFusion MX. The centrepiece of Studio MX is Dreamweaver. The MX release of this Web development environment combines the HomeSite+ code editor, ColdFusion Studio, and Dreamweaver UltraDev to create an integrated tool that's almost as adept at handling scripts, HTML, XML and databases as it is at layout. Although the old Dreamweaver was comparable in features to FrontPage, Dreamweaver MX is more like Visual InterDev with a cleaner interface and a killer layout engine.

With its integrated ColdFusion debugger and multi-language, syntax-aware code editor, Dreamweaver MX is more useful to pure coders than previous releases. Code wizards and a library of server and client-side components help along designers who aren't especially sharp at coding. Coders lacking in design skills can make use of layout templates, pre-drawn graphical elements and canned Flash objects.

Developers in both camps benefit from Dreamweaver MX Exchange, a free online repository of more than 700 Dreamweaver extensions. An extension can automate any combination of Dreamweaver actions you'd perform manually, so it's capable of doing everything from drawing an animated button (complete with Javascript code) to adding a shopping cart to your site. Using all the aids Macromedia provides, it's quite possible to weave together an aesthetic and functional Web site without writing a line of code or drawing a single pixel by hand.

Macromedia deserves praise for tackling a feature most toolmakers brush aside: accessibility. Web designers should ensure that their sites can be used by those with impaired vision or movement. The tool can be operated by developers using assistive devices such as screen readers and Braille interfaces.

Dreamweaver's new interface is gorgeous. The traditional independent, free-floating tool windows have been replaced by dockable panels. The new design makes very efficient use of screen space. A run-time preference setting lets you switch back to the traditional Dreamweaver 4 UI or select a code-only environment that feels more like HomeSite.

ColdFusion connects

The ColdFusion MX scripting server has been reworked to provide a remarkable degree of enterprise connectivity. ColdFusion imports Java classes and allows scripts to invoke them as though they were ColdFusion components. It uses the same approach to connect to COM and CORBA objects. EJB (Enterprise Java Beans) is supported, but the CFScript or CFML (ColdFusion Markup Language) code needed to locate and create EJB objects is more complicated.

ColdFusion MX is built atop Macromedia's JRun, a J2EE-compliant Java application server. A later edition of the product will integrate with other vendors' J2EE servers. The built-in JRun engine supports the mixing of ColdFusion and JSP (JavaServer Pages) content. This ingenious design makes ColdFusion MX suitable for migration and integration projects that upgrade the functionality of existing applications. It also places the J2EE feature set at the disposal of non-Java developers. JRun's services are accessible from CFML and the Javascript-derived CFScript.

Flash as a rich client

Flash MX aims to elevate Flash from an animation player to a universal client for rich Web applications. Flash gives developers a lot of freedom to create interfaces that incorporate vector graphics drawn in Flash or Freehand, formatted text, bitmaps drawn in Fireworks, animation, video and sound.

The ActionScript interpreter, a subset of Javascript/ECMAScript, creates and parses XML documents and exchanges XML data with remote application servers.

Flash's capability of transmitting and receiving arbitrary XML data, combined with the scripted drawing features added in Flash MX, creates all kinds of possibilities for data visualisation and dynamic interfaces. We also admire Macromedia's work to get the Flash Player running on everything from smart phones to video game consoles. It will take some time for Macromedia to get Flash support built in to server software. As of this writing, exchanging data with Flash Player requires either ColdFusion MX or custom server-side code.

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