The new tools in town

Last year saw new versions of all my favourite authoring tools: Macromedia Director MX became MX 2004, Flash MX became Flash Professional MX 2004, Opus Pro became Opus Pro 04 and MatchWare Mediator 7 became Mediator 8. However, the number of truly interesting new features offered by all of them put together totalled less than half a dozen. What’s happened to innovation in multimedia? Have all the best ideas already been implemented, or are these products simply coasting along, secure in the knowledge that their dominance is not under threat?

The new tools in town

Let’s begin with the tool I’m using most at the moment. Director MX 2004 is a mature, relatively stable and extremely sophisticated tool. The highlight of its latest release, however, was the addition of JavaScript as an alternative scripting language to the existing Lingo. I admit to having been enthused by this, because it will help Flash developers get used to coding in Director, but from the point of view of the end user it makes not one jot of difference. Indeed, the only feature added to Director that will be noticed by end users is its support for DVD-Video. Big deal. You have to go back two releases to find the last attention-grabbing enhancement: the addition of native 3D support in Director 8.5.

Flash MX 2004 Professional was certainly a welcome upgrade from a developer’s point of view. ActionScript 2, particularly its support for external editing and objects, has made a real difference to the way I use Flash on a day-to-day basis, but again from the user’s point of view the main improvement they will see is a modest speed increase. Even so, since they are hardly likely to see two identical applications running side-by-side, one in Flash Player 6 and the other in Flash Player 7, they are unlikely to appreciate the difference. In fairness, it looks as though Macromedia is lining up some seriously eye-catching new features for the new release of Flash, and about time too.

Digital Workshop’s flagship product Opus Pro 04 hijacked a number of features from its big brother Opus XE. Yet again, there were no significant new features for the end user. Just about every new or enhanced feature in this latest version focuses on making the developer’s life easier. I’m not going to complain about this in itself, as every authoring tool I have used has a number of irritating and pointless foibles that make life difficult for authors, but in the end we are all judged by the quality of our finished product, and if it ain’t in the toolbox it will not end up on the screen.

Mediator 8 continues this trend. Its major new feature is the ability to manage multiple users working on a document simultaneously, which is extremely interesting and likely to be useful at NlightN, as we often have as many as four developers working on the same project at once. At present, they have to run around the building asking their colleagues to close down a document before they can use it, but Mediator 8’s locking mechanism makes it possible to bypass this little drama and its attendant frustrations. However, it still is not possible in either Mediator or Opus to temporarily disable Actions for bug-testing purposes. The equivalent of the REM statement, the ‘//’ of Flash or the ‘–‘of Director would be very useful, since the only alternative is to delete the Actions or move them elsewhere. Even if this were to be added in some future version, though, it would still make no difference to the end user’s experience.

Is there really nothing new in the world of multimedia tools? A cursory look at the various toolboxes available would suggest that there is not. Director, Flash, Opus and Mediator all include a basic set of objects and little else: text, pictures, video, sound plus a few interactive objects and a catch-all container of some sort, such as the ActiveX objects in Mediator and Director. So, what room is there for innovation from the point of view of the user?

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