Keeping up standards

There was a time when Macromedia prided itself on providing the tools that allow creative users to express themselves. Flash, in particular, has always been aimed at the individual designer and programmer, at a price that, while never exactly a giveaway, was affordable. However, for its last two years of independent existence, Macromedia began to target corporations – a trend that’s continued after Adobe acquired it in December 2005. Macromedia’s flagship products used to be the creatively oriented Flash and Dreamweaver, but today you’ll see they’ve been displaced in priority by Flex and Breeze.

It’s cleverly done, at an almost subliminal level, but now Breeze is everywhere – drill down into any product page and there’ll be a Breeze presentation to tempt you. There’s nothing wrong with Macromedia/Adobe using its own tools to communicate with its audience, but the fact is Breeze and Flex are corporate tools with five-figure prices and expensive infrastructure requirements. Both of them depend upon the ubiquity of the Flash Player to present server-generated content within a browser, Breeze being aimed at non-technical users looking to hold online meetings and training presentations, while Flex is aimed at programmers developing Adobe’s idea of a next-generation dynamic website.

I don’t have any particular criticism of either tool, except to say that Flex has the greater potential. Breeze essentially delivers PowerPoint-style presentations over the Internet and, while a corporate multinational might justify its cost, even save money by deploying it, it’s really only of interest to the biggest players. Breeze might seem like the ideal tool for my company, NlightN, to create low-cost e-learning applications in record time, but the main stumbling block is a lack of features rather than cost. There’s no way I’d hamper my company with a tool that’s so restricted, as it frustrates both us and our clients if we can’t do something obvious and simple (especially after spending so much).

We’ve taken the opposite approach to Adobe’s new server-driven model. Our delivery platform, Jigsaw, sits in a browser or on the Desktop fetching scripts from the server that describe each page and preloading each frame within the presentation so that delivery is essentially from the client-side Internet cache – it requires no special server or desktop software and doesn’t depend on a high-quality connection. We’ve now deployed several versions of Jigsaw tailored to corporate and educational environments, which you can see in action on our driving website, where it’s used for all the e-learning.

The beauty of this approach is that we can accommodate most client requests because we retain control of the player and its features: if Flash can do it, so can Jigsaw. Creating an e-learning application becomes a relatively simple job of putting together interactive presentations within a graphical authoring environment, then linking them with whichever LMS we’re integrating into. The Jigsaw Player that sits within the browser was, naturally enough, written in Flash, while version 1 of the authoring component was created in Director (version 2 is being created using the excellent REALbasic 2005). REALbasic is what Visual Basic would have become if Microsoft hadn’t gone down the .NET route and is a joy to use.

Everything was looking green in NlightN’s garden then, until Adobe dropped a bombshell – the next version of ActionScript (AS) will be to ActionScript 2 what VB.NET was to VB 6, and to take advantage of its new features it looks like I’ll have to rewrite significant chunks of my code.

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