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Shockwave for Algernon

July 5, 1999
by Zac Belado

Macromedia is at an important point in its development. Since 1996, or perhaps a bit earlier, the company has been involved in a plan to extend its applications to a net-enabled work model. This has been remarkably successful but it has come at the cost of Director's core strengths. Director, Shockwave and Flash have been expanded and even more closely integrated. This has been a boon for some developers as it has provided an easy to use set of net tools and an excellent low-bandwidth display engine. Which is great, unless you want to make things other than web-enabled content.

One of Director's great strengths is its ability to quickly produce cross-platform applications. With some few exceptions, Director can, from the same .dir file, produce projectors that run on Macs and PCs. It isn't much of an stretch to say that Director does a better job of "write once, run everywhere" than Java does. But this cross-platform development approach is being replaced with a cross-browser scheme. The company's focus has shifted from creating actual applications to creating content that will work inside a browser.

Macromedia's most public endeavors have been Shockrave.com and the upcoming Shockwave.com. Both of which feature Flash and Shockwave content that is primarily game and entertainment oriented. You won't find an anything like a bond-rating calculator, or XML tools on either of the sites though. Not that there is anything blatantly wrong with this. But it makes one wonder if there is any future in doing application development in Director.

Part of this change in focus came about from the supposed "death" of CD-ROM content. When the bottom dropped out of the CD-ROM retail market, Macromedia had to try and refocus itself. There were two reasons for this; in order to maintain sales and to maintain its stock price. Not that you can really blame the company. Every pundit was talking about the death of the CD-ROM market, a market that was closely affiliated with Macromedia. The only problem is that most of the pundits were wrong.

There were certainly a large number of companies that went under during the mid-nineties. But this had nothing to do with the lack of a market for CD-ROMs. Most of these companies went under because there were too many companies in the market. In economics it's described as a market correction. In the Real World™ it's called "too many pigs at the trough". Too many companies producing too much content and most of the titles were, to be blunt, crap. This is also the same market that spawned the phrase "shovel-ware" to describe CDs filled with bad clip art and substandard content. The question is then, did the CD-ROM market really collapse or did a few pundits overreact to a very natural market reaction to an overabundance of substandard product?

But it's one thing to sit on your couch typing this into Word and another to be on the board of a company that is seeing its stockprice plummet, because most investors wouldn't know a CD-ROM from a herd of gazelle. But that's capitalism for you. Thankfully the net came along and provided a way for Macromedia to not only maintain its sales but also to keep the investors happy. But do happy investors and high sales necessarily translate into happy developers?

Well they do if you develop content for low bandwidth delivery in a web browser. Macromedia provides probably the best set of tools for this sort of development. Unfortunately while Shockwave and Flash have advanced, some very important parts of Director have been neglected. Need to create a cross platform application with standard UI widgets? Not with Director. It doesn't support anything more complicated than buttons and scrolling fields and even those controls look, and act, like holdovers from HyperCard. Director 7 added to this list of UI controls as it ships with a dropdown list behavior that will turn a field member into a dropdown list. But this control also suffers from the same limitations.

If you want platform specific UI controls, or even more fully featured controls, then you have to resort to writing your own…over and over again. Even the simplest application will need things like buttons and listboxes. Director currently offers you two alternatives; using substandard controls or writing your own. Both are not viable alternatives. If you use Director's internal controls then your application looks amateurish. If you choose to write your own then you have to have to justify the time necessary to create the controls. For a small project this isn't feasible. Why should a language as capable, flexible and strong as Lingo be crippled with a set of UI controls that would embarrass a HyperCard developer?

And while Macromedia has almost no competition for multimedia development and no competition when it comes to developing low bandwidth, interactive content, it does have competitors when it comes to developing quick cross platform applications. The most impressive example is REALbasic (www.realsoftware.com) a Macintosh Visual Basic development system that not only ships with built in database support (in the Professional version) but also lets you build Windows executables on your Mac. One application, two platforms. REALbasic also has numerous built-in UI components, which allow you to quickly build an interface for your application. Compare this to Director and, if you develop cross platform applications, and you may begin to wonder if cross platform development Director is worth the extra effort.

Macromedia has focused on Internet tools to the detriment of the rest of the development environment. Part of this is a reaction to new market forces. Internet tools sell. Internet tools also keep investors happy. The company's focus has been, for the past few years, content over applications, developing things for people to watch instead of things for people to use. But part of this is a real lack of understanding of the capabilities of their own tools. Or, to be fair, what appears to be a lack of understanding. Why would Macromedia cripple application development in Director if they did have an idea of what it was truly capable of?

Macromedia also is reacting to an Internet that existed a year ago. It isn't looking to the future; to an Internet where broadband is the rule and not the exception. Flash and low-bandwidth content are important now but it won't be in future...it may even become irrelevant within a year. What happens then? What will Macromedia do when it suddenly becomes feasible to make full-scale Shockwave applications like spreadsheets and XML editors?

Probably wonder where all the developers went.

Zac Belado is a programmer, web developer and rehabilitated ex-designer based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He currently works as an Application Developer for a Vancouver software company. His primary focus is web applications built using ColdFusion. He has been involved in multimedia and web-based development, producing work for clients such as Levi Straus, Motorola and Adobe Systems. As well, he has written for the Macromedia Users Journal and been a featured speaker at the Macromedia Users Convention.

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