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This Year's Model

June 19, 2000
by Zac Belado

Director has a lot in common with the Apple Macintosh. It is an innovative product that leads its market; and the press, pundits and users are constantly talking about its imminent death. A few years back it was Java that was going to replace Director. Java was going to make Director irrelevant and allow programmers to create rich multimedia apps that wouldn't require a plug-in and would be viewable by more users. Shockwave, and Director, it was said, were dead.

A few years later I still chuckle over the idea of Java multimedia.

Now, in an amusing twist, it is another Macromedia application that is supposedly threatening to bury Director and take over the web.

I'm sure that you've heard the story. Flash is a smaller plug-in; it has a wider developer base; it has a wider user base; it makes smaller files; it has a more modern object model that allows full encapsulation; it juliennes fries; and it reverses the ravages of male pattern balding.

Okay, maybe it doesn't do the last two, but if you listen to enough Flash developers you may soon believe that both are planned feature additions for Flash 5. If you believe the hype, Flash is going to replace Director. Supplant it even. And if you believe the most incredible stories, Director is going to be "wrapped up" into Flash and sold as a single product.

Less than zero

This is all nonsense, of course. Flash is a great tool. It produces slick animation, and the developers behind it have done great work in allowing Flash creators to embed movies inside movies to create very complicated effects. But it is primarily a tool for creating web-based interactive graphics. It creates very smooth animations that have a very high amount of interactivity available to the user in a small download. And it does what it does well.

But it isn't Director.

People seem to forget that Director, unlike Flash, isn't just a web-based development system. (This isn't all that hard to understand, since it appears that there are days when Macromedia seems to have forgotten this as well.) And yes, I know that you can make Flash executables, but when was the last time you used one? When was the last time you saw it used on a CD? Director makes CDs. Director makes games. Director makes computer-based training. Director has a script window that you can actually type in and read from.

Mystery dance

The one question that still nags me when I consider all of this "Flash über alles" nonsense is: where is Macromedia? While this controversy rages, Macromedia has said nary a word in defense of its flagship product. This was understandable when Java-induced mania swept the industry a few years ago. Macromedia couldn't really be seen comparing their product to Java in a favourable light, since the industry had already declared Java's triumph. The ascendancy of Java was a fait accompli, and the fact that the evidence didn't support it didn't stop people treating Java the way they do e-business sites now. Hence Macromedia's rather fruitless "me too" adventure with the Save As Java Xtra. (And while I could fill a small encyclopedia with better ways for Macromedia to have spent the money they did on the Save as Java Xtra, like sending it to me, you do have to acknowledge that the engineers behind it did a heck of a job.)

But this time the "industry wisdom" (i.e., "following the heard") is about a product that Macromedia produces. This time the giant-killer has a Macromedia logo on it, and if anyone were fit to dispel these notions of Flash killing Director, it would be Macromedia. So why the silence?

Shabby doll

Part of the problem might be that Director doesn't appear to be the focus of Macromedia's promotional efforts. The company has successfully refocused itself into an internet tools company, and Director is not a sexy new internet tool. So when the company goes on the road promoting its tools it doesn't mention Director, because Director doesn't fit into the "all Internet, all the time" message that Macromedia is promoting.

And, to be fair, Macromedia doesn't really have to promote Director. It has the market monopolised in a way that should make Bill Gates envious, and it is a self-propelling endeavour. Director upgrade sales probably more than pay for the actual development costs of each new version. So why bother advertising and promoting it if you don't need to? Why not spend the time talking to people about your new tools instead?

Which is what Macromedia does. And which is why some people get the mistaken impression that Flash, which is a sexy, important Internet app, is more valuable to Macromedia than Director. This doesn't mean that Macromedia should play attentive mother and stay out of the fight as long as no one gets hurt or uses cuss words. The company should be taking steps to correct these misconceptions before they start causing Director developers to lose contracts. Even if the company doesn't feel the need to do this for its own sake, it does, I think, need to do this to protect the people who use Director from having to battle the negative environment that has developed.

Possession

But Macromedia's silence on the issue still doesn't explain why supposedly rational people are thinking that Flash is going to subsume Director. The equivalent would be people betting on the odds of a guppy swallowing a tuna. Although to be fair and actually adequately represent Flash in this analogy, we would have to say a guppy with a very bad UI trying to swallow a tuna. There are a few explanations for this behavior that spring immediately to mind.

People don't know Director, or they have only the slightest idea of what the full feature set of Director is. Yes, I know this comes as a shock, but some people are saying this simply because they have heard other people say the same thing and not because of any direct experience they have with Director.

People become too attached to their favourite things. People violently defend the silliest things (like Free Market TM capitalism ©, for instance) without having any real reason to do so other than a personal attachment to the thing. Think about all the platform wars you may have seen (including some of the ones that yours truly has started). Arguments about the religious experiences that people have using Flash are no different that the Gnostic truths of Windows NT that you see posted.

Most of these posts and messages also get distributed over the Internet. And while it might come as a surprise, most of the correspondence on the net isn't the level-headed reasoned debate that you see in these columns. People on the net tend to post and write things that they would never say in public, and certainly not to someone's face. The Internet has made it possible to insult and deride more people in a shorter period of time than any other communications medium. Which must be why lawyers love it. So messages defending (and attacking) Flash tend to be far more extreme and exuberant than you would normally expect.

And the main reason these sorts of discussions start is that some people feel a subconscious need to defend their tool(s) of choice in order to defend their livelihoods. If you went from making $7.50 an hour making lattes to making $60,000 a year doing Flash animations you have a vested interest in promoting the product, if only to ensure that you don't have to make another half-caf, no-whip, extra-hot, soy latte again. We all do this. Hell, this article is a very similar exercise. But there is a difference between reasonable self-interest and self-delusion.

Beyond belief

And while all these reasons make sense, they don't make any of this nonsense true. Flash and Director are both great products that do very different jobs and, more importantly, do them in very different ways. Flash is an animation system with some elementary programming capabilities, and Director is a programming environment with some limited animation tools. Perhaps if all that you did all day was make 120K animations for websites that basically amounted to fancy "click here to enter" screens, then maybe you might think that Flash could replace Director.

So the next time you hear someone talking about Flash's eventual triumph and how it will establish a thousand-year-long era of peace and prosperity for all (except for the infidels who deny its true nature and who will suffer an eternity in flames writing Perl scripts), ask them a few questions.

Ask them about Flash's:

Heck, all you need to do is actually open up a Cast window and realise that you can see all your scripts at once to know that Flash doesn't have all the capabilities that Director does.

But don't let that stop anyone from telling you better.

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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