File Under: HTML5, Multimedia, Software

Flash CS5 First Look: Adobe Drops a Hefty Update Into Stormy Waters

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Adobe has released details about the latest version its Flash authoring tool, which arrives amid great uncertainty concerning the multimedia platform’s future.

Flash Professional CS5 boasts a number of improvements over previous versions, including better animation physics, improved typography controls, new code hints and snippets for building webapps in ActionScript, some new data formats, and better ability to add cue points to videos. It also has a few tricks for developers eager to publish apps to places where Flash isn’t allowed.

Flash is part of Creative Suite 5, Adobe’s new package of apps for building websites, assembling videos and editing photos. The new suite of apps, which Adobe says will ship mid-May, was announced Monday. We have a first look at Dreamweaver CS5 on Webmonkey, and we have a first look at the new Photoshop on Wired.com’s Gadget Lab.

Adobe Flash has taken a beating lately, especially from the hurricane that Apple’s public relations team generated around the launch of the iPad. Apple’s mobile devices don’t support Flash Player, so Apple is encouraging web developers to make their sites “iPad-ready” by removing Flash elements.

Also, last week, the new iPhone OS was announced, and it includes a new rule banning applications built with cross-compilers. Flash CS5 will ship with such a cross-compiler, Adobe’s Packager for iPhone, which lets developers build apps in Adobe’s suite of tools that can be exported with the click of a button and wrapped up as Apple-native code. Well, those apps won’t run on iPhones and iPads once the devices get their software updates this summer and fall, respectively. (There’s also a note on Adobe’s website Monday noting the use of Packager for iPhone is “Subject to Apple’s current requirements and approval.”)

Even with this cloud of negativity hovering overhead, Flash has plenty of steam left. The biggest factor in Flash’s success — video playback — is still a killer app on the web. The latest version of Flash Player (version 10.1, which came out earlier this year) addressed many of the performance and consistency issues that have been dogging Flash for the last year. And Flash will continue to be a key to video experiences in browsers, at least until the mess that open video is stuck in right now gets cleared up.

Even so, Adobe is smart enough to see that HTML5 is going to be a big part of the web’s future, which is why the company has built tools into Creative Suite 5 for rendering Flash elements as HTML5-ready Canvas animations, as seen in this video. As developer and blogger Simon Willison notes, this feature could be very useful for displaying newspaper infographics and other “Flashy” data visualizations on iPads and iPhones.

The HTML5 debate aside, here’s a rundown of what else is new in Flash Professional CS5.

Video cue points

If you’re building content around a Flash-embedded video file, you’ll be keen on one of the new enhancements in CS5: the ability to use cue points in the videos’ timelines to trigger ActionScript events.

You'll find code snippets and new code hints in Flash CS5's ActionScript editor. (Click for larger.)

You'll find code snippets and new code hints in Flash CS5's ActionScript editor. (Click for larger.)

Building ActionScript apps

There are also new tools for building ActionScript apps. The most powerful tool is Adobe Flash Builder, which is fully integrated with Flash CS5 (It used to be called Adobe Flex Builder, and it’s been in an open demo program since early 2009).

Flash Builder is an Eclipse-based IDE for building web apps with Flex, Adobe’s open source web framework. You can use Flash Builder to create apps that interface with local databases or the APIs of various web services. You can also set up Flash Builder to be your default code editor for ActionScript.

ActionScript editor

If you’re a whiz at ActionScript, you’ll appreciate the new ActionScript editor in the new Flash Pro. You get new custom class-code hinting and code-completion features. There’s also a library of ActionScript snippets for new coders — so many, in fact, that you don’t really need to know that much about ActionScript to build simple animations.

Natural animations

Animations will be more natural overall since Adobe has updated its physics engine in Flash CS5. The last version saw the inclusion of a new inverse-kinematics engine, and it’s been enhanced in CS5 to produce animations that are more lifelike and realistic.

Flash CS5's text-handling capabilities have been improved. (Click for larger.)

Flash CS5's text-handling capabilities have been improved. (Click for larger.)

Text handling

There are new text handling tools, too, including Adobe’s Text Layout Framework. This framework has been built into multiple products, including Flash Player 10.x and the other CS5 production tools. So, when a designer hands you a file with text laid out in InDesign or Illustrator, that text will be better preserved once you start playing around in Flash.

Flash Catalyst

Shipping along with Flash Pro in most of the Creative Suite 5 packages is Flash Catalyst, another product that began life as a free beta in Adobe Labs. Flash Catalyst lets you take a static design created in Photoshop or Illustrator and make a functioning Flash web app out of it.

You select the different things like scrollbars or menu elements, and apply ActionScript actions to them. Catalyst basically brings a static illustration to life as you define how the parts move and how they interact with one another. When you’re done, you can export it to Flash Builder, where you can tie the interface to a database or to web APIs. There’s more info about it on Adobe Labs, including a video.

Outside the box

One more cool thing Adobe has done in CS5 is they’ve solved Flash’s hermetically-sealed–box problem. When you export your Flash project, you can just spit out a single, binary FLA, or you can choose to export as an XFL package. It’s a new XML-based format developed for Adobe Flash.

The XFL option produces an uncompressed package where your various elements — video, objects, scripts — are all left separate. You can edit individual elements of your project (or pass them off to other team members for editing) without having to repackage everything any time a change is made.

We’re not going to spend too much space here encouraging anyone to ditch Flash in favor of open web technologies. There is plenty that HTML5 can do when it comes to building apps, animations and playback experiences, and the smart developers out there are already using emerging standards to do those things (with and without Adobe’s tools). For everything else, Flash will continue to fill in the gaps. Love it or hate it, Flash has its place on the web, and for those of you using it, Flash Professional CS5 should serve as a welcome upgrade to your workflows.

Flash Professional on its own costs $700, or $200 for an upgrade from any previous version going back to Macromedia Flash 8. Flash Catalyst CS5 costs $400, and Flash Builder costs $250. So, if you’re interested in getting all of the Flash tools, you should also look into one of the CS5 packages, which come with other flagship apps like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.

The Adobe Creative Suite 5 bundles containing the Flash tools vary in cost from $1,800 to $2,600 depending on which one you buy. Upgrades vary between $500 and $1,400 for the suite. Also, we should note that Adobe has done away with the Web Standard edition of Creative Suite, so now the Production Premium edition ($1,700) is the cheapest CS5 bundle you can buy that includes the Flash apps. For that price, you also get Photoshop, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Bridge and several other apps.

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