Flash is the current de-facto standard for animated graphics on the Web. Flash movies are playable by any Web browser with Flash player installed, which according to Macromedia is 92% of the online population. The secret of its success is the use of vector graphics, so that Flash movies are small and quick to download. The player is free, but to create Flash movies you need an authoring tool, and although some third-party products can export in Flash format, Macromedia's own product is by far the most advanced.
The Flash work environment has several key features. Movies consist of individual frames connected by the Timeline, where you control how frames are presented over time. Using a technique called tweening, Flash is able to generate intermediate images automatically. Flash also supports layers, which let you organise artwork into separate work areas that are presented together, like combining transparent sheets of acetate.
Flash 4 users will be keen to upgrade. Along with new programming features, there are Bezier drawing tools, rich text formatting with HTML, shared libraries that let you link assets between movies, and many new panels including the brilliant Movie Explorer, for navigating and modifying movie elements. In addition, the whole Flash interface has been updated in line with Macromedia's Common User Interface, to ease use for those who use more than one Macromedia product.
Flash 5 is a superb product, and currently there is no sensible alternative if you want the functionality it offers. One word of warning though: this is a professional tool and not especially user-friendly for beginners. Fortunately, it comes with plentiful online help and tutorials to speed the inevitable learning process. --Tim Anderson
Macromedia Flash 5 fuses the precision and flexibility of vector graphics with bitmaps, audio, animation, and advanced interactivity to create brilliant and effective Web experiences that attract and engage visitors. A designer-friendly application, Macromedia Flash 5 easily integrates with existing Web production workflow, supporting direct import from Macromedia FreeHand and Fireworks. Macromedia Flash 5 also provides powerful development tools for creating advanced Web sites and applications, including tight integration with Macromedia Generator.
New features include: New user interface Macromedia User Interface Macromedia FreeHand import Macromedia Generator Developer Edition support Bezier pen tools Shared Symbol Libraries Movie Explorer Macromedia Flash Player QuickTime and RealPlayer support XML transfer and HTML text support