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Macromedia Fireworks:
Web Graphic Wiz-bang Toolbox
Fireworks Melds Multiple Feature Sets to Streamline Web Graphic Design & Production
by Jon Leland

Macromedia, the company best known for its multimedia authoring tool, Director, is fast becoming an major player in the Web software business as well. Their first web package was the streaming vector animation "platform" Flash which is now being promoted by Real Networks and others as a new standard. Then, they follow that with their well-received HTML authoring tool Dreamweaver. And now, with Fireworks, they have turned their considerable skills on Web graphics production. Once again, I'm pleased to report that Macromedia has done something unique and useful. Like Dreamweaver's much-needed approach to "round-trip HTML," Fireworks also addresses an important need. Here's their concept:

As I can tell you (and any web developer will back me up on this), doing web graphics "right" is a kind of specialty. Even the web's most popular graphics formats GIF's (both animated and still) and JPEG's each have their own unique needs. (For more on this, I recommend Lynda Weinman's excellent book, Designing Web Graphics.2. Fundamentally, one of the most important factors in successful web graphic design is the technical ability to keep the image file sizes small so that the graphics load as quickly as possible into web browsers.

In order to accomplish this goal, web graphic designers frequently need an assortment of tools. For example, programs like Adobe Illustrator or Macromedia's own Freehand for vector graphics and fancy text layouts, and bitmap programs and like Adobe Photoshop and Metacreations Painter for paint and photo-style images. And once you create your images, you need special conversion and file size reduction programs like Equilibrium's DeBabelizer along with other specialized programs to turn your images into GIF animations. As a result, it's not unusual for a sophisticated web graphic production to include as many as a half a dozen separate software programs.

That's the complex stage onto which this new Macromedia program enters, albeit with the immodest title of Fireworks. At press time, Macromedia said that its "official" availability date for the release version of Fireworks is "Summer 1998," and they project a street price of $299. Prior to that you can check out the public beta for free. It's is available online (of course) at http://www.macromedia.com.

BEGIN WITH THE BOTTOM LINE
Sorry for the long set-up. Let's dive right in with the bottom line: This is the most integrated web graphics design and production tool that I've ever seen. There's no other graphics program out there that has even attempted to combine Fireworks' comprehensive set of image creation options, let alone going the extra web distance by complementing them with one of the most complete set of web-focused and easy-to-use output tools available anywhere. I'm impressed.

First of all, designers will want to note the powerful way that Fireworks combines bitmap and vector image editing into a single software tool. This means that you can draw a shape and edit it using bezier curves (including text of course) as you would in a drawing program like Illustrator. You can even apply a basic set of natural brushes to these lines (felt tip, crayon, water color, etc.). Then, you can combine that image with bit-map editing tools including, for example, soft, transparent drop shadows. And then, you can further manipulate all of the above either in independent layers (a la Photoshop), or in separate GIF animation frames, via an intuitive tabbed interface.

In the web graphic production process, this ability to edit every attribute of a graphic or animation at any stage of the process provides valuable flexibility. After all, if you're using a group of software tools instead of one package, any time you make a change, the images have to go back through your multi-program process. I believe Macromedia's claim that Fireworks provides a new way for web designers and developers to create the smallest, highest quality graphics in the fewest number of steps is both valid and worthy of your consideration.

These integrated capabilities are especially valuable when applied to one of any web designer's most common needs, the editing of text within web graphics. Unlike in Photoshop, Fireworks' text is always editable, including the use of multiple fonts, sizes, and styles within a single text block

Getting the Real Picture
Another nifty feature is displayed when you begin the export process using Fireworks. This program features export modules that could be marketed as stand alone programs. For example, Fireworks' extensive Export Preview includes a control interface that allows you to visually evaluate your JPEG, GIF, and PNG graphics as you optimize them for fast download. Just like sophisticated programs like DeBabelizer, you can edit and create color palettes, superpalettes, and set transparency; but Fireworks also offers an easy to use Export Wizard that will be especially valuable for new web designers.

One of the most unusual and nifty of Fireworks' features is the ability to do side-by-side comparisons with split screen displays that are available for either 2 or 4 simultaneous versions. You use these multiple previews to evaluate different variations of a single image. For example, while in the process of exporting a GIF, you can do a side-by-side preview of the same image optimized with both a palette of 64 colors and 48 colors, and make your choice. Needless to say, this is a way more efficient process than exporting two versions of the same file, and then opening each of them in a web browser.

Fireworks also includes web-friendly features like the ability to customize URL links with a color hotspot preview, batch conversion of files for format, scale and size optimization, and even the ability to create Java script rollovers.

I also like the way Fireworks can interface with other graphics programs which may still be part of your production process. For example, images that exist as layered files in Photoshop can be imported with their layers intact, and FreeHand and Illustrator files may be imported while still retaining their vector objects.

And while Fireworks also includes support for third party plug-in filters, some of the most commonly used effects such as bevel, emboss, drop shadow and glow are readily available on one of Fireworks' floating tool palettes. I also like some of the extra horizontal menu buttons like the group/ungroup and move forward/move back, etc. buttons which are located along the bottom of the program window.

I found Fireworks' interface so user-friendly that I believe that any experienced web graphic designer will experience very little wasted learning curve time. I was up to speed almost immediately. My only difficulty was sorting out some of the vector vs. bitmap options, but this trouble was relatively minor and more than off-set by this program's creative flexibility.

At the end of the day, Fireworks exceeded my expectations. I think its a valuable tool that will make a welcome addition to any web designer's tool kit. While I'm sure it won't replace all of your other graphic programs, I think you'll find that when you're designing for the web, you'll need the others a lot less often. That's quite an accomplishment for a new piece of software.

Keep up the good work, Macromedia. Web designers need all the help we can get.

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Jon welcomes feedback and suggestions via e-mail at jon@combridges.com

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