October 21, 2002
New Flash 6 Player Beta
Macromedia has released a public beta of a new Flash 6.0 plug-in and Standalone Player for Win, Linux, Mac and Mac OS X. This is a great opportunity to test and report problems with your Flash sites early on, giving Macromedia the chance to address them before the general release, which, by the time your customers see them, will be too late.
The big bang in the new feature list is sure to be Windowless Mode support for Win Mozilla/Netscape and Mac OS X browsers (more on this in a sec). Also welcome is an improvement in ActionScript performance, an interesting facility to customize your HTTP headers for POST and XML actions, and Linux support (previously, Linux users were supported with a Flash 5 plug-in), plus others and a few fixes to boot.
Windowless Mode support is what previously allowed only the ActiveX version of Flash to do things like have transparent Flash content and allow DHTML elements to overlap Flash movies. Apparently newer flavors of the Mozilla family now support a windowless mode as well as plug-in scripting (supported by Flash as of 6.0r40) in their new plug-in implementation—this is great news for designers who felt contrained in the past by the "boxy" nature of plug-in content.
In the realm of fixes, some developers will be happy to see that the problem where "variables weren't being passed via loadMovie when using query string and viewing the SWF locally" and "In some cases (and especially from CD-ROM), the playback of movies in the Standalone player would slow down severely, stutter sound, or stop after many minutes." have been addressed. I've run into the former issue myself in a recent project. More, of course, in the release notes.
The Beta FAQ.
For enquiring minds, Win and Mac beta builds are currently at version 6,0,60,48, with the Linux beta at 6,0,60,50, but this may change if field reports prompt further builds.
October 20, 2002
Useful IE 6 Meta Tags
One of my clients recently complained about Win IE 6's distracting image toolbar and reminded me of a tip from Microsoft's Highlights of Internet Explorer 6. In among the new feature coverage, this developer note explains how to suppress the image toolbar and also how to enforce old-style Win form elements and scroll bars if the newer XP interface look upsets your page design.
As a content developer, you can disable the image toolbar, so that it does not appear when end users move the pointer over images in your pages. This provides you with more control over the end-user experience on your site. As with previous versions of Internet Explorer, end users can still right-click images to save or print them, as well as send them through e-mail. The image toolbar can be disabled either through a meta tag,
<META HTTP-EQUIV="imagetoolbar" CONTENT="no">
or by setting the attribute
When running on Windows XP, Internet Explorer 6 and the content displayed in it sports a look and feel that matches the Windows XP platform. You can opt to have your HTML content not take on the same look as the operating system for elements such as buttons and scroll bars, by adding the following META tag:
<META HTTP-EQUIV="MSThemeCompatible" Content="No">
I've noticed that not all images trigger the image toolbar. I haven't taken time to figure out the algorithm IE uses to determine for which image it would be appropriate to issue the toolbar, but a casual examination suggests that animated gifs and images with alt-tags are ignored, however not all jpegs trigger the toolbar—perhaps size and aspect ratio are also considered?
October 16, 2002
Macromedia has just published the September 2002 Player Census for Shockwave and Flash plugin penetration. The quarterly audit is performed by NPD for Macromedia and as usual should be helpful in pitching and planning projects that employ these technologies.
Two important numbers to note this time around; a new majority share of Flash 6 players in the pool of users able to view Flash content and for the first time, an apparent across the board decline in the number of users able to view Shockwave for Director content.
First, the good news:
Flash 6 player penetration has reached majority status, albeit at 53% US (significantly higher overseas with Europe and Asia reaching 61.3 and 60% respectively).
This is an important milestone for developers wishing to bring to bear on their projects new MX technologies like FlashComm and Flash Remoting but who have been held back by the lack of a compatible installed base. Six and a half months out from introduction, this goes a long way towards besting Macromedia's Dave Mendels' February prediction of 75% coverage by March, 2003. In this same IG entry I quote Macromedia's John Dowdell noting that the "Flash Player 5 reached majority consumer viewership within six months of its release...", an accomplishment and perhaps now a tradition followed by Flash Player 6.
It's also worth mentioning that the numbers of browser users able to view forms of Flash content up to Flash version 5 has been in the 90th percentile since June of this year, with F5 now at 92%, F4 at 96%, and F3 and F2 both hovering under 98% penetration.
And now for the less than good news:
Sadly, Shockwave Player penetration appears to be on the decline, down this quarter from over 69% to a little under 63% overall. Exactly why this is so is the subject of some discussion among developers and folk at Macromedia. I suspect this can be attributed to the lack of Shockwave bundling with Windows XP, although some computer makers choose to add Shockwave to their product installs. Beyond users uninstalling Shockwave en masse, which I find highly unlikely, new growth in computer sales without the ubiquitous bundling agreement that Flash enjoys with Microsoft seems a reasonable conclusion. You could argue that compelling content drives adoption, and while this is sure to be true for leading upgrades, the across the board decline suggests otherwise.
So what does this mean for producers of rich online content?
The adoption of Flash for simple animation and navigation elements in web pages was a no-brainer; it has long been the player of choice because of its early penetration and fast load times. With the increasing power of succcessive Flash Players, projects once only possible with Shockwave have become doable and even easier in some cases with Flash. Flash MX and the Flash 6 Player cement this trend with the very rich feature set the MX family enables.
Shockwave will still be important for your true 3D work, higher quality game, video and animation demands and in niche projects where extensibility is important and common penetration less so.
October 8, 2002
Shockwave Security updates
On September 9th, Macromedia quietly released a new version of the Shockwave for Director player to address recently uncovered security vulnerabilities in both the Flash Asset Xtra and NetLingo. Note that the updated Flash Player was pushed out a month prior. Macromedia continues to follow the "better safe than sorry" convention of advising all users to upgrade, and in fact, if you've enabled automatic updating then you may already have this latest version.
Full details can be found in the Macromedia Shockwave URL Modification Issue document on the Macromedia web site.
A few notes for developers and testers:
The new releases have build numbers of 8.5.1r105 for Mac (9.x and earlier) and 8.5.1r106 for Windows. At this writing there is no word on whether the OS X version is vulnerable to the exploit or if an updated version is forthcoming.
Currently, Macromedia's servers are supplying r102 to ActiveX users who encounter pages with codebase tags, however users who arrive at the Shockwave download page will get r106.
The Shockwave Player version history technote states that the installers have also changed. Win IE users still get the "ultra-shim" installer while non-ActiveX users get the full installer. While this makes for a shorter download for ActiveX users, everyone else gets eased functionality in exchange for their trouble in the form of the following bundled Xtras:
Lastly, as the security fix patches net connection vulnerabilities, it would make sense to install the update and give your net-aware Shockwave content a once-over.
October 5, 2002
Macromedia's technote "Stand-alone installers for Shockwave Player" links to installers for previous and current versions of the free Macromedia Shockwave Player from versions 18.104.22.168 to 8.5.1, in multiple languages.
Then there's the aptly named "Archived Macromedia Flash Players available for testing purposes" technote, that, well, you get the idea. Currently links you to the final releases of Flash versions 2 through 5.
Real's Real Legacy Software Archive contains every RealPlayer build from version 3 up to 10, plus localized versions of RealPlayer 8 and up.
And last, but not least, Adrian Roselli supports Evolt and the developer community at large by maintaining the mother of all browser archives. Really. Along with the major players, this archive houses a million browsers I've never heard of but you might need someday.
There are other archives out there to be sure. I'll be adding new bookmark-worthy links as I come across them.
October 2, 2002
Death of a Meta tag Salesman
Caught this story on /. this morning. Two articles on the end of the usefulness of keyword meta tags; An End to Metatags (Enough Already, Part 1) by Traffic.com's Andrew Goodman, and the answering Death of a Meta Tag by Search Engine Watch's Danny Sullivan.
The take away is that expending energy on creating the perfect meta keyword tag has become a pointless exercise, with only one major search engine—Inktomi—still paying any attention at all to this much abused method of increasing listings rank.