Product review: Generator 2 delivers targeted Flash Media

Macromedia's Flash authoring tool helps designers of commercial Web sites attract visitors by incorporating compelling, interactive graphics and animation into their Web pages. However, even graphically rich Web sites can grow stale if users see the same thing each time they visit. For companies with revenue-generating Web sites, what's needed are tools that allow designers to deliver the dynamic, targeted graphics that draw visitors but avoid the development time and costs that go into constant updating and republishing. Macromedia introduced such a solution last year with Generator. Now, with Version 2, Macromedia has greatly enhanced Generator's capability of delivering dynamic Flash media, while keeping the design work to a minimum.

A server-based solution, Generator 2 works in conjunction with a Windows NT or Unix Web server and local or remote data sources to assemble Flash movies on the fly. To deliver dynamic Flash movies, designers use Flash 4 and Generator Template Extensions (both included with Generator) to create Generator templates, inserting special template commands and placeholders for dynamic elements. The Generator template files are stored on the Web server. Each time a Web browser requests a page that refers to a template, Generator replaces template variables with values from the data sources you define.

Generator can draw on text files, batch files, CGI scripts, URLs, and results from SQL queries of ODBC and Java Database Connectivity data sources to generate charts, graphs, sounds, and animations on the fly. This type of functionality is particularly handy for companies providing electronic-commerce services or any other type of Web content that changes frequently. For content that changes less frequently, you can save server resources by processing Generator templates manually from a command line or at set intervals via batch files or CGI scripts. In this offline mode, Generator still refers to data sources to fill template variables, but not each time a Web page is requested. Instead, processing is done only when updates are necessary. In the meantime, Web pages are referred to the output of the template file.

My biggest complaints with the first release of Generator were the lackluster scripting support and confusing menu options. Macromedia has answered both of these complaints with Generator 2 and Flash 4. With Flash 4, Generator benefits from enhanced ActionScript programmability and better organised, Generator-specific menus, dialogs, and palettes.

Flash's interface enhancements now make it easier and quicker to create Generator templates. In Generator 1's Developer Studio, Flash Edition, template-specific commands and functions were buried within Flash 3 menus. Flash 4 puts commands in logical places and uses two floating palettes (the new Generator Objects palette and Generator Inspector) and intuitive dialogs to expedite the template development process.

In addition to benefiting from Flash 4's interface improvements, Generator 2 inherits Flash 4's support of animated .gif files and the capability of outputing Generator templates as QuickTime 4 movies. Generator 2 also features a redesigned chart engine that lets you define 3-D graphs. Although I wasn't able to verify this, Macromedia claims that Generator 2 is 30 percent faster than the original version. Further, it now supports a wider range of Unix hardware. In addition to Solaris, Generator 2 will be available for Linux and AIX platforms running Apache 1.3 Web servers in November.

Finally, Macromedia significantly beefed up both printed and online documentation. Although samples and demos are included, there's still no tutorial.

Although many tools have been vastly simplified, Generator still needs some work in helping those who are new to developing data-driven Web applications. The addition of a graphical query-by-example screen would be a big help in defining complex SQL statements. Still, in the event that your query doesn't work properly, a new log viewer helps in debugging your query so that you can ensure it works properly before uploading it to the server.

Nonetheless, this is a very minor quibble. Overall, Generator 2, in combination with Flash 4, is a major improvement over its predecessor. More important, Generator's wide support of enterprise systems and Web application solutions makes it an excellent and cost-effective complement to existing, or planned, e-commerce sites. I highly recommend Generator 2 for anyone developing or maintaining graphically rich Web sites.

Senior Analyst Jeff Senna (jeff_senna@infoworld.com) evaluates Internet-based technologies.

THE BOTTOM LINE: EXCELLENT

Macromedia Generator 2

Summary: With enhanced integration of Flash development tools, easier template creation, and support for additional Unix platforms, Macromedia Generator simplifies the creation and delivery of dynamic, media-rich Web pages.

Business Case: Generator cuts Web development time and costs by eliminating manual updates of graphics and animations.

Pros:

+ Simpler template creation

+ Enhanced graphics support

+ Better scripting support

+ Supports nonlocal data sources

Cons:

- SQL queries tedious

Cost: $US2,999; $1,499 upgrade

Platform(s): Windows NT Server 4; Solaris 2.6; AIX and Linux (November)Macromedia; San Francisco; (800) 326-2128; http://www.macromedia.com

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