Review-Macromedia FlashPaper
 

In the world of Smart Graphics, Macromedia seem to 'get it' by a wide margin over some pretty savvy group of graphics players including Autodesk, Adobe, Corel, Ulead and others. Macromedia's FlashPaper may be the best software graphics innovation for 2003. It is that elegant and simple. From any Windows program you print to a file and get a .swf Flash file that is capable of displaying the printed document/graphics/presentation with uncanny fidelity. And FlashPaper, because its just a Flash version 6 file, displays just about anywhere:Web browser, Window, Mac or Linux desktop, kiosks, plus some PDAs and mobile phones. This is what Adobe should have done for Acrobat's PDF file creation years ago. But Macromedia did it first and very well indeed.

The concept is quite simple - use all the information supplied by a program for printing purposes to create a Flash .swf file. And since Macromedia's software engineers are masters of compressing a wide range of bitmap and vector images, fonts, animations, video and audio into their proprietary but open-API .swf file format, one would expect to get some pretty compact files. We were not disappointed. Using Microsoft Office, Star Office and Open Office - we created a series of test FlashPaper files. Generally they were 1/2 to 1/3 the size of the equivalent Office saved file (but not always, some PowerPoint FlashPaper files were 20% larger than the PowerPoint originals). As well the FlashPaper recorder produced a very simple, easy to operate .swf file that can be quickly incorporated into your webpages like the one immediately below:

                  

Whats in FlashPaper

The FlashPaper recorder currently works only in Windows programs though Macromedia has said it may be ported to MacIntosh at some future date. Remember FlashPaper is just a Flash 6 .swf file so it currently can be used in 87% of all browsers which amounts to approximately 490 million users worldwide. Again, because FlashPaper is a .swf file it can be used on IE 6 or Netscape 7 or Mozilla 1.1 or Opera 6 (or later versions of all browsers) in Win 98, ME, 2000 and XP; IE 5.14, Netscape 7, Opera 6 on Mac OS 9.2 or MacOSX 10.1.5 or later. Linux support is version 2.4 for Mozilla 1.1 or later and Opera 6 or later but varies with the distribution. Pocket PC/WinCE also supports FlashPaper. In sum, wherever the version 6 Flash player runs so does FlashPaper.

As you can see from the example above - FlashPaper reproduces the colors, fonts, and stylings of a printed document with great fidelity. Try zooming in to the full 250% magnification. Any images, even bitmap ones, scale up very well. Ditto for fonts-FlashPaper appears to import all the fonts it needs for display purposes. In one of our test runs, FlashPaper was able to handle the 10 different fonts used in our OpenOffice text document and reproduced not only the font type but also stylings including bold, italic, drop shadow, outlining, underlining, superscript, subscripting, and strikethrough. In addition the colours used for fonts were within 3 RGB values of the originals (ditto for colours in general). Finally, as you can see when zooming the FlashPaper above, the fonts enlarge by 250% with no visible jaggies whatsoever.

Printing FlashPaper is dirt simple. Just choose portrait or landscape and the page dimensions. There are the usual defaults of letter, legal, envelope, and other page layouts; but if you are in a pinch you can specify custom height and width dimensions. Then just print. In our tests, the print times were within +or- 20% of the times it took a Win 2000(SP2) to print to an HP Laser 1100 or an HP DeskJet 1220C equivalent document. We could not fathom what made the FlashPaper go faster or slower than regular printing; so we gave up trying. There were no show-stopper delays in printing and we did 32 page PowerPoint presentations and 100 page Crystal Reports. We also tried FlashPaper with all the major Office suites and a dozen other Windows programs and did not run into any problems. Still despite this quite small sample, we are confident that FlashPaper just works.

However, as with most new products there are some hiccups. For example, some of the characters of the Whimzy and the Trebuchet fonts ("-" and "#" respectively) were rendered incorrectly. Some bitmap graphics when enlarged/zoomed would have a white line appear and then disappear. Finally, and most seriously, both GIF and Flash animations, even when printed from working .HTM files in IE6 and Mozilla 1.5, the FlashPaper caught only still images and refused to show the animations.

Compression is the Game

One of the key competitive advantages of Flash .swf files has been their superior display quality yet high compression of graphics, audio, video and other rich media contained within them. FlashPaper appears to inherit all that virtuosity. For example, in our Office Suite tests FlashPaper files were consistently 50% smaller or more than the associated text and DTP documents. For spreadsheets, the results varied even more widely but averaged about 50% smaller. PowerPoint presentations done in FlashPaper were plus or minus 20% of the original. Crystal Reports files were 60% smaller in FlashPaper than their stored counterparts. And even Corel drawings and Jasc PaintshopPro .jpgs were reduced by 15% on average.

Because FlashPaper is so easy to use in both Web and standalone contexts while reproducing fonts, color and images so faithfully, it inevitably gets compared to Adobe Acrobat. But there is a caution here. Although Acrobat requires a plugin and cannot be inserted as part of an HTML document(it must stand alone),it can do a number of things including allowing for text copying, bookmarking, production of a table of contents and auto-navigation aids, plus providing password and other security mechanisms that are beyond the current capabilities of FlashPaper. But FlashPaper is much easier to record and produce, plus easier to utilize in a wide range of HTML plus standalone documents. As well, in our half-dozen tests, FlashPaper had a compression advantage of 10-40% over the equivalent Acrobat files. So there are trade-offs, but clearly FlashPaper presents challenges to Acrobat.

These challenges will be increased if Macromedia make FlashPaper available in editable .FLA file format like eHelp does for its RoboDemo .swf files. For example, the RoboDemo Pro edition produces .FLA files as well as .swf files. FlashPaper in .FLA file format would mean that developers could go in and add the bookmarking, navigations aids, security features and other goodies that customers wanted in their 'custom' FlashPaper.

Summary

2003 has seen a number of significant graphics innovations. JPEG2000 is now appearing in Corel, Jasc, and Ulead editors among others; Corel and Mozilla are making major advances in SVG tools and delivery. And there have been a number of advances in such arenas as faithful bitmap compresion/expansion; new digital imaging hardware in still and video cameras; plus some notable mergers and acquisitions. But at the end of the year, this reviewer believes that FlashPaper will have had the biggest impact on the Graphics scene as Smart Graphics like FlashPaper continue to be a major point of innovation in Web and IT development.

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