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What's new?

You might think a company that has a virtual lock on the professional Web development market would be content to rest and enjoy the fruits of its labor. Only a year after releasing Studio MX, however, Macromedia Inc. has come out with an upgrade.

Studio MX 2004 is a far cry from the major overhaul that marked last year's introduction of the MX line, but that's not to say that it doesn't have its share of enticing enhancements. At the top of the list are Dreamweaver's cascading style sheet support, which lets users more accurately develop complicated layouts and designs; Flash's continued transformation into a full-scale Web animation and development tool; and more improvements to the MX 2004 interface and overall product integration.

Whether or not these features compel you to upgrade may depend on your agency's budgetary constraints, but if you didn't take the plunge last year, you should give it strong consideration this time around. And be aware that Macromedia has recently formed a government group, www.macromedia.com/government, to help develop solutions that are focused on the needs of government users.

The big picture

Studio MX 2004 includes five programs, three of which — Dreamweaver, Flash and Fireworks — support the MX 2004 interface and are tightly integrated. Two others, Freehand and ColdFusion MX 6.1 Developer Edition, have not been fully converted to the MX 2004 interface and aren't tightly integrated with other products. It's surprising that this upgrade doesn't include Contribute, a tool that allows designers to lock their designs and frees Web development staff from worrying about content issues while letting end users update Web site content as though they were using a word processor.

Installation is a breeze with a combination Apple Computer Inc. Macintosh/

Microsoft Corp. Windows CD to match the needs of the platform you're using. You can install the entire suite or each program individually. One improvement would be an Office-like customization screen in which users could pick and choose the elements they want. You should also be aware that Studio requires activation within 30 days of use of each of the products in the suite, a process that has been controversial among some users.

Studio MX 2004 comes with a manual that provides an overview of the changes to the new version and tutorials for the MX 2004 products. The tutorials are also available online in HTML format. When you launch each MX 2004 program, you can access a Flash presentation of what's new in the program. But it's more a marketing piece than training and a far cry from the hour of detailed video training included in the new Creative Suite from Adobe Systems Inc., a competitive package that includes Photoshop, GoLive, ImageReady, Illustrator, InDesign and Acrobat 6.0 Professional.

Working together

One of the reasons to buy a package like Studio, aside from the savings gained by purchasing products in a suite, is the level of integration achieved by working in the various products in the suite. Studio's integration doesn't quite rise to the level offered by Adobe Creative Suite, but it does offer benefits over using non-integrated applications. For example, when you select a graphic in Dreamweaver, the Image Properties panel includes a graphical link to Fireworks where you can edit the graphic. Without leaving Dreamweaver, you can access basic Fireworks editing tools, such as cropping or resampling tools.

Although this option is convenient, Adobe officials have taken integration to a new level in Adobe Creative Suite, providing what they call Smart Objects, which allow the developer to edit the object right inside their Web development tool, GoLive, without altering the original.

Dreamweaver freshens up

Dreamweaver is the premier Web-editing tool in the industry, favored by more than 80 percent of the professional Web-

development market, and MX 2004 includes features and enhancements to justify its continued popularity.

The first thing you'll notice is a new Start page, which is available in all three MX 2004 programs. It lists files you have recently worked on, including templates and samples. Some users will undoubtedly like the convenience of accessing their most recent files for quick editing, but this screen could annoy more experienced Web developers. Fortunately, Macromedia developers had the good sense to include a check box to easily shut it off.

One feature that should make everybody happy is the new cross-browser validation tool that allows developers to check their site compatibility against a list of Windows and Macintosh browsers without having the browsers loaded on their system. Experienced developers who have labored for years testing and retesting for different browser compatibility should love this. Simply place a check mark next to each of the browsers you want to check and select the earliest version you want to be compatible with. When you run a Target Browser check, Dreamweaver displays a list of incompatible tags on your site along with a description of which target browsers are incompatible.

Macromedia officials made some big changes to simplify the use of style sheets. For example, if you're working in Code view, the new Relevant CSS tab in the Tag panel provides easy access to the section of the cascading style sheet you have selected in Code or Design view. You can then simply double-click a tag in this tab to open the style sheet to the relevant section for viewing or editing. Dreamweaver also displays cascading style sheet information in the status bar. This change and others should make it much easier for Web development staff to make changes to their design and move more easily between the pages in the site and the underlying cascading style sheet.

There are myriad other enhancements, including further refinements to the MX work space, new visual table editing, the ability to copy and paste Word and Excel files into Dreamweaver and conversion from formatting to HTML on the fly. Also keep in mind that Dreamweaver has tools to make sure your site meets accessibility requirements, an important feature for government users.

The style sheet tools and browser compatibility, among other improvements, should increase developer productivity, and if you invest in Contribute to allow your non-technical personnel to update content, the package could pay for itself with more efficient use of resources. The case for upgrading probably hinges on if you upgraded to MX last year. If you did, then this is an interim upgrade and may be one you hold off on, especially if you are faced with a tight budget.

Miller is a freelance writer based in Amherst, Mass. He can be reached at rsmiller@

techdochelp.com.

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