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Authorware 4.0 has now been released and it is chock full of new features. It also contains somewhat of an updated look and feel, though it still retains its icon-based, flowline approach that has proven so popular among developers for the last 10 years. Among all the authoring systems available, it continues to be one of the easiest to learn, allowing nonprogrammers in many cases to quickly come up to speed and start producing real multimedia-based applications. However, its new features are helping it retain its reputation as one of the more powerful software packages for creating sophisticated applications, especially in the training arena. 

New Features 

The new version of Authorware contains some very cool new features. 

  • Smaller files: Take a file created in Authorware 3.x and open it in version 4.0 and you'll receive a pleasant surprise: your file will shrink to ¼ to ¾ of its original size. Macromedia has learned some lessons in compression from its work with Shockwave. This means you can now cram more Authorware code on a CD-ROM or other media. It also means quicker downloads if you're distributing your applications over an intranet or over the Internet. 
Why is this important in today's world of CD-ROMs and soon-to-be-widely-used DVDs (Digital Versatile Disks)? Believe it or not, there are still a lot of times when small files are necessary. For example, one of our clients asked us to design and develop a series of training lessons on software that they have developed in-house. This software and the training application is installed on laptops used by field personnel. Unfortunately, the laptops do not have CD-ROMs or large hard drives. Our client. s software already takes up much of the hard drive, so our client told us we had to limit our training application to 20 megabytes. We scrimped and saved wherever we could in the code, using every space-saving technique we knew. We managed to limit our application to 20 Mb in Authorware 3.5 without sacrificing its instructional effectiveness. However, when our client recently asked us to add more lessons, we started wondering if we would have to turn to supernatural powers to find more ways to save room. Imagine our delight when we saw that the Authorware 4.0 Beta we received a few months ago reduced the size of our files down to 4.5 megabytes! Now we have more room to add lessons, all without having to sell our souls.
  • External linking: It used to be that importing a graphic or sound meant that it would become part of your Authorware file. Your file would become bigger not only because the media object was imported, but also because Authorware. s internal format was not a grand example of efficiency. Now, when importing a media object, you can choose to internalize it or to link it to the external file. When internalizing a graphic file, Authorware now retains the file. s original format. Hence, a JPG or GIF graphic file retains its original compression advantages. Since you can choose whether to internalize a media object or link to its file, you can choose to keep some of your media external when you know that it will need to change often while internalizing the more permanent graphics and sounds. You can also resize, scale, and crop displayed objects, all good features to have incorporated into an authoring system. An integrated Media Browser helps you keep track of all linked media. Good thing, too, because in a large file, you could easily lose track of which external objects you. ve used. This is important because you. ll need to remember to include those files with the packaged Authorware files you give to your client.
What makes this external linking ability even more powerful is the ability to use a variable to link to the external file, which means you can dynamically link a Display icon, for instance, to any external media file at run time without knowing ahead of time what the file name will be. For instance, you can read a directory of external graphics provided to you by the client by using Authorware's Catalog function, then show each graphic one by one by loading each file name into a variable.  

Finally on this issue, because you have the ability to link to external files and even graphics you load internally retain their original compression, some media will load quickly, others more slowly, depending on how much they are compressed. This means you now can more finely tune your application to take advantage of compression when speed is less of a factor than size, or to make all your graphics and sounds uncompressed when speed is more important than the size of your application.

  • Drag and Drop: You now have the ability to drag and drop media files and Web URLs onto the flowline. Authorware will automatically create the appropriate icons to accommodate the new file objects. This is very convenient when you have been given a batch of new media files to incorporate into your application by your graphic artist or sound editor. Instead of having to take the time to create a new icon, open it, and import the external object (or link to it) for every new media file, you can now simply highlight all the files you wish to import, then drag them onto the Authorware flow line. What if you wish to have the icons not internalize the objects, but instead link to them? No problem, just hold down the Ctrl key while dragging the files. 
  • Xtras: Macromedia now allows third-party vendors to add new options to Authorware to let you incorporate and manipulate sprites, scripts, and screen transitions. These show up as a new icon on the flowline called an Xtra:  . You won't see it on the icon palette - it automatically gets placed on the flowline when you choose to insert an external control. Among the immediate applications of Xtras that come with this new version are QuickDraw 3D and VRML support. 
  • ActiveX: Using an Xtra, you can now incorporate any ActiveX control and be able to fully communicate with it. This gives you the full power of Microsoft. s application building blocks. You. ll be able to seamlessly integrate capabilities into Authorware never before possible. Want an idea as to the kind of power this will give you? Navigate to www.activex.com and you. ll see the power this new control can give you. 
  • Web Links: Not the least of ActiveX's controls is the ability to show web pages directly in your Authorware application, in any size you wish, with no browser evident, and with full interactivity. This means that you now have at your disposal the full resources of the World Wide Web (of course, it. s up to you to ensure you. re not infringing on copyrighted materials). 
  • More Powerful Scripting : Authorware's scripting abilities have become even more powerful, with the addition of multidimensional arrays and the adoption of symbols, lists and property lists, long a mainstay of Director. This gives Authorware an even greater speed boost. Macromedia engineers have managed to speed up Authorware with every new version. 
  • Consistent Dialog Boxes: Authorware has adopted an approach used by other authoring systems in that now icons, media objects, and your source files have properties , basically a collection of options you can set. This means that all options pertaining to a Display icon, for instance, can all now be found through one tabbed dialog box, rather than in several different places. While experienced Authorware users will find themselves hunting for options in unfamiliar places, it doesn't take long to appreciate the logic of the new approach. 
  • Cross-Platform Compatibility : Authorware's files are now identically formatted in both the Windows and Macintosh versions. This means you now can create an Authorware file on one platform and run it immediately on the other. Macromedia now provides both run-time applications on the CD-ROM and has improved its font mapping abilities. 
  • Expanded On-line Help: Macromedia has been expanding the on-line resources they provide for Authorware users on their web site (www.macromedia.com). Already, there is quite a bit more than there used to be, and it seems they are adding new materials every week. This is important because the new Authorware manuals seem even slimmer than their predecessors.
So What Else Do We Need? 

Macromedia has been much more dedicated in the last few years to listening to its clients, the users of its tools. Many of the features that have been added in version 4.0 came as a direct result of listening to user requests. Macromedia has even implemented a "wish-list" feature on its web site to let users send their requests directly to the company. I have no idea how long the list is at this point, but I have to guess that it is rather lengthy. A basic fact of life is that every user wants something different. I can. t imagine what everyone wants. However, there are several features I would love to have in Authorware right now that are not included at the moment. Here are but six: 

  • Easier Database Connectivity: Authorware is capable of connecting to external databases through your system. s Open Database Connectivity (ODBC) connections. While this does work, it requires that you script lengthy and cryptic SQL commands through ODBC function calls. Databases have become extremely important in today. s world. Data warehousing and mining have become almost as important to multimedia delivery as it has to more traditional software applications. So why not make it easier to talk to databases? This would be a very good thing. 
  • True Property Manipulation : Authorware is now using the term "property" liberally in its implementation. As mentioned, everything now has a property dialog box. That. s a good start. Now what we need is the ability to change any property at run-time through a script. To be sure, some properties, such as whether an object is movable or not, have always been modifiable through scripting. However, many still are not. For instance, we recently implemented a long course in which the client wanted question distracters to change color when students click them. The color of text should be considered a property and it should be easily modifiable through a script. However, this is not possible, so we had to implement an inefficient method to make the text appear to have changed color. Several of Authorware's more script-heavy competitors allow properties to be changed more easily. It. s time Authorware followed suit. 
  • External Files : It's great that icons can now contain links to external media files. But why must we open the icon and bring up an object's property dialog box to see whether it's linked or not? It would be very nice if we could see on the icon flow line whether an icon contains external links or not. In Authorware 3.0, we were introduced to hypertext, and we can see whether a Display icon contains hypertext because of a small symbol that appears on top of the Display icon. A similar approach to tell us whether an icon contains external links would be similarly appreciated. 
  • Run-time Importing: While you can import Rich-Text Format (RTF) files while you author, it would be very nice if you could import and export these files at run-time. This would allow you to store formatted text files externally, as you can graphics, sounds and movies. This is a feature long requested in Authorware. Being able to format and edit text externally to Authorware would be very cool. 
  • Calculation Icon Enhancements : Director has several advantages over Authorware when scripting, such as quickly commenting and uncommenting script lines, automatic tabbing and so on. Of course, Director requires a lot more scripting than Authorware, but that's no excuse. Let's get some controls that increase productivity while scripting. 
  • Embedded Fonts: One of the biggest problems with distributing files in Authorware is the inability to control how your text will appear on different machines. Even when you choose standard fonts, such as Arial or Geneva, your text may not appear correctly because of different metrics used for the same fonts on different platforms. Converting your text into graphics to avoid this problem is not a solution since it doesn't allow you to easily edit the text and it makes your files very large.
Kudos to Macromedia for a fine new version. Now get back to work on version 5!