Firestarter Lights Up Your Web Pages

I'm an old-school Web developer. I prefer to write HTML code by hand, eschewing the tools that generate HTML. Even moving to a dedicated HTML editor was a big step for me, and the only reason I made the move was for on-the-fly syntax checking because I still don't use many of the editor's coding features. But recently I experimented with some tools designed to make a Web author's life easier and developed one of my sites using Microsoft FrontPage 2002.

FrontPage has its attractions, but I still find myself modifying code by hand to get just the right effect. But small office/home office (SOHO) business users who want a simple and effective Web site will find that FrontPage (and its competitors) will save them a lot of time and effort.

In the past, I've avoided using Web-page animations, but now that I have a broadband connection, I no longer skip those animations when I visit Web sites; I've found that many of these animations are well done and very informative about a business and its products.

The most common format for Web-site animations is Macromedia Flash. If a Web page's file extension is .swf, you're looking at a Flash presentation. The format seems relatively efficient, and I've seen many effective Flash presentations in the 150KB to 250KB range--a brief download on a broadband connection. I should also point out that any reasonable Web site offers a Skip Flash introduction link on its Flash-enabled homepage for bandwidth-poor visitors.

I looked at several Flash development tools I could use to add Flash movies to the Web sites I maintain, but I hadn't found anything that didn't have a fairly steep learning curve. Then I came across CoffeeCup Firestarter 3.0.

Fifteen minutes after installing Firestarter (without using the online help files), I had created a 15-second Flash animation, complete with text, music, and pictures, to use as an introduction on one of my Web sites.

The Firestarter interface is straightforward, with five components in one window (see Figure 1): the toolbar with large buttons and tool tips; the Preview window, where your working movie appears; the Object Properties window, which lets you see what changes you can make to the currently selected object; the Cutting Room, where you can modify the order of your movie objects; and the Timeline, where you can monitor and change the appearance of your effects.

For my test project, I already had plenty of images available on my system and music (MP3 format) to accompany them. Firestarter will convert your WAV files to MP3 format if you don't have MP3 files available. I selected the image I wanted to use and added text with fade-in effects; then I selected the next image and added the desired text. I used a fade-in effect for the text so that the image appears first and the text fades into the selected image. I repeated this process to get the information I wanted to appear in the Flash movie.

After I had processed 15 seconds of animation, I used Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge to create a 15-second music snippet to use as a sound track for my animation. Adding sound was as simple as clicking the Add Sound button, selecting Sound Track, and choosing the file I had created.

Then I clicked Test your Flash to play back my movie with sound. Satisfied with the test, I uploaded the .swf file to my server and added the simple HTML code that Firestarter had created (see Figure 2) to the Web page. The code that Firestarter created is complete and provides all the information needed to run the Flash movie and link to the Flash download page if the Web-site visitor doesn't have Flash installed.

So, for less than $50, I'm now an accomplished Flash designer. Well, maybe not, but I'm comfortable adding Flash animations to my Web pages. Firestarter has made my Web development a bit simpler and my Web pages a bit more interesting.

Products mentioned in this review:

CoffeeCup Firestarter 3.0
Microsoft FrontPage 2002
Sonic Foundry Sound Forge

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