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Flash for CFers:Getting over the Hump

Flash for CFers:Getting over the Hump

Where do you stand in the march of CF developers moving toward implementing Flash interfaces in your Web apps? Are you gung ho? Still on the fence? Dead set against it? Feeling left out? Left behind?

In this month's Journeyman ColdFusion column, I'd like to take up the cause of Flash for CFers. In particular, if you're a developer who's been feeling left out or left behind, or simply challenged to understand most articles and books on the subject, take heart. In this article, I will share some observations and insights to help get you on the right path.

As I say in my user group seminars on this particular topic, it's like there's a wall you need to get over to get started. It's not that high, but just high enough to make it hard to get started on your own without a little leg up. Once you get that leg up, however, there's a whole world of cool possibilities.

The Challenge of Getting Started: It's Not Your Fault
Have you been impressed with Flash integration, but felt that it was beyond your reach? Have you tried to follow along with Flash Remoting articles, but felt stumped by your lack of Flash experience? Have you tried to read beginner Flash books, only to be frustrated by their focus on drawing, graphics, animation, sound, and video? Or by their wading through every part of the Flash interface?

The challenge of getting started with Flash as a Web developer is not your fault. It's partly due to Flash's heritage as a design tool, and the recent addition of many features for developers. Similar challenges exist for Dreamweaver MX. Bringing together two worlds, designer and developer, has left many resources challenged as to how to present fundamentals to each audience.

Also, Macromedia's showing the Pet Market and Broadmoor examples might also have set high expectations, leaving the average newcomer to believe creating Flash interfaces must be difficult. Some have tried to propose that CFers should focus on the back end and leave Flash to designers. On the other hand, those complex examples may have even lowered the expectation of some, thinking such Flash-based replacements of complex processes are not a suitable opportunity to add to their site.

You can integrate Flash easily and effectively. It's just a matter of finding simple samples and walkthroughs, trying them out for yourself, and identifying suitable next steps and resources for learning more from this perspective.

Some Good Starting Points for Web App Developers
Note that I said the first step is "finding simple samples and walkthroughs." In this article, I'm not going to actually walk you through getting started with the Flash interface. I'm not going to show any screenshots nor a single line of ActionScript. Frankly, an excellent guide to getting started was written by our own Ben Forta in the November 2002 issue of CFDJ.

In "Data Entry reFORMed," available at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=528, Ben solves the challenge in a way that few have. He doesn't presume any prior Flash experience, but he walks through the basics of using the interface to build a typical "two-selects related" interface that's hard to do in HTML. Even with JavaScript, it could involve caching large amounts of data on the client and may not work on all browsers.

This sort of solution is easy in Flash, and he walks through building it without a lot of focus on needless details. Yet he doesn't leave anything out that you might need. Too many articles soon drop a "place this code in the first layer of the first frame," but if these are foreign terms to you, then the wall has been raised. If you visit that page and use the "print article" link, you'll have an excellent resource that gets you started in just 2300 words. From there, you should be able to proceed to other resources, appreciating all the articles on Remoting and using Flash for Web apps.

Unfortunately, other resources aren't as well-suited to us. For instance, many articles recognize that readers may not have enough Flash knowledge and suggest that you "read the manuals." The problem is, they're really too designer oriented. As I said before, they tend to focus on aspects of using Flash that may not interest us, at least not from the start.

While it may seem counterintuitive, I don't recommend that you start with the Flash MX Manual, Using Flash MX. At least not at first. When you're ready, it's available at Help>Using Flash. There are also tutorials and samples available from the Flash help menu, but those, too, tend to be focused on using Flash in ways that may not immediately seem related to our needs as Web app developers.

Even Ben's book, Reality ColdFusion: Flash MX Integration, while seemingly the perfect starting point, presumes that you already understand Flash. The good news is that his article, and a couple of others I'll recommend, will help get you quickly up to speed to appreciate that book and several others, including the very popular and highly regarded ActionScript: The Definitive Guide (recently released in an MX version) and Object-Oriented Programming with ActionScript.

There is one other book that I'll recommend, and it may surprise you. Most will know that the ColdFusion MX Web Application Construction Kit is the latest edition of what's regarded by many as the seminal introduction to CF. Intermediate and advanced developers may spurn it, thinking if they already have one of the earlier editions that they are perhaps above getting it again. But the book has an excellent chapter, 23, on Flash integration. It was written by Nate Weiss and it's a great introduction to Flash and CF integration.

The chapter covers far more than Ben's article could (he has a whole chapter) and similarly, Nate never loses you nor bores you with Flash interface details you don't need. He builds a few simple but useful examples of Flash/CFMX integration, and even shows a simple, useful application of Flash's animation abilities. He also offers examples of server integration, using techniques other than Remoting. This chapter alone may justify the cost of the book - $35 at Buy.com at the time of this writing.

Other Good Resources
Once you've gotten over the humps explained by the resources above, you should be able to appreciate and take advantage of the many articles both in past issues of CFDJ and the Macromedia DesDev center as well as many other sites. They may have seemed daunting if you read them in the past, but would now be worth your consideration with just that little bit of Flash experience you didn't have before.

The CFDJ articles on Flash and CFMX integration have included, starting with the most recent:

  • "Bridging the Gap Between Flash and ColdFusion MX," by Simon Horwith (Vol. 5, issue 2) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=570
  • "Web Services in a Flash," by Dennis Baldwin (Vol. 5, issue: 1) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=556
  • "The Flash MX Calendar Component," by Mike Britton (Vol. 5, issue 1) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=555
  • "Flash Remoting with Macromedia's DesDev Feed," by Dennis Baldwin (Vol. 4, issue 12) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=540
  • "Get Connected with Flash Debugging," by Dennis Baldwin (Vol. 4, issue 10) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=513
  • "Flash Up Your Forms with Components," by Dennis Baldwin (Vol. 4, issue 6) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=451
  • "Building the Development Team in Flash MX and ColdFusion MX," by Kevin Towes (Vol. 4, issue 6) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=448

    There have also been some great introductory articles at the Macromedia DesDev center. Again, at first reading, without a little Flash experience, they may have seemed daunting and beyond you, but give them a look after getting just the little bit of experience offered by the two resources discussed in the previous section. They include:

  • "Macromedia Flash MX Remoting: Open the Gate for Rich, Dynamic Content," by Kevin Towes at www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/coldfusion/articles/remoting.html
  • "Getting Started with Flash Remoting," by Mike Chambers at www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/coldfusion/articles/startremoting.html
  • "Flash Remoting Basics for ColdFusion Developers," by Lucas Sherwood at www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/flashremoting/articles/cfexample.html

    You can find even more articles at the various DesDev centers, including the following:

  • www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/flashremoting
  • www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/coldfusion
  • www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/flash/
  • www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/flashcom/
  • www.macromedia.com/desdev/rich_media_ads/

    The last one is quite recent, having been opened just in January.

    There are also lists of examples of such integration, including articles (some of which are a little more advanced) available at www.macromedia.com/desdev/topics/sample_apps.html. There's also a page devoted to resources specifically for Flash/CFMX integration at www.macromedia.com/support/flash/programs_cf.html.

    There are even a number of online video presentations that walk you through the use of Flash, including several related to CF integration, available at www.macromedia.com/software/flash/productinfo/tutorials/gettingstarted.

    One of those videos is on the accessibility features of FlashMX. This is a topic of significant importance to many developers and administrators, and Flash MX does add new features to address this important aspect of creating usable applications. Indeed, Macromedia has a site devoted to the topic, at www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility /features/flash. Still one more non-Macromedia resource devoted to the goal of promoting usable Flash sites is a "Wiki" at www.whatisflash.com. The topic is also discussed in a couple of books, including The Flash Usability Guide, by Chris McGregor, et al. Indeed, a useful sample chapter is available online at www.friendsofed.com/books/flash_mx_titles/mx_usability/sample_chapter.pdf. Another is Constructing Accessible Web Sites, by Jim Thatcher, et al.

    If you'd like to take a course on the topic of both Flash and integration with CFMX, Macromedia has recently released the class, "Developing Rich Internet Applications." It's an intense three days covering lots about ActionScript, fundamentals of the Flash interface, and integration with CFMX. Simon Horwith wrote about the class in last month's aforementioned "Bridging the Gap Between Flash and ColdFusion MX." Learn more about the class at www.macromedia.com/support/training/instructor_led_curriculum/dev_apps_fmx_cfmx.html.

    What If You're Not Using CFMX or Flash MX?
    While it would be best to leverage the power and improvements in CFMX and Flash MX, the reality is that some people simply can't or won't yet have migrated. Or maybe you have co-workers or clients interested in doing this integration with servers that do not support Remoting (it is currently supported only on CFMX, ASP.NET, and certain J2EE servers).

    What if you're on CF5? Or 4.5? Or PHP? Or Perl? Or some mainframe Web server, for that matter? Or still using Flash 5? You may be led to believe that you're out of luck and unable to play the game of Flash/CF integration. You can! It's just not as easy as it is with CFMX and Remoting. The good news is that we at CFDJ have been covering Flash and CF integration for nearly two years now. Check out any of the following:

  • "Macromedia Flash 5 and ColdFusion 5," by Mike Chambers (Vol. 3, issue 11) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=366
  • "ColdFusion-Driven Flash Content," by R. Drisgill and J. Montilla (Vol. 3, issue 9) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=347
  • "Getting CF into Flash," by Randy H. Drisgill and Jason Montilla (Vol. 3, issue 8) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=346
  • "ColdFusion Meets Flash," by Dennis Baldwin (Vol. 3, issue 8) at www.sys-con.com/coldfusion/article.cfm?id=309

    Also note that the approaches described apply to pretty much any Web application server. It's worth noting, however, that if you have Flash MX it offers even more powerful new ways of integrating with Web app servers even without Remoting, in the form of the new LoadVars and XML objects. Do look into these if you're not using a server that supports Remoting. The bottom line is that it's pretty easy to pass data back and forth from a Flash movie on the client up to a server of any kind.

    Other Next Steps
    The focus to this point has been on resources that would be especially suitable for CF and other Web app developers who might otherwise find typical "beginner Flash" resources to be inappropriate. But as I said before, once you get over the initial hump of being shown the most fundamental aspects, your next step is to learn how to use the rest of the features of the Flash interface, such as layers, frames, animation, more about UI components, more about ActionScripting, debugging, troubleshooting, and more.

    An excellent starting point once you're prepared to dive into more about Flash would be Foundation Macromedia Flash MX, a "Friends of ED" book. In fact, the first chapter of the book is available online at www.friendsofed.com/books/ foundation/flashmx/Found_MX_Chapter_01.pdf and would be a great resource even if you don't get the entire book (though I'm confident that chapter will motivate you to get it).

    A couple of other books that do a surprisingly good job of introducing fundamentals (including some server integration) are Macromedia MX eLearning; Advanced Training from the Source, and the recently released Mobile Macromedia Flash MX. Even if you're not interested in doing development for mobile devices, it's interesting to consider that the skills and efforts applied to building Flash apps for browsers can be applied just as readily to mobile devices (phones, PDAs, and more).

    Still other things you may want to explore once you're "over the hump" are Macromedia's "Developer Resource Kits" (DRKs), which offer several useful new components, demonstrations, and more (mostly Flash-oriented). Learn more at www.macromedia.com/software/drk. Another possible next step would be to explore the Flash Communications Server product. While it's primarily shown as being a tool for streaming audio/video, it's much more than that and really about live shared data applications. This month Kevin Towes offers a great tutorial on getting started with that aspect of the Flash Communication Server in "Persistent Data Communications." Learn more at www.macromedia.com/desdev/mx/flashcom.

    One more possible next step to consider is the "Flash Component Kit for ColdFusion." This toolkit, available at www.macromedia.com/v1/handlers/index.cfm?ID=20983, is really something from the Flash 5 time frame. It's a set of ColdFusion custom tags (that work in CF5 as well as CFMX) that provides some prebuilt components that integrate with CF but don't require you to have or use the Flash authoring tool.

    Before concluding the article, I'd like to point out a few Web sites that are devoted to topics related to Flash/server integration. Some are portals with articles, links to other sources, mailing lists, blogs, and more. See:

    • Flashcfm.com
    • Devmx.com
    • Flash-remoting.com
    • FlashForProgrammers.com
    • Flash-db.com
    • actionscript.org
    • flashmagazine.com
    • flashguru.co.uk
    • actionscript-toolbox.com
    • flashsupport.com
    • flashkit.com
    Many of these (and an always updated list of them) are available at www.macromedia.com/support/flash/ ts/documents/flash_websites.htm.

    I hope this little compendium of resources for getting started in using Flash, as a Web application developer, has been useful for you. I'm simply sharing my observations and discoveries in the hope of helping others either get over their own frustration getting started, or avoid it in the first place.

    Indeed, I'm thinking of creating my own book and class on the topic, focusing on certain things from this particular perspective and highlighting more lessons learned and key topics.

    It's really not difficult to get into all this stuff. It's just a matter of getting that gentle leg up over the wall that then opens to the many paths to creating Flash-enabled Web applications and interface widgets. Now, be on your way!

  • More Stories By Charlie Arehart

    A veteran ColdFusion developer since 1997, Charlie Arehart is a long-time contributor to the community and a recognized Adobe Community Expert. He's a certified Advanced CF Developer and Instructor for CF 4/5/6/7 and served as tech editor of CFDJ until 2003. Now an independent contractor (carehart.org) living in Alpharetta, GA, Charlie provides high-level troubleshooting/tuning assistance and training/mentoring for CF teams. He helps run the Online ColdFusion Meetup (coldfusionmeetup.com, an online CF user group), is a contributor to the CF8 WACK books by Ben Forta, and is frequently invited to speak at developer conferences and user groups worldwide.

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