An Overview of Generator 2 Flash

Macromedia Generator 2 is both a tool and a server application used to develop and deploy automated and/or personalized Web-based graphics. The Web graphics can be .SWFs, .GIFs, .JPEGs, .PNGs, image maps, QuickTime Flash movies, or animated .GIFs. All of these can be produced by Generator to deliver personalized content for individual users. They can also be produced by Generator for inclusion within scheduled, updated interactive Web applications such as banner ads, stock market tickers, scrolling lists, 3D pie charts, maps, calendars, and headliners. Generator 2 release 2 adds support for Flash 5 movies and three new Generator Objects: Multipage List, Radio Button, and Insert MP3.

Macromedia’s concept behind Generator was to separate the design-based elements from the actual content, which gives the developers greater flexibility and control when updating or altering graphics on the Web. Generator takes a given set of data elements and applies them to a given list of variables. For example, Generator can convert a template that has a placeholder for a dynamic weather map .GIF image and serve a .SWF with an always-up-to-date weather map. This saves developers time and money in the management of content, and leaves the designers to do what they do best design!

To do this they created a “hybridized” application. To create Generator content you need the free Generator authoring extensions. These extensions are automatically installed with Flash 5. The installer files can also be downloaded from Macromedia’s Web site. To dynamically serve these Generator “templates” from your site, you also need to own and install the Generator Server application on your Web server. The Generator Server is available for Windows, Solaris, and Linux operating systems.

Developing Generator-driven Web sites is a two-part process. First, the Generator authoring extensions in Flash 5 are used to design and incorporate graphical Web templates. Then, when implemented, the Generator Server takes these templates and combines them with data provided from an external source to create “live” Web graphics (.SWF, .GIF, .GIF89, .JPEG, .PNG, or .MOV). Before we discuss the Generator authoring extensions, let’s take a brief look at the Generator Server application.

Generator Server
As mentioned previously, if you want to serve Generator content you have to purchase and install the Generator Server application for your Web server. This is truly the Generator: It sits on your Web server, takes the templates (.SWT files) that you designed with the authoring extensions and published in Flash 5, applies the specified data sources that are used in the template, and then delivers a .SWF file (or another image format) to the user. See below for a diagram of this process.

Generator is not only capable of producing interactive content solely based in Flash; the Generator Server application can also convert this Flash content (or any .SWT) into a .GIF, .JPEG, or .PNG image, or even a QuickTime Flash movie. Generator can also remove all textual elements from a .SWT file and its data source and save these elements to a standard text document. (Note, however, that Generator doesn’t format the text.) Generator can create image maps both client and server side. All of these items can be produced in either a “per-user” (online), or a scheduled (offline), capacity.

When a request is made for a .SWT file on a Generator-enabled Web server, Generator 2 will create a custom .SWF file (from the .SWT file and data sources) and deliver it to the end user.

When a request is made for a .SWT file on a Generator-enabled Web server

Generator editions
Just before Flash 5 was released to the public, Macromedia announced that the Generator product would be split into two editions: the Enterprise Edition and the Developer Edition. As the names imply, Generator’s two flavors are geared to highend production use (Enterprise) or low-demand production and development (Developer). On a price level, Enterprise is much more expensive and slated for corporate budgets (starting price is $30,000). The Developer Edition can be purchased for $999, or lower if you purchase it as part of a combo software upgrade.

For the most part, both editions perform the same primary task: convert .SWT files and data sources into customized .SWF files. The biggest difference between the two editions is the potential speed with which the Generator Server can create the .SWF files. Although the Developer Edition can only utilize one processor on a server, the Enterprise Edition can scale across multiple processors and handle many more simultaneous requests for .SWT files than can the Developer Edition.

The Enterprise Edition can also utilize a server cache that stores frequently accessed content. When this content is requested, Generator will serve the faster cache content. The Enterprise Edition also has more robust administration and logging features that the Developer Edition does not have.

If you want to plan, develop, and test Generator content, then you won’t need the Enterprise Edition. You can even use the Developer Edition to serve live Generator content on your Web site just don’t expect it to dynamically generate 50 or more .SWF files per second. On average, the Developer Edition can serve three to five .SWF files per second, depending on network conditions.

So, what exactly are online/offline, and how do they differ? Basically the online functions of Generator are employed when you need to update dynamic content on a per-user basis. Examples of this might be stock market tickers, weather maps, booking information, and that sort of thing. An online process is evoked every time a user calls a .SWT from the server, or when a script is run that returns updated information that is constantly changing minute by minute.

Offline functionality schedules Generator to create files locally and place them wherever required, such as a remote Web server. When Generator operates in offline mode, it builds a static .SWF file that is loaded by every user of your Web site. In this method of production, you don’t make requests for .SWT files you won’t put calls for .SWT files in your Flash movies or HTML documents. Offline mode would be equivalent to you manually going into a Flash movie (a .FLA file), updating the images or text, publishing the file, and uploading the new .SWF file to your Web server. However, offline Generator can do all of this for you, so that you are free to do other things (such as design new Web sites!). You can set up command lines for offline Generator using standard DOS commands, switches, and arguments that evoke the Generator executable file, directing it to the .SWT files you wish to use. You can schedule these commands to be run only when necessary or once a week. These command lines can be placed directly on the Web server.

Pseudo-offline functionality
You can fake offline Generator functionality by using Generator objects with static URLs (local or remote) or file paths. What does this mean? As you’ll see in the next section, you can add Generator Objects to your Flash movies with the free Generator authoring extensions. Even if you don’t purchase the Generator Server software, you can place image or chart objects that use local (or remote) data sources (such as a .JPEG file) and publish a .SWF file that contains the data-source information as it applies to the placed object.

Then you can place a JPEG Object into your Flash movie, specify the preceding URL, and, when you publish the .SWF file from Flash, it will retrieve the image and embed it in your .SWF file! This type of pseudo-Generator functionality is useful for quickly creating pie chart graphics or updating a few graphics in a static Flash movie. You’ll see how to use the Generator Objects and data sources in the remainder.

Generator authoring extensions
Now that you’ve been introduced to the concepts of serving Generator Templates, all you need to know is how to make them. The Generator authoring extensions, in conjunction with Flash 5, are used to make Generator Templates. These extensions can be used to create content for Generator 2, and will work with Flash 3, 4, and 5.Although some content can be created for Flash 2, it will have limited functionality.

Unlike other products that Macromedia develops, Generator doesn’t have its own front-end application or GUI (graphical user interface). You can access Generator elements from a variety of places within the Flash 5 authoring environment. The main Generator element appears as an additional file type in the Formats tab of the File➪ Publish Settings dialog (see Figure below). When you enable the Generator Template (.SWT) check box in the Formats tab, you’ll be able to access another Publish Settings tab called Generator. This is shown below. If you do not have the Generator authoring extensions installed, then the Generator Template file format is disabled in the Formats tab.

The Publish Settings dialog, with the Generator format enabled

The Publish Settings dialog, with the Generator format enabled

The Generator tab appears within the Publish Settings

The Generator tab appears within the Publish Settings

There’s also a Generator Panel in Flash that is accessed with Windows➪Panels➪ Generator. Unless you have the authoring extensions installed, the Generator Panel will display an advertisement, shown below.

If the Generator extensions are not installed, you see an advertisement that promotes Generator (left image). If you have the extensions, the Panel is blank until a Generator Object is selected on the Stage.

Panel is blank until a Generator Object is selected on the Stage.

We’re ready to start using Flash to create Generator Templates, which are referred to as .SWT files. But before looking at an example of how Generator content is created, let’s look at the Generator Objects that are available after the extensions are installed. You can access a tool window for Generator Objects by using the Windows➪Generator Objects command.

The Generator Objects tool window

The Generator Objects tool window

The Generator Objects tool window is used to place dynamic content placeholders into Flash movies. You can drag objects from the window to the Stage. The following objects are available with Generator 2 release 2:

  • Basic Charts: This template facilitates the creation of charts, which come in various “flavors”: Bar, Stacked Bar, Line, Stacked Line, Area, Stacked Area, Scatter, and Scatter Line.
  • Insert Flash Movie: This option enables the insertion of a Flash movie from another source directly into the .SWT. In the output, Generator merges the two files into one. The source files can be external to the .SWT, either locally or remotely.
  • Insert GIF: As mentioned previously, .GIF files can also be acquired from their native format and inserted directly into the .SWT.
  • Insert JPEG: Same as Insert GIF.
  • Insert MP3 File: Just as you can import custom compressed MP3 files into Flash 5 movies, you can now dynamically pull MP3 files from your server and embed them in your Generator-created .SWF files.
  • Insert PNG: Same as Insert GIF.
  • Insert Sound: This option enables sounds to be merged into a .SWT.
  • Insert Symbol: This option enables a symbol to be taken from the .SWT’s Library and inserted directly into the .SWT file. Symbols don’t have to be taken from the same .SWT; they can be held in separate .SWTs.
  • List: Enables the display of information in either a vertical or horizontal orientation.
  • Multi-page List: This new Generator Object will make a set of pages from large lists of information. Navigation buttons (Next, Previous, and Home) are automatically added to the list.
  • Pie Chart: Enables data to be fed into a pie chart format, which can even be 3D (and exploded) to show breakdown of data.
  • Plot: Plot enables the placement of an element from the Library onto the canvas at specified coordinates. Scaling and rotation can also be applied via this template.
  • Radio Button: This new Generator Object will make a series of radio buttons that reference existing Flash symbols (that you have created in the Library) for on and off states, as well as text characteristics.
  • Scrolling List: A scrolling version of the List template. This is like the List template except that it uses one symbol to replicate information, which can be displayed either as a vertical or horizontal scrolling template.
  • Stock Chart: This option facilitates the display of data pertaining to stock market quotes. This template is able to display figures in various data sets as either: High-Low-Close, Open-High-Low, or Candlesticks.
  • Table: The Table template enables the display of textual information such as calendars and scheduling information
  • Ticker: Based on the Scrolling List, this template is especially useful for a banner header or quote ticker. The data can be displayed either vertically or horizontally

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