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MicroSites: Easy to Make, Hard to See

Want to make professional-looking banners for the Web that are complete with animations? Ged Bauer puts this new banner-creating software, MicroSites, to the test.

As the Internet expands, software and hardware companies are fighting for standards. In the realm of animation for the Web, there are quite a few formats that have seemed to pull away. Zapa Digital Arts, a company based in Tel Aviv, Israel and California, U.S.A., now offers an animation solution aimed at small companies called MicroSites. The idea is to provide an easy-to-use program that develops sophisticated, Java-based animations for use as banner ads.

Here's a quick overview of animation on the Web. The main formats are Gif89a Animations, Shockwave, Java, and newcomers Flash and Dynamic HTML. Gif89a Animations are the most simple and crude of all categories, but require no plug-in and have zero complications. Shockwave produces sophisticated interactive animations that stem from the multimedia authoring of Macromedia's Director. However, they require a plug in for your Internet browser. Java-based animations, which is what MicroSites uses, are built on the programming language of JAVA, a highly powerful and complex programming code. Java support was integrated into Netscape and Internet Explorer so the problems that result from an "after-market" plug-in do not manifest themselves. Flash is another format offered by Macromedia, and uses vector-based objects to create multimedia animations. It also uses a plug-in, and so conflicts and browser crashes are a very real possibility. Dynamic HTML (DHTML) is a new scripting language based on HTML, that is extremely impressive and powerful. Unfortunately, it only gets support from the latest 4.0 versions of Internet Explorer, and limited support from Netscape.

In a broad comparison, Java is a good format to go with for now. By choosing Java, MicroSites makes a compromise between the complexity of Shockwave and Flash, and the simplicity and reliability of a Gif89a Animation. Java is a useful programming language and will probably never disappear.

MicroSites' Library of animation and clip art.

MicroSites' Library of animation and clip art.

Getting Started

When I opened MicroSites, the first thing I noticed is its Director-like interface. It has a stage, where you layout your elements, and a cast, where it lists your elements with a thumbnail. It also has an effect menu, where you control--you guessed it--any special effects you apply to your cast. All other options are accessed through pop-up windows. Visually the workspace is very uncluttered. I do not know if the Director-style interface is the most intuitive, after all, this product is aimed at small businesses. Most small business owners have no familiarity with a professional multimedia authoring tool like Director so the idea of making it synonymous to make it easy to use is lost. It would be interesting to see a tool that strayed from this type of interface, but standards are standards.

If you feel totally lost when you open up the program you can always choose a template from which to build your animation. Zapa also provides a few tutorials to get you started. I think a good effort has been made to help an inexperienced user get through the program until they arrive at something they like. After all, this software is created for people who cannot afford to hire an outside artist/programmer or take the time to use a program like Director or learn Java code.

Zapa Digital Arts provides technical support for any problems you may have in using the program. Along with the updated graphics and banner templates available on their site, they also provide information on where you can place your new banner ad. I would not be surprised if this "turnkey" concept, an expression used to describe a complete system that covers all aspects of a process, catches on. This would be a good way for software developers to gain leverage over their competitors. After all, the less a customer has to do for himself, the more valuable the investment in a certain piece of software becomes. This is a good strategy for Zapa.

Rolling Up the Sleeves

Now to the good part; building an actual banner. With a quick glance through the tutorial, I was able to begin my personal MicroSite, an ad for Animation World Magazine.

My idea was to pose the question, "What do you read to keep up on the animation industry?" Then have my banner answer, "Animation World Magazine." A simple concept, and a good way to see how functional a program really is. How will I know what the program is truly capable of if I just follow the tutorial? I started with my copy. Adding a text item was easy. A mere click on a button brings up a dialog box, just like one we've seen millions of times before, into which to type the text. You can then choose your font, size, etc. Importing a graphic is easy too. One can choose from large collections of pre-made images and animations which are included with the program, as well as import your own. You can also obtain free updates from the Zapa web site. I tracked down an animation included with the program. It was a man in a suit reading a newspaper. How convenient. One can also include sounds for an enhanced multimedia experience, but I decided to keep it simple.

The Stage, the main working interface in MicroSites.

The Stage, the main working interface in MicroSites.

I choose a typewriter effect for my text. It animates the text on the banner so it looks like it is being typed. What will they think of next? As the statement wrote itself from right to left, the animation of the man reading the newspaper slid across the screen just a step ahead of the letters. Adding motion was fairly easy as well. Just a click and drag process. From there you can adjust the speed at which the object moves, and the rate of the animation itself. (I could make our newspaper reader look like he had 32 cups of coffee!) Speaking of animations, MicroSites also allows you to import a series of frames to build your own animations, much like you would when building a Gif89a Animation. You can then include them on your banner.

I am off to a good start and everything has flowed pretty seamlessly. The program has responded to my every need without a problem. Now that my banner has posed its question ("What do you read to keep up on the animation industry?"), it needs to answer. So after the copy stays on screen long enough to read, it needs to disappear. No problem, just make a timed event for it to hide the item. Timed events are added through a second menu brought up by clicking on one of the three convenient editing buttons attached to each item. Voila! It's gone. At this point, I add the text that says, "Animation World Magazine," and command it to appear when the first line disappears. Easy enough, just add a timed event called, `replace text,' and my banner is complete. With little time and trouble, I have given life to an artistic vision.

The Evaluation

The program delivered on its claim of ease of use, the only major drawback I found was that you could not position an item outside of the defined stage area. This means that if you wanted to fly an item in and out of the banner, or just have it start from the outside and slide into visibility, you would have no control once it left the banner area. This is an inconvenience, making certain projects difficult.

I also decided to check out Zapa's web site to see a few examples of what they had come up with for banners. Clearly if someone was going to build cool banners with this program, it was going to be them. Unfortunately, the banners on their pages took awhile to download, and when they did, they played awfully slow. Eventually, my browser crashed.

I found MicroSites an easy to use program, and I think someone with minimal graphics or animation experience could pick it up without too much trouble. The creative possibilities are wide open, with lots of options from which to choose. The included clip art and animations are useful, and the promise of free updates makes the program worthwhile. The sales and marketing support shows Zapa's intention to cater to the small business, which is smart thinking in the age of on-line commerce. Small businesses have flourished on the `Net, because one doesn't need large amounts of start-up capital in order to distribute goods and services.

On the technical side, I am hesitant. The final output of the program is good but shaky. These Java applet banners do not quite seamlessly blend in on a page. It's rare that you would spend more than 30 seconds looking at a web page unless you were reading some text, and that is what it takes for a MicroSites' banner to load. A standard GIF89a Animation can be optimized to load in less than half that time. You may not get all the options, but you get your message across before the user decides to move on. Java is integrated into current browsers, but what about the people who surf with older browsers? Java has also been known to cause freezes and crashes on computers. My recommendation is to view the banners on-line at Zapa's site, and decide for yourself how well they get a message across.

MicroSites is published by Zapa Digital Arts and is a PC CD-ROM for Windows 95 or NT. Retail: $99.95. http://www.zapadigital.com

Ged Bauer is webmaster and graphic designer of Animation World Network. He also has worked for Star Media Systems on Power Surge, a series of packaged video transitions for non-linear editing software.

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