Fireworks CS3 Is Looking For Its Niche

When Adobe purchased Macromedia, the industry knew some applications would live and some would die. This is the story of one that stayed alive.

Fireworks CS3 box

We’ve seen big changes in the graphic and web design industry thanks to Adobe’s acquisition of Macromedia:

That leaves one more major Macromedia application: Fireworks, which has long been around as a web graphics editor but has always been overshadowed by Photoshop and its sister application ImageReady. Now ImageReady is gone and Photoshop CS3 sports most of that application’s web graphic features—so what of Fireworks? Many people expected it to go away quietly like Freehand did, but Adobe surprisingly repositioned it as a website prototyping tool. I honestly did not think Fireworks would remain in Adobe’s stable of products—especially with Photoshop towering over everything—but Adobe has had quite a few surprises for us during the CS3 launch and the absorption of Macromedia’s products into its own pipeline.

I have been using Fireworks CS3 for a few things both familiar (web graphics, animations) and not (site prototypes), and in general I find it to be an adequate product well-suited for web designers, but much of it seems like a warmed-over Fireworks 8. It is a disappointment to work with an Adobe application that looks and feels almost exactly like its predecessor—and I am not a fan of Macromedia’s panels and interface, so this is a negative for me. Rather than continue to generalize, let’s look at specific features new to Fireworks CS3.


I think that Adobe’s easiest fix with CS3 was cross-application importing and exporting: now that all the applications were in their hands, it was easier to get rid of the problems facing those importing Illustrator graphics into Flash or Photoshop files into Dreamweaver. Bringing Photoshop files into Fireworks was another sticky point, and that has been resolved with CS3—you can now open Photoshop files easily and retain the layers, sublayers, layer groups, layer effects, and layer masks. Practically everything created in Photoshop is recognized by Fireworks. One mistranslation happens with vector masks, which are converted into bitmap masks by Fireworks even though it can handle vectors. Another surprising imperfection is Fireworks’ handling of layer effects: while the application does a good job recreating any effects thrown at it, its effects interface makes it tough to work with them in Fireworks. You’ll find these effects bundled under the name “Photoshop Live Effects” in the Filters drop-down menu, and the settings and controls are dumbed down—especially effects like Bevel and Emboss, which have many controls. See Figures 1 and 2 for a comparison, which doesn’t even show the Contour and Texture panels available in Photoshop. If you want to use effects to the fullest, it’s practically imperative to edit them in Photoshop and bring them into Fireworks only after the final revision has been made.

fig1Figure 1: Fireworks’ Bevel and Emboss interface.

fig2Figure 2: Photoshop’s Bevel and Emboss interface.


Fireworks CS3 can also work with native Illustrator files and retain things such as layers, groups, and colors. It definitely helps when building web graphics, and it’s insanely easy: just open the Illustrator file normally. This works with native Illustrator and EPS files, and it works well with paths, live text, strokes, fills, RGB colors, transparency settings and linked images as well as the layer structure. I was surprised to discover that Fireworks has trouble opening PDF files, which are converted to bitmap when opened and in my experience had big trouble displaying text, often using random characters instead of what was there. Note also that, if you try to save any of these files within Fireworks, you will probably be given a dialog box that gives you only one file format option: PNG, Fireworks’ standard web graphic format. You can use File –> Save As… and get more options, but the only natural option for Illustrator available is Illustrator 8—no EPS, no PDF. As with Photoshop, if you’re working with both application in your workflow it makes the most sense to use Illustrator first and bring your file into Fireworks only after revisions to the graphic are finished. Still, I am happy to see it so easy for Photoshop and Illustrator graphics to work within Fireworks.


A major disappointment with Fireworks is its evident lack of interface development. CS3’s new interface has been trumpeted loud and clear in its media coverage, and major CS3 applications like Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash have all carried the cause forward with its consistent and thorough application of the new panel interface, panel docks and icons. Despite its criticisms, it’s a good interface—a real solution to the glut of palettes we’re used to.

However, Fireworks has made absolutely no improvements to its interface—it’s practically the same interface you’ll remember from Macromedia Fireworks 8, its predecessor. The Macromedia interface was never that good: it’s difficult to move panels around and dock them with other panels, the panel buttons and layout make controls difficult to find and use properly, and—worst of all—it was never quite the same as Adobe’s interface. Working with an effect in Fireworks was not the same as the equivalent in Photoshop. Now we have both products being produced by the same company—and nothing has changed.

The end result is a half-baked interface that reflects very poorly on Fireworks. I learned from Danielle Beaumont (Fireworks product manager) that, because of limited time and engineers working on Fireworks, a choice had to be made between remaking the application’s interface or adding new features that would position Fireworks as a prototyping tool. The team chose the latter, and I think it was the right decision. I also think that Fireworks CS3 would have been a greater product if the resources were available to achieve both an interface rebuild and addition of prototyping features.

5 thoughts on “Fireworks CS3 Is Looking For Its Niche”

  1. Hi Jeremy,

    It’s nice to see Designorati talk about Fireworks and let me thank you
    for mentioning my article in your review. You have to be aware that I
    wrote that piece quite a while ago when the current version of Fireworks
    was MX 2004 and Photoshop was at version 7. That explains some of the
    points I was making about Photoshop.

    Regarding your review, I don’t think you will be surprised to know that
    I disagree with many of your points, especially your insistence at
    positioning Fireworks as a “niche” product. I really could not disagree
    more with that statement.

    I strongly believe that the main reason Fireworks has not been more
    widely adopted by designers for actual creative work at this point is
    the former Macromedia’s ineptitude at marketing it correctly. It’s
    certainly not Fireworks’ toolset or workflow that is lacking, especially
    not now with CS3. It’s not perfect, but it offers a an intuitive,
    flexible and powerful workflow that no other application I know of offers.

    Fireworks has been my main creative tool for almost 10 years now. It has
    replaced Photoshop in a part of my process where I had always found
    Photoshop to be incredibly awkward for many of the reasons I stated in
    my article. Even with the improvements in Photoshop over the years which
    do include a lot of non-destructive editing features, I have always felt
    that Photoshop is a terrible design and layout tool by its very nature
    as a raster based editor. To me, any vector based application does a
    better job of any kind of layout than Photoshop as they are just much
    better suited to these kinds of tasks.

    If Fireworks didn’t exist, I’d probably have switched my Web design
    workflow to Illustrator around the same time I discovered Fireworks.
    It’s just quicker and more flexible for me but it may just boil down to
    what we feel comfortable with as well as our design styles.

    I do agree with you about Fireworks CS3’s lack of UI improvements
    though. I used to be a rabid fan of the Macromedia interface but I have
    used and loved Adobe software for even longer. What I love in the new
    CS3 UI is that I think it has successfully “melded” the best of both
    world in a way that is vastly superior to anything both Macromedia and
    Adobe have done before. To me this is especially true in InDesign and

    Hopefully Fireworks will get the same treatment in CS4 and it may even
    result in more people adopting it for a lot more than a mere ImageReady
    “replacement” which in my view is almost an insult to Fireworks ;-)

  2. As a long time Fireworks user/web designer, and as someone who has tried Photoshop AND Fireworks before choosing a preferred tool for web graphic design work, I’d like to add here that Fireworks is (in my opinion) a much more flexible tool for design intended for screen, than Photoshop is!

    The vector tools of Fireworks are much better.

    The interface is much easier to grasp at its basics than the clumsy and heavy PS interface.

    All effects are non-destructible, all vectors and options are retained – not like in Photoshop.

    The flexibility of Fireworks is very good.

    You can create a website design ONLY with vectors and effects, and everything will be editable after you save the PNG. In Photoshop you’ll loose a lot of the editability due to some bitmap convertion…

    Finally, let me repeat that FW is NOT a niche product, but a full-power full-featured graphic design app and it’ll become even more powerful in the time to come – hopefully around v. CS4!

    Cheers, my $0.02 :)

    PS Ah, and btw, Macromedia’s interface (Flash, Fireworks, DreamWeaver) is so much better than Adobe user-unfriendly interface – best example – Photoshop! :-D The interface is the reason while 3-4 years ago I’ve chosen FW and not PS!

  3. Fireworks is not one of the best tool for web but it IS THE BEST!!!
    Photoshop compared to fireworks….

    Too slow… Panels???? Beurrrrkkkkkkk!!!!!! SPIT IT OUT!!!!!

    I’ve been using fireworks for 5yrs already…. Tried Photoshop!!!! Hmmmmm the first look at it gave me the feeling “Beuurrrrrrrkkkkkk I’ll stay with fireworks!!!!” N till date i’ve never used photoshop…. Reasons: It is not user friendly, Anything done in photoshop is possible in fireworks and fireworks seems better

  4. I agree wholeheartedly, Photoshop is extremely unintuitive. Why do so may web designers use PS when Adobe’s own Fireworks is so much better for the job?

    Just the fact that you’re working in vectors and able to resize accurately at the behest of the client is a clincher.

    I can’t help but think that web design has been ‘taken over’ by illustrators and print designers who are comfortable with PS and as a majority (and no small part by Adobe’s neglect) it has now become the defacto standard and doesn’t deserve it.

    PS is a photo editor – the clue is on the name. Yes it can do a lot more but features have been added piecemeal to the point where it is just plain hard to use.

    As a freelancer who has always used Fireworks and who now wants to re-enter mainstream employment getting to grips with PS is just plain frustrating.

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