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.

PLAYS WELL WITH PHOTOSHOP

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.

ILLUSTRATOR YES, EPS YES, PDF NO

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.

CS3 INTERFACE?

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.