Vector-based Binary Formats

June 22, 1998

Lisa Rein

In order to cover this subject adequately, another group of "players" must be included. Binary graphics formats have been accomplishing most of what designers and end-users alike could want in text and animation for two years running. Examples of these are Java and Macromedia's Flash.

Binary formats such as Flash (or any number that were introduced during the plug-in craze) offer features like animation in files that are relatively small.

However, such magic comes with its price. Formats such as Flash, Quicktime movies and the like are "binary" formats made up of those nasty machine-readable-only characters that, usually, need to be interpreted by another, usually virtual machine. This means the end user has to be momentarily interrupted by the alert box itself -- there's a time lapse while the file or its player, or both, finishes downloading. With the 4.0 versions of most major browsers, this became a much less painful process for all concerned thanks to the automatic downloading capabilities enabled via scripting.

Macromedia is in the process of submitting the Flash vector specification to an appropriate standards body. They believe that the Flash format is be very complimentary to PGML and any other text-based markup languages.

Flash graphics or animations are scalable and can carry XML metadata just as well as PGML or other text formats. In other words, scalability is inherent in vector-based graphics, whether binary or textual. But remember, although binary formats can be scaled via stylesheets, they cannot be styled.

The Flash or "SWiF" file format was quite the prize of its original owners: FutureSplash, Inc. The Futuresplash Animator product was immensely innovative for its time, providing HTML authors with everything from cut and paste cross-browser scripting to a Director-like production environment, to fully timecoded and synchronized multimedia presentations.

All this despite the fact that the size of its native files were 5 to 20 times smaller than that of Macromedia Director's native "DIR" files. (Although initially, "SWiF" files were not able to contain as much media information as the "DIR" format.)

Futuresplash Animator had not even been out six months when Futuresplash, Inc. was acquired by Macromedia, Inc. (December 1996). Macromedia immediately renamed the product "Flash." Within a few months, Flash's ".SWiF" files could do everything of their bulky ".DIR" counterparts, and ever since Director 6.0 was released last summer, Flash's "SWiF" files became Director's native file format.

In the meantime, however, "plug-ins" have become a dirty word. One of the advantages that PGML claims to have over Flash as a vector format is that it would not require such a plug-in, despite parallel announcements made by Adobe that soon PGML-related plug-ins, ActiveX controls and other components will be made available to download from its Web site.

Macromedia contends that its Flash player is not a plug-in, due to the fact that its player would be downloaded with whatever application was using the graphics, rather than being downloaded into the browser and remaining on the end-user's machine after usage.

Macromedia on Flash

Macromedia feels very strongly that a binary vector format is crucial to the future of the Internet. They say the Web has a real need for a standardized binary format for graphics by virtue of the compactness and performance that it affords.

According to Kevin Lynch, vice president and general manager of Internet and Multimedia Authoring at Macromedia:

"We recognize the significance of the developing XML model and are determined to ensure that Flash is part of the XML standard. We opened up our Flash file format (SWF) to provide a binary runtime format on the Web -- SWF is to vectors as GIF is to bitmaps -- but we also believe it's important to have a future text format for vectors so that a combination of binary and text formats can be used together, chosen by designers according to what's most appropriate for their work, and that the same will be true for vector design -- both a compact binary standard and a larger text standard will be available.

"Macromedia is contributing the open .SWF vector format to the Web, and we hope it will be widely used as the compact binary standard. Its proven performance and small size enable great designs to transmit quickly over 28.8 modems.

"We also believe it's important to have a future text format for vectors, and Macromedia is working to help define this and will be participating as standards working groups are formed. Such a format will be useful in allowing scripts to modify content and to exchange designs between tools. We also believe that designers will be interested in compressing this format to the binary form to get the smallest possible size on their Web pages, just as everyone compresses GIFs today."