NETWORK New multimedia authoring programs are helping to make the programmer's job a lot easier. By George Cole
There was a time when multimedia developers seemingly required two brains and three degrees in programming. Converting a mixture of sound, pictures, text and data into an informative and engaging program is no mean task. Add to this a complex interactive program, pull-down menus and hot-spots (parts of the computer screen that react when you click on them), and you can see why multimedia "authoring" was once the province of a tiny few.

But a large number of today's multimedia authoring systems require few, if any, programming skills. Many simply involve moving pictures or icons across a screen and on to an electronic storyboard to build up the multimedia program.

Many of the latest multimedia authoring programs use "object-orientated" programming, for example, mFactory's mTropolis. Here, all the components of the program (such as the sound, pictures and interactive links) are represented as objects, or chunks of computer code. The various objects can be mixed and matched in a variety of ways, offering a more flexible way of developing programs. Abbey Road Interactive, which has been set up by EMI to develop interactive music CDs and Net pages, is using mTropolis to develop its products.

As more multimedia displays appear on the Internet, multimedia developers are needing to use new skills. The Net was never designed for multimedia. Its programming language, HTML, is really a system for putting text and still pictures on a computer screen. But sound, animations and video can be added to Web pages by using "plug-ins", extra software which is downloaded on to a computer before running the multimedia component. Although plug- ins are useful, they take time to download and install, and most only work with particular computer platforms or Web browser software.

But Sun Microsystems has developed Java, a programming language that creates applets, small chunks of code that can run a program (such as an animation) within a Web page. The good news for end-users is that the applet is loaded automatically and works with various computer systems. The bad news for developers is that Java requires some mean programming skills.

"We recently had a seminar with over 100 multimedia developers and asked how many of them had been asked to produce Web pages," says Andy Huffman, president and chief executive of AimTech, "and everyone put up their hands. Then we asked how many had experience with C-programming [a complex language], and only around 10 per cent had. Many multimedia developers are creative people who lack the technical skills required for programming."

AimTech has developed Jamba, an easy-to-use Java programming system. It also uses an object-orientated system, so users can select the items they want to use. Jamba is being aimed at the corporate market, says Huffman. There are also many multimedia authoring programs aimed at home and school users. These also use a point-and-click authoring system. In many ways, multimedia authoring has gone the way of desktop publishing, which has allowed many people to create their own magazines and booklets on a PC.

But in the same way that a DTP system can't turn us into Nobel prize- winning authors, so the latest simple-to-use multimedia authoring systems are no substitute for the creative flair and design skills needed to produce a high-quality multimedia program.

mFactory: 0181-288 9994.

AimTech: 0171-702 1575.