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A big-assed post about Fireworks

This is a post about Fireworks. Not about Photoshop, Illustrator and which is ‘best’. This is about a frustrated love hate relationship.

I love Fireworks.

It’s been my tool of choice for a rather long time. In the previous year of working for Opera, I’ve used it more than any other app. Whether I’ve been working on interactive wireframes, UI mockups, icons or final production artwork, Fireworks is the one that I go to.

When people ask why I don’t use Illustrator or Photoshop I sometimes find it hard to articulate precisely why. Illustrator is undoubtedly best for print/high-res illustrations and logos, while Photoshop is the first choice for manipulating photos, especially for print. Each have some tools from the other, but neither is intended for creating screen graphics with vector and bitmap tools in the way that Fireworks is.

It loves pixels. Photoshop and Illustrator only ‘do’ pixels when they’re coerced, and by golly do they take persuasion sometimes. For example, in Illustrator, why does a 1 pixel stroke on a pixel perfect box, placed on pixel perfect co-ordinates have sub-pixels on the top edge? Why do I have to make the stroke 0.9px instead of 1px just to get a crisp 1px edge?

Screenshot of the 1px border bug in Illustrator

This is surely the most basic of things to get right? Photoshop can do vectors and some of what Fireworks can – it just makes it harder to do it.

What’s so great about Fireworks…

Pixel-snapping vector tools aside, it’s most useful feature (that still isn’t present in anything else I’ve tried) is multiple Pages and States. Why have 45 separate files for a set of icons, when I can have one file that will export to 45 individual files? Let’s say all these icons have the same background, like a typical OS X toolbar button, and you notice a glitch. To update all those files would be tedious, but because it’s in Fireworks on a shared layer (or Master Page) one update is all that is needed. Master Pages in particular come in handy with site designs, as each page can be a different size and canvas colour.

Here’s a sample working file of Opera Unite icons:


It contains five different pages (one for each pixel resolution) and 10 icons per page, each on a different ‘state’. 50 icons, one file, one export. I’ve attempted replicating this functionality with layers, layer comps and multiple artboards, but they don’t come close.

Every time I’ve worked on wireframes and mockups, I’ve felt blessed that I’ve got symbols. Anyone that’s used Flash will know what a symbol library is, but for those that haven’t, think of them like this: Reusable content. Take the example of a form button in a site design. I can create a button symbol, specify how that graphic can be resized (with 9 slice guides), and place it anywhere in my document. Again, updating and editing is a do-once, update every instance affair.

It’s not all roses though.

I also hate Fireworks.

With a growing passion. With each update we get more tools and features that I care nothing for – Adobe Air, Bridge and Flex integration and CSS export. Worst of all it’s become remarkably unstable, particularly under Snow Leopard. It crashes, even when you don’t look at it funny.

I use it because it’s the best there is, but there are a lot of holes that need filling for me:

  • Auto-activating fonts. Whether this is down to Adobe or the developers of Font Managers I’m not sure. To get a newly activated font to show up, you need to restart Fireworks
  • Export to Illustrator. Yes, this option exists, but it ignores gradients, transparency effects, and just about everything but the paths themselves. When I know that the artwork will be needed beyond screen use, I work in Illustrator from the outset, but there isn’t always that fore-warning.
  • Placing items outside the canvas. A pasteboard area to place surplus artwork would make life a lot easier, and stop the ‘resizing the canvas cuts overlapping artwork’ pain.
  • It’s taken to CS4 to get palettes that scroll with a scrollwheel, and even now, they don’t ALL do it
  • In CS4, when using the ‘application frame’ you need to click inside the active document before commands like zoom work, otherwise it does nothing.

I really could go on, but there are also more general problems with the Adobe Creative suite:

  • Expensive – not two ways about it, it costs a few bob, and it often feels like better performance/bug fixes have to be paid for. I upgraded to CS3, solely to have a suite that worked properly on an Intel Mac. It now feels like those CS2 days are here again with Snow Leopard.
  • Bloated in feel: both with sluggish performance and barrel loads of features you never use. This can of course be entirely psychological.
  • Keyboard shortcuts deviate from the OS X standard, and from each other. Command-H should always Hide the application, Command-1 should always show the the document at 100%.
  • Installation: To reinstall CS4 recently took an hour, during which it also wants to take a big smelly dump in your Applications folder: Adobe Media Player, Adobe Drive, Adobe Bridge, Version Cue… STOP! Also – why make me close all my browsers?
  • Licensing/activation process. I know this is an anti-piracy measure, but it actually makes a cracked version more appealing.
  • Updating: Do I need to say anything here? It’s a dark land far, far away from the ease of Sparkle, where even the updater needs to update itself.
  • Then there are those glitches with artefacts which have been creeping into Fireworks of late too. Blobs of pixels that aren’t really there, but show up because the screen hasn’t been redrawn correctly. Cumulative wasted hours trying to get rid of artwork that is a phantom.

Compare these gripes with an app like Opacity. It downloads quickly, you open it and it asks you if you want to place it inside the Applications folder – done! That’s installation. As for updating, it self-updates and lets you know what’s been changed. The least amount of friction, and you’re left with the feeling of being in control of what you’ve installed.

Now, at this point, I need to confess that I’m the worlds worst beta tester. I’ve been on Fireworks beta programmes before, but haven’t had much time to give feedback or bug reports. So it’s a bit rich of me to be whining on my blog when this is all feedback that should’ve been submitted.

The problem is, after submitting the 20th crash report of the day, I’ve lost faith that anyone ever sees them or acts upon them. Overall, it feels like Fireworks is at the point of no return – no hope of it ever being fixed or improved, only that it will get more bloated, buggy, non-native and expensive. A stable version will no doubt come, but we will have to pay for it in the form of CS5. Maybe it’s not the Fireworks team that’s the problem here, maybe it’s higher up at Adobe? Maybe it’s just my setup? I can’t tell.

The bottom line is: Fireworks was my favourite, cherished tool, and it’s unreliability and issues mean my daily workflow is badly disrupted.

So, my thoughts turn to competitors. I’m not the only one, others are fed up with Fireworks and are looking for something to use instead. John Gruber, using the analogy of Filemaker’s Bento app, hits the nail on the head:

Adobe shouldn’t scrap its existing software any more than FileMaker Inc. should scrap FileMaker. But where’s Adobe’s “Bento” for bitmap and vector image editing for the Mac? The Bentos in this space are coming from indie developers with apps like Acorn, Pixelmator, Lineform, and Opacity.”

For such a long time, there haven’t been any alternatives. Various apps have been born that compete with other Adobe Suite apps, like Lineform and VectorDesigner with Illustrator, and Pixelmator and Acorn with Photoshop. Nothing for Fireworks, and yet the need for screen graphics is surely growing daily? Not only with websites, but desktop software and mobile apps.

In the meantime, Twitter clients have become ten a penny and Omnigraffle has matured to become a truly great tool for multi-page wireframes.

Recently however, three potential alternative apps have surfaced: Drawit, Acorn 2 and Opacity. I’m going to be putting these apps through their paces, to see if they can be potential alternatives. That’s for another time though, as this post has gone on long enough!

However, initial trials are showing Opacity as the most thoroughly feature-filled contender, but with Acorn sporting undoubtedly the most thoughtful interface. Acorn also has the advantage in that it’s developer, Gus Mueller, is actively seeking feedback on how it can be more of a Fireworks competitor. Drawit also has a pleasing UI, but with some issues on rendering.

I’ll report back on these when I can!

Cairo beats Safari?

As highlighted recently by Jeffrey Zeldman, Firefox text rendering lags behind that of Safari, or rather Gecko lags behind WebKit. This is because at present, Gecko browsers use the older Quickdraw graphics library, originally developed for OS 9, rather than Quartz, or the more recent Core Image libraries. Its been the main reason I prefer Omniweb or Safari over Camino/Firefox, text just looks SO much crisper and smoother.

Things are about to change however, as the switch to the Cairo graphics library in Gecko browsers will allow them to use Core Image on the OS X platform. There is already a developer release of Firefox 3.0, codenamed Gran Paradiso with Cairo enabled. You can also grab a latest trunk build of Camino, which also uses Cairo.

The improvements are already easy to see. My personal rendering bugbear has been the sub navigation on Amazon, which always renders roughly, particularly in Gecko. Compare these screenshots:

Comparison screenshots of Amazon navigation in Camino 1 Safari 2 and Camino 1.2+

Not only is Gecko with Cairo improved, it actually looks better than WebKit!. Looking at the example that Zeldman used, italics are MUCH improved also:

Zeldman.com in Camino 1.2+

It’s early days so there will be plenty of bugs, especially as the Mac platform is behind Windows and Linux, who’ve had Cairo enabled for about 6 months now. Testers are needed for OS X, so if you can lend hand, so please do grab a build and get reporting those bugs.