--Alan Zisman

Adobe's new ImageReady gives Web designers a virtual Swiss army knife of creative tools

They say you can tell the professionals by their tools. And the professionals who have been trying to make graphics for the Web have needed a lot of tools.

Even if they've used a power-program such as Adobe Photo-Shop, they've usually had to get a bunch of additional programs: software to convert pictures to the file formats viewable in Web browsers; something to shrink file sizes so the images show up faster; another program to optimize the palette so the picture will look the same on Macs and Windows systems, or whether the computer is set to display hundreds, thousands or millions of colours; another tool to create image maps -- those pictures with hot spots that, when clicked, link you to other pages; yet another to create animations.

Up to now, many of these tools have come from shareware authors, while others were provided as specialized, high-priced tools such as deBabelizer.

The folks at Adobe smelled a product opportunity here. With their newly released Image-Ready, in virtually identical Macintosh and Windows versions, they have tried to produce the Swiss army knife of Web graphics software.

Starting up ImageReady, you'd be excused for thinking it was a copy of Adobe's well-respected PhotoShop. They look almost identical: the same palettes, the same painting tools and icons, many of the same add-in
filters. In fact, if you've just spent $900 or so buying a new copy of PhotoShop, you might wonder whether you could have spent $300 for this program instead.

Look more closely. PhotoShop users will notice there are fewer drawing tools, fewer filters (though you can easily make a link to use your PhotoShop add-ins here, too). None of the big improvements in the newest version of PhotoShop are included. Don't bother looking for the new Magic Lasso tool or 100-step Undo or fancy text effects. Some other standard tools are gone, too. No clone tool, no airbrush, for example. In short, don't throw away your copy of PhotoShop.

Instead, ImageReady adds most of the features missing from PhotoShop to work with graphics on the Web. Especially nice is the way that users can quickly view different versions of the same file. For instance you can check out the same picture with different rates of compression. This makes it possible to find a happy trade-off between image quality and file size. Or see how a picture, originally with millions of colours, will look when it's viewed on a monitor with only 256 colours or the 216-colour palette common to Macs and PCs. You can check how long it will take for the file to appear, depending on modem speed.

Web designers tend to work on powerful, high-end systems. All too often, those designers ignore the fact that most users view their pages on 14- or 15-inch monitors set to display 256 colours. And they download the page with a 28.8 or 33.6 kbs modem.

With ImageReady, the graphic can be previewed in any browser software installed on the computer. And if you continue to use the same set of optimizations, the settings can be saved as a 'Drop-
let.' Drag a bunch of image icons and drop them onto a Droplet, and it automatically opens ImageReady, and applies the changes to each batch of files. As in PhotoShop 4.0, there's an Action palette to record and play back a series of commands.

The program makes clever use of PhotoShop's layers to make it easy to create image maps and animations, features that, until now, required specialized software (or at least separate
add-in filters). As in fancier, dedicated animation programs, a Tween function can be used to blend animation frames for smoother playback. Changes can be applied to a single frame or across all the frames in the animation. An image can be sliced into pieces, making it easy to divide it up among cells in a table.

Adobe's big competition is Macromedia. Where Adobe offers Illustrator, Macromedia offers Freehand. Macromedia's answer to ImageReady is Fireworks, its take on the Swiss army knife concept. Fireworks offers even more features, with perhaps a more confusing interface, at a somewhat higher price.

But don't take my word for it. Both programs are available in fully functional 30-day demo versions, at their companies' respective Web sites.*

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan