Let's get something straight. I am a huge fan of Macromedia's products. But there are easier and faster ways of getting things done in Flash than by using Macromedia Flash. Confused? Let me explain. There's Macromedia Flash, the application, and then there are the Flash movies, stored in .swf files. (To muddy the waters a bit more, Flash Projector is an .exe program with an .swf file playing inside of it.) When Macromedia opened up the .SWF format, third-party developers were able to build their own tools for creating Flash movies. As a result, a good number of non-Macromedia Flash development tools are available.
Adobe Live Motion
I'm not going to say anything blasphemous like Live Motion is better than Macromedia Flash. It's just about as expensive as Flash MX, and it doesn't sit at the cutting edge of Flash technology that Macromedia develops (Flash MX 2004, for example). For Adobe shops that are focused on design, it may make sense, as it shares the Adobe interface with applications such as Photoshop. But if you're an average, experienced Macromedia Flash developer, I see little reason to have Live Motion on your system.
Flash in a Flash
What makes the most sense to me are the SWF Flash applications/tools that allow you to do things faster than you could with Macromedia's product. This usually comes down to simple things like text effects and some basic interactivity—things you might need for a rich media banner ad or a splash page intro for a Web site.
I've been using non-Macromedia tools to build just this type of Flash text animation for a few years now. It started as just a simple way to create effects that I didn't have the skill or the time to create in Macromedia Flash. It grew to actually developing a full interactive media campaign using just these tools. To be honest, it was just plain easier and faster for what I needed to do.
I've come across at least nine programs that will do the trick. I've listed them in Table A.
Two of these programs are the real standouts. Wild FX is a favorite of many of my colleagues simply because it offers the largest array of effects. Personally, I prefer Swish and, specifically, the latest incarnation, SwishMax, just released in September 2003. I've been using it since version 1, originally because it was the only product offering a trial download that would allow me to save and export my files. My affinity for Swish continued with version 2, which expanded the UI and options to include buttons and customization of the prepacked effects. SwishMax is the ultimate version, allowing more complex development and control of the effects. Adding interactivity is ridiculously easy with the new prebuilt coding menus. Table B offers links to a few useful Swish resources.
Macromedia vs. the world?
When I tell someone that I use Swish as a Flash development tool, the comments range from "You're not really developing in Flash" to "That's not how it's done!"
Swish has saved my butt more than once with its easy-to-use interface and completely customizable effects, which you can edit in live-time preview. I don't care how good you think you are with Macromedia Flash, you just can't create effects that fast without a tool like SwishMax or Swfx. Many Flash developers will use one of these tools for just a specific effect, export the swf, and then import it back into Macromedia Flash MX.
I like to think of the effects as a sort of font library. It's all part of my toolset. For me, developing Flash without one of these tools is like being a designer without a font suitcase. You're just shortchanging yourself by not taking advantage of all the tools at your disposal. As it is, time is always tight—and I haven't got any to waste.