Flash at the Crossroads

Macromedia Flash is at the crossroads – a many optioned crossroads. First and foremost, Flash is still a relatively young and fast evolving technology. For example, it took on a complete programming model with versions 4 and 5 while video and sophisticated audio streaming plus remoting and Web Services has been spread over the MX and MX2004. So given the rapid change in those sectors in the overall industry it is surprising that Flash has not seen an upgrade in two years. So here are some of the major influences coming in on Macromedia and their expanding constituency of Flash developers:
1)Flash is becoming more pervasive in web applications both as complete Flash based sites and as an object imbedded within a page or as popup dialog (see NewYorkTimes reporting by Nicholas Kristoff for some very effective examples of pop up Flash usage). But these uses are quite divergent with no dominant and leading usage.
2)Flash is no longer identified as being the sole or leading candidate for Rich Internet Applications:
– Microsoft is working overtime to build an infrastructure around Avalon+Indigo, Office and their Smart Client vision for where Presentation Layer computing should be done;
– J2ME is starting to make serious in roads on mobile clients for gaming and other “visual apps”. And those that fit will find easy porting to Linux, Mac, Windows devices or desktops;
-AJAX has in one years time utterly re-energized the DHTML framework and thus plain ordinary HTML.
3)Macromedia is being caught mid-tennis-court vulnerable with its own Flash MX product. It is not serious enough as an IDE for developers(really poor editing and debugging frameworks – say nothing about visual drag and drop design so developers must move on to Flex, Central, Laszlo, or other tools).Yet in the process of meeting developers basic API needs with Flash Remote, Communication Processor, and new 7 features and improved ActionScript – Flash MX alienates its own earliest constituency – Creative Designers. For the last 3 versions of Flash, designers have seen the lions share of improvements devoted to developers. Designers I talk to use Swishzone Swishmax, eRains Swift 3D or MindAvenues Axel as much as they use Flash MX.
4)Flash and Open is becoming a mixed message. For example, Macromedia has locked tight the .FLA file format, preventing third parties from being able to integrate easily and tightly with Flash MX (true there is a Flash extensibility API – but that is major step that only 8 vendors have chosen to take). Access to a Flash Community Process similar to the Java Community Process is simply not happening except in an informal way. Yet, clearly Macromedia needs to enlist major developers like Borland, AutoDesk, ESRI, RealBasic, Alias WaveFront, etc into the Flash camp.
5)The Adobe acquisition of Macromedia changes the ballgame. PDF and Flash share some remarkably close attributes as universal smart object containers:
– both are able to store fonts, bitmap and vector images, and audio with great fidelity.
PDF has better print control over its contents; Flash has better compression;
-both have basic security and access control mechanisms built in.
PDF has much greater flexibility with roles, barcodes and digital signatures;
-both have the ability to store animations and video.
PDF is new to the game; Flash is getting much better fast with streaming especially;
-both use JavaScript as their external macro IDE control scripting language and internal developer language for their respective containers. Flash is closer to ECMAScript 2.0 standard; but neither supports the important E4X JavaScript XML processing extensions;
-both use XML and Web Services as a means of communicating to and from the contents of their container;
-both are used in both Web and standalone environments.
Flash has a smaller web footprint and can be used and embedded in more contexts.
So working out the respective roles of Flash and PDF will determine the success of the Adobe and Macromedia merger.

So there are at least five different crossroads forces pulling on Flash and its developers. We already know from Colin Moock and other Flash weblogs that there are some major designer features coming into the Flash Player. However, we dont know yet if the tentative Flash Pro versus Flash will become a Flash Developer and Flash Designer dichotomy. As well how Flash gets out into the developer community through Open Source or 3rd parties or some community program will determine Flashs success in being adopted by a wider development community. Finally, as noted above, Flash and PDF – their roles and futures in the “new Adobe” will be crucial to the success of the merger. So watch over the summer as Macromedia takes away the veils on what should prove to be a watershed upgrade(s) to Flash.

(c)JBSurveyer 2005