Sunday, May 29, 2011

Rich Internet Applications does flash have a future?


There was a flurry of opinions flying about when HTML 5 started to become a reality, surrounding the future of Flash. Headlines such as "Flash is dead" abounded. But all of these seemed focused on two things a) Video in the page, b) Canvas allowing you to draw in the page. All great red-top tabloid style opinions but everything seemed to calm down. Visiting Adobe's website the other day I found the customer experience to be pretty poor (especially the flash based shopping cart) which got me thinking.

In m view Flash has a challenging future and could over time wither slowly and painfully, I am not sure it will die off, but I am pretty sure it is going to become less relevant. Whether this is a problem for Adobe or not I don't know as I would believe that as they are dominant in the web developer/designer space if one of their many tools declines will it impact overall revenue?

I think their problem is maintaining relevancy sufficiently to get designer/developers to continue to buy the tool. Flash has historically always delivered features which are "hard" to achieve with any other technology (and sometimes in it's history nigh on impossible), but things move on. If we look at a few examples of this taking a few of the main features we can see why it might be running out of steam

Animation

The first key feature was people able to build highly animated graphics using a graphical tool designers could understand. Fairly uniquely this  could also be achieved using vector graphics ensuring movie size was low. I remember when dial-up was still prevalent when coming across a flash movie was a pain because many designers shunned doing everything in vectors and plastered their animations with heavy bitmaps making download speed awful. Broadband has alleviated that problem.

This was quickly followed by the curse of the "skip intro" some meaningless animation which would play before you entered the site, from a customer experience perspective a total waste of time.

Then came the flash based website. Popular for agencies and automotives, I have always been against building most websites in Flash, it is a ridiculous thing to do from so many angles that I won't bore you with them here. Being fair there are some edge cases where it makes sense but in most main websites it just doesn't stack up.

Finally (not in chronological order) the ad networks start accepting flash and online advertising started to benefit from being able to present compelling content.

Of all of the above the only sensible things remaining relevant today are animations inside a website and Flash advertising.

Rich Internet Applications

I could be wrong but I believe Macromedia came up with (or at least pushed) the RIA phrase. I was there at the time and there was some pretty good stuff. Jeremy Allaire was still in the tech seat after the acquisition of Allaire (ColdFusion) . This was the forerunner to AJAX (we could call it AFAX ;-) ).

There was good stuff in here. Consumption of WebServices, ability to grab content from a page using normal HTTP requests (some of which was already in Flash before this) , a set of standard controls like fields and drop downs etc. and a beefing up of the scripting language.

This was cool. for the first time it was pretty easy to build an application which didn't need to refresh the page to do something.

Then to cap it all Flash could handle video, properly.  So in one fail swoop there was one tool that could deliver great facilities across all browsers.

There was only one real problem, the type of development knowledge required rested with a smaller fraternity of the Flash development community, those who could script and design. For a traditional developer (VB type skills) the tool was too weird. I always thought (and wrote to Jeremy Allaire on this) that if they had produced a VB like Tool interface for developers they might have got more adoption.

But along comes AJAX and worse still (for Flash) libraries like jQuery and mootols, Flash may have some unique features that might make it better, but in reality for most situations the free technology would suffice and have advantages. Even with the addition of Adobe Flex which was a server side solution for building RIAs with Flash presentation, there are probably more cases for using the freely available tech than Flash.

So this leaves Flash in the territory of Video only. A bit harsh perhaps, but to be fair there are applications where only Flash will do. One example that is a fantastic demonstration for this is KickApps widget studio (now renamed to app studio). It would be pretty impossible to build such an awesome online tool without Flash. But my point is about relevancy the times you need Flash are more specialist situations.

Mobile

This is where I think Macromedia/Adobe made a huge mistake (hindsight is 20/20 vision, I couldn't see it at the time). Back in the day when mobile UI's where dire, Flash had a place as a solution for the mobile manufacturers. The trouble is, Macromedia were then after a revenue stream from embedding flash in devices. So instead of continuing their ubiquity play by being on every browser (by being free) they didn't get much traction in the mobile market. Then the game changing iPhone came along and they weren't in play. Even now for some inexplicable reason they aren't allowed on the apple IOS platforms.

Some may argue that it's OK because Flash is on Andriod, but website publishers would be mad not to ignore the lucrative iPad and iPhone user base (even if Android over takes IOSIOS why would I bother with Flash ?


What does the future hold

So there it is. Flash's relevancy could shrink and more importantly if it's ubiquity on devices shrinks, then it will become just another technology to choose from. Sure it's the Daddy when it comes to animation and until corporates distribute a modern enough browser to handle HTML 5 in their standard desktops it is safe ('ish). But with mobile and tablets driving website design more. I wonder whether it will be as relevant as it needs to be in a few years time.

For me I wouldn't use Flash for Android and IOS as it's just not worth the hassle and the moment and as soon as IE 9 hits the majority of corporate desktops then I would expect Flash's relevancy to drop. I suppose the only saving grace is that alot of corporate desktops are Windows XP which (rumour has it) will not support IE 9.

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