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Flash in the pan?

Flash is probably the most maligned bit of software on the web, most recently being excluded from Apple’s mobile platforms (iPod/iPhone and iPad), as a security risk (though as it also competes directly with ‘apps’, Apple gains a commercial advantage in banning it from the platform). As it is no-longer able to reach all browsers, we have been forced to review our own association with Flash, an association that goes back to version 3 in 1999…

First, it is important to understand why we got involved with developing Flash applications in the first place. Back in ’99 it was just becoming popular to have a phone modem: Capable of transfer rates of up to 56kB/s, these devices restricted the desirable size of a web page to a total of 20kB – and that included your images! If you could get under this magic number you could more-or-less guarantee that your visitor would get the home page of your site within a second of making the request. This placed a premium on tiny, grainy graphics with the life compressed out of them.

Anything that allowed you to fill the screen with colour and movement was simply a killer app., and that killer app. was Macromedia’s Flash. Working in a vector graphic format to keep the download file size small, simple tweening algorithms allowed you to move graphics about within the Flash player window, and respond to mouse commands. As a quick comparison, a recent site banner we’ve designed has a total file size of 4.57kB in Flash, compared to 24.9kB as a compressed bitmap graphic. We can beat the 1999 total web-page download size rule with ease! In addition to a fast download, however, Flash offered the opportunity to stream your download – this means that you could put something simple up quickly, and download bigger files in the background – and so the loading screen was born…

From 1999 to the present Flash has been a stable platform for images, animation and interactives – very much more so than the HTML standard (or lack of it) offered by different browser incarnations! This is important as the development of interactive media is undoubtedly one of the most expensive parts of your website, as long as a browser offered Flash we could get content out to it and expect it to behave in a reproducible manner. It is only with ‘Web 2’ that Javascript has offered the same level of dependability and some of the interactive capability. Prior to 2006, adding any significant amount of Javascript to a website to allow core functionality simply increased the cost of developing it, as it had to be tested in every browser that your visitor might use. Commonly Javascript development multiplied the cost of a ‘simple’ site by a factor of 2 or 3; Flash was cheap by comparison!

As a killer app. Flash is used everywhere on the web, and familiarity has bred contempt: Far from being a sign of something exciting to come, the loading screen is the kiss of death for many websites whose designers have not realised that the rotating whirly wotsit and the message ‘please wait…’ is not what most visitors want to see! Plus the banner (and skyscraper and pop-up) advertisement. They pay for the content you are looking at, but you don’t want to see them, we browse with NoScript turned on to stop these things downloading stuff we don’t want onto our computer.

But has Flash evolved over this time? – Is it still just a way of making clean graphics with tiny download sizes? Behind the scenes Flash has evolved, slowly. Its scripting engine has undergone three significant overhauls, each of which has imposed significant learning barriers to existing developers. At the end of this process, however, it does not have anything better than the most primitive 3D support. It has lost its capability as a document reader (FlashPaper). Due to its long term stability as a platform, solid set of video compression codecs and progressive download capability, however, it has taken centre stage as the app of choice for launching video.

How much of a future does Flash have as a web platform? HTML5 offers many of the abilities that were Flash’s killer apps: Vector graphics and progressive video download, at the moment these are supplementary to the Flash object, but are likely to compete more aggressively as HTML5 becomes an accepted standard (it is worth noting that there is no HTML5 standard yet, though there is agreement on what a lot of this standard should look like when it is completed!).

A lot will depend on Adobe’s commitment to keeping Flash going. Here the commercial analysis is pretty straight-forward: The Flash player that works in people’s browsers is paid for by Flash developers buying the application that creates Flash content, so if developers start looking at alternatives in significant numbers, then the writing is on the wall… Is Adobe doing enough to keep us on side, is Flash still the killer app?

There is some good news: A recent hook-up between Google and Adobe carried out very extensive security tests on Flash as it is deployed in the field. This has resulted in some important security updates for Flash Player over the last week or two (so if you get the notice to upgrade your version of Flash player – do so!). Will this be as secure as the HTML5 enabled browser? – A visible commitment to testing for vulnerabilities is a good sign for the moment, but might the Flash development application make a move to authoring HTML5 directly? – That would be a very interesting development, and one that looks to be under consideration, judging by Adobe’s Wallaby and Google’s Swiffy projects…