The benefits of new improved Flash

There’s a lot of debate at the moment about the future of the web and it’s clear that in many ways we’re standing at a crossroads. According to Adobe, “the next chapter of the web” is Flash and it is pushing the format hard with its latest Web Premium CS5 suite (arguably too hard).

According to Steve Jobs and Apple however, the web needs to be washed clean of this proprietary plague and the future belongs to HTML 5.

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So which is it to be? Flash or vanilla? Adobe or Apple? Player or browser?

Based on the iPhone and iPad’s phenomenal sales, it’s clear that there are plenty of users happy to go with Jobs’ no-Flash option. After all, apart from video, is Flash really that integral to today’s web experience? It seems a very small price to pay for such undeniably brilliant hardware.

However, as the old adverts didn’t quite put it: “before you buy, have you considered the benefits of new improved Flash?”

Currently the Flash debate tends to be based on history. Essentially we’ve all formed a judgment based on our past experience of Flash. Who hasn’t been irritated by flashy banner ads, unnecessary intro pages, criminal resource hogging and other bad usage, such as Flash rollovers that would be better handled via CSS? The one obvious benefit of Flash that everyone recognises is video handling but, as Ian Devlin showed recently, you can now provide native video playback within the browser with HTML 5.

From web page add-ons to standalone RIAs

It looks like Flash is going to be purged from the web page whether Adobe likes it or not, but in fact that’s not really the issue. The argument for Flash as the next chapter of the web isn’t about its old web page enhancement role. The new-improved Flash has much wider ambitions – it wants to provide an alternative (though not replacement) web platform.

But what does this actually mean? The web platform for what? The key concept here is the Rich Internet Application (RIA). Unfortunately it’s an off-putting and nebulous term and Adobe has done a pathetic job of explaining what it actually means and what web authors and end users have to gain from it. So let me have a go. Essentially the benefits of the new Flash RIAs fall into the two main web production camps: designer and developer.

Designer benefits

For the designer, Flash’s new focus on standalone RIAs means that the latest InDesign CS5 lets them quickly convert any print publication for interactive, media-rich web delivery (and the new Flash Catalyst does the same for Photoshop and Illustrator and Fireworks users). Significantly this power is not limited to Adobe as the latest QuarkXPress 8 has the same capability, meaning that the entire professional publishing industry is already tooled up to output to this near-universal format.

The potential benefits aren’t restricted to high-end publishing either as the flourishing ecosystem of PowerPoint-to-Flash converters demonstrates. Jobs’ attack on Flash as an inherently closed and Adobe-only format is way off the mark; instead the new standalone Flash RIA can act as an interactive, media-rich, online-friendly and truly universal ePaper format – a modern PDF-equivalent fully integrated alongside the HTML-based web.

Developer benefits

The potential for web developers is just as exciting. Here Adobe (and Macromedia before it) has recognized the limitations of Flash Professional as an authoring environment and built up the open source Flex framework and dedicated Flash Builder to create a modern IDE for dedicated cross-platform program development.

Moreover with the latest CS5 Web Premium suite and its deep support for MXML-based presentational markup, Adobe has arguably gone further to bridge the designer-developer divide, letting the designer produce the application interface in Photoshop, Illustrator, Fireworks or Catalyst, then use Catalyst to prepare the RIA for further development in Builder. And with AIR, Adobe provides the framework necessary to go the final step and create universal applications that work outside the browser and offline as well as online.

Crucially Adobe’s online projects such as Photoshop.com and Acrobat.com’s Buzzword word processor, and third-party AIR applications such as the New York Times Reader (complete with adaptive layout) show just what can be achieved.

The Dream Team?

It’s an exciting prospect and the potential combination of Flash-based RIAs with the iPhone and especially iPad is mouth-watering. Surely for a device supposedly intended to revolutionise the online magazine reading experience, the tie-in to the latest InDesign/Quark’s in-built Flash output should be just too good to miss.

For designers, developers and end users alike the combination of iPad and Flash/AIR should be a match made in heaven. And does anyone seriously think the iPad can’t be made to successfully run the new mobile-optimised Flash player 10.1 ?

Unfortunately Steve Jobs has clearly thought through the implications of freely-created and freely-distributed Flash RIAs to Apple’s App Store revenue stream and also of the future threat from me-too Android and other OSP devices to Apple’s device sales, and has acted accordingly.

Let’s be clear about this. There is no inherent conflict or even divide between browser and player and we shouldn’t have to choose between the two. The changing nature of Flash and HTML means that they may well lead increasingly independent lives within the browser, but the two can and should work alongside each other. In fact for the web to reach its full potential, they must.

As such, with his refusal to allow Flash on his hardware (or even Flash-derived native applications!), Steve Jobs is not heroically defending the true nature of the open, browser-based web; rather he is deliberately crippling the web’s full potential and undermining its core principle of universality. And he is doing so at the expense of designer, developer and end user alike.

Even worse, because everyone is still thinking and talking about the old Flash, it looks like he’s getting away with it.

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