Flash roundup

I’m far from being a Microsoft-hater (I even quite like Vista), but I’m almost completely uninterested in Silverlight, which seems to me a shameless attempt to grab a slice of the proprietary Rich Internet Application (RIA) market before Adobe runs off with all of it. There’s nothing in it to tempt me away from Flash, and the only people I can imagine getting excited about it would be developers currently using Microsoft Visual Studio, since it lets them apply their existing skills to browser-based as well as server-side and desktop software.

Flash roundup

It reminds me of Macromedia’s attempts to push Shockwave a few years ago: it offered advanced programming features and, in later versions, built-in 3D support, but suffered because the only development platform was Macromedia’s expensive Director authoring tool. As a result, Shockwave got installed on around 50% of PCs, which, while not insignificant, isn’t enough to make it an automatic choice for developers. Write for Flash and you know 98% of browsers have version 9 installed, whereas Silverlight seems to have stalled at below 25%.

Given that these two platforms have broadly similar capabilities, the choice of which to use seems to me to be a no-brainer if you have a genuine choice. As an ActionScript programmer, it’s naturally easier for me to develop products using Flex or Flash, but moving across to Visual Studio wouldn’t be a deal-breaker for me since ActionScript 3 and Visual C# aren’t so dissimilar. What is a deal-breaker is the prospect of the majority of my audience needing to download a huge plug-in before they could experience my product. Anyone who’s worked in internet marketing knows that web browsers’ attention spans are close to zero, and a “please install plug-in” message can easily turn away the majority of potential visitors.

Macromedia’s master-stroke was to allow other software developers to output into Flash Player file format (SWF), the only restriction being that the end results needed to play perfectly in the latest version of the plug-in. It’s true that Microsoft places no restrictions on which programming language you use to generate the XAML files that form the basis of Silverlight 1 apps, but there’s no doubting it intends you to use Visual Studio, particularly as the platform becomes more capable. And if you’re not a programmer, there’s simply no practical way to create any meaningful Silverlight content.

Contrast this with the Flash platform, where hundreds of software products offer output to SWF and FLV (Flash’s video format), including animation, video, sound, e-learning and fully-fledged RIAs. Many of these products are low cost or even free, but perhaps the biggest surprise is that it’s possible to build a complex RIA for nothing (of which more later). So let’s look at some options for creating content for the Flash Player.

Flash Professional CS4

Flash has suffered an identity crisis for several years since its underlying coding language, ActionScript, became progressively more powerful. Developers looking to create RIAs for Flash Player were left with no choice but to use Flash as their authoring environment, but the Flash IDE is singularly unsuitable for programmers, with a code editor so inadequate that it’s inspired many alternatives. A few years ago the company’s response was “use Director for RIAs”, but now it has a much clearer strategy.

Flash CS4 has been returned to its roots as a design tool, with added features almost exclusively aimed at creative types, especially animators. According to Adobe, the top-five new features are object-based animation (in place of keyframes), 3D transformations, “inverse kinematics”, procedural modelling and a new motion editor. For creating Flash animations this new version is the most significant upgrade in years, going beyond the capabilities of its rivals, but offering nothing new for programmers.

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