Flash down the pan?

According to Microsoft’s own analysis, while 62% of the top 97,000 websites employ Flash, the second most popular plugin rates at less than 2%!

Flash down the pan?

Silverlight take-up may have been disappointing, but no-one who knows anything about the technology dismisses it yet. For one, the brilliant Expression Blend and its integration into Expression/Visual Studio exposes Adobe’s Flash authoring tools as antiquated and underpowered frame-based relics from its cartoon-doodling origins in SmartSketch 95.

Truly brilliant

But it isn’t only the tools, it’s the underlying architecture. XAML is truly brilliant, especially in the context of web development – a fundamentally open, text-based mark-up language like HTML or CSS (although more powerful because written in XAML) that enhances what you can achieve with page-based HTML and CSS in terms of content handling and presentation.

XAML also enables web programming to escape from its JavaScript straightjacket by unleashing the far more powerful .NET languages and their developers, to deliver truly desktop performance within a browser. It makes precompiled, binary, search-unfriendly, ActionScript-only, SWF-based Flash applications look as prehistoric as their toolset.

While the case can certainly be made that Flash is a legacy plugin, no-one could say that of Silverlight, and in any case, arguments about the inherent limits of plugin performance no longer hold. Microsoft can scarcely claim that it can’t make its own modern, lightweight Silverlight player work well inside its own modern, lightweight Metro platform, given that both are built on the same core XAML and .NET foundations.

The launch of Windows 8 looks like the perfect opportunity for Microsoft to give Silverlight the edge it needs to kick-start take-up.

Blocking Flash but not Silverlight on Metro would certainly prompt some squealing about unfair practices (from me for one), but Microsoft could retort that if Flash is so crucial to you, buy an Intel-based Windows 8 system, otherwise enjoy a truly modern RIA experience on the truly modern Metro platform.

Microsoft has an open goal in front of it, but has managed to knock the ball into its own net instead

This decision looks bizarre: Microsoft has an open goal in front of it, but has managed to knock the ball into its own net instead. Why bury your own brilliant RIA technology when you could be promoting it? Why sabotage your platform when you could make it richer?

No doubt Microsoft will point out that it hasn’t actually killed off Silverlight, and that while it’s no longer developing the player for other platforms (or even for Metro), the technology survives on the biggest platform of all – the Windows desktop. There’s even a new player on the way, so its battle with Flash continues. Sadly, this is wishful thinking.

Cross-platform penetration

To begin with, unlike Silverlight, the Flash player is cross-platform, available across all the desktop OSes, including Mac, Linux and Chrome. This same Flash player is now available on handheld devices via Adobe’s OSP partners, including on the fastest-growing mobile platform of all, Android.

In other words, while Flash’s total penetration is certain to drop below the current 97% once iOS and Metro establish themselves, Adobe can rightly claim that Flash player usage is still growing strongly; Microsoft certainly can’t say the same.

What’s more, to keep in-browser players relevant in the new HTML5 world, their developers need to keep on pushing what they can deliver – the new Silverlight 5 promises little more than a few tweaks to its video handling, while the new Flash 11 player promises an entirely new and powerful 3D engine. Once again, the future looks comparatively bright for Flash – and effectively over for Silverlight.

Despite these massive iOS and Metro setbacks in the tablet market, Adobe can legitimately claim that Flash player is going from strength to strength, and remains as relevant as ever in the HTML5 world, especially once web developers begin to appreciate the limitations of HTML5 (most obviously its lack of streaming and protection for videos), and once player-deprived tablet users begin to realise that Flash offers much more than irritating banner ads and crashes.

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