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Why Flash Is Significant

by Dale Dougherty

Book sales are a useful indicator of interest in a particular technology. In Amazon's listing of the 30 most popular computer books for 2000, Flash occupies four slots, with the first Flash title in the 10th spot. Carla Bayha, computer book buyer at Borders, told me that "Flash was THE hottest topic last year and still is this year." I wanted to talk over the apparent popularity of Flash with someone who's been following Flash for a while, and who is familiar with the designers/developers that use Flash just as they've used Macromedia's Director.

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I found Bruce Epstein, O'Reilly editor and author of Director in a Nutshell and Lingo in a Nutshell and more recently, the editor of an upcoming book on ActionScript, Flash's scripting language.

Dale: Why is there such interest in Flash? While Flash has been around for many years -- it's at version 5, Flash seems to have a lot not going for it.

Bruce: Your implication is that Flash suddenly burst on the scene out of nowhere. Macromedia has been making strategic alliances for years and Flash's popularity has been growing steadily. As to why there is interest, it is the de facto standard for animation and vector graphics, giving a platform-independent, low-bandwidth, cosmetically pleasing solution. The increased book sales in 2000 reflects its emergence into the larger public consciousness. There were enough big sites, such as Disney, using Flash that it has gained wide acceptance. There have also been a number of well-promoted, glitzy tradeshows covering Flash, most notably FlashForward, which was sold out in several cities. As the Flash plug-in moves toward ubiquity, so will the use of Flash in web sites, making it as commonplace as tables and frame sets.

Dale: I hardly implied that Flash came out of nowhere. It has been around for years, but its popularity has grown considerably in the last year. HTML and JavaScript books are similarly popular but they were about as popular the year before.

Flash Math

Based on a December 2000 survey conducted by NPD Online (NPD is the founder of MediaMetrix, Inc.), Macromedia claims that "96.4% of Web browsers already have Macromedia Flash Player installed. That means that more than 311 million people can view Macromedia Flash immediately." The appendix to this report says that 96.4% of users in the U.S. have the Flash 2 player. The current Flash 5 player is at 32% and the previous version, Flash 4, is at 86%.

The 311 million users is derived from an IDC number that projects worldwide the total number of Internet users to be 323 million. Macromedia takes 96.4% of 323 million to get its 311 million.

However, the actual number of participants in the survey was 2,634. They were asked online if they could view various formats in their browser and 96.4% reported that they could view Flash files. And so it is that 96.4% of 2,634 equals 311 million.

Bruce: You have to differentiate the popularity of software from the popularity of the books. The software has been big for some time. Now that it has expanded beyond the tight-knit Macromedia community, everyone wants to learn about it. I'm sure HTML and JavaScript had similar bubbles in their books sales when they became "hot topics." Their staying power is actually quite impressive. It remains to be seen whether the people buying the Flash books were just looking to cash in on its popularity (and high pay scale) or whether they'll participate in the community long-term. A lot of graphic designers were just getting their head around Flash in 2000, and that helped drive sales of books on interactive design as well as Flash tutorials. Flash books sales will continue to be strong in 2001, especially sales of advanced books for hardcore Flash users and ActionScript programmers.

The remainder of your question breaks down into two parts: Why do people want colorful interactive web sites and why do developers implement such sites in Flash?

It is getting harder and harder to attract customers and keep their interest. As the Web becomes more marketing-driven and the bandwidth increases, Web sites will look more and more like TV and print advertising. Flash gives you that splash -- it was originally called "FutureSplash" before being bought by Macromedia -- at low connection speeds. As connection speeds get higher, you'll see even more ambitious Flash incorporating better audio and even video (as yet unsupported, but expected soon).

Dale: Making a site more attractive seems, well, superficial.

Bruce: Sex sells.

Dale: Do users want more splash or is it just designers wanting to do more?

Bruce: Designers are only half the picture. Clients have a lot of input because they hold the purse strings. And they're loosening those purse strings because they believe Flash will sell more goods and services to their users. Surely designers want more Flash than the users do, but clients wouldn't pay for it unless users responded (or at least unless the marketing department believes they will).

Dale: I'd think users want sites to be more functional, to provide more or better services.

Bruce: Although I agree with you, I'm not representative of the world (for one thing, I've never downloaded any MP3s). But function and service need not be in conflict with design. You're really bemoaning poor design, which isn't exclusive to the Web. Although plain text may download faster than graphics, vector graphics are very compact and a picture can be worth a thousand words. Therefore Flash can be more functional, or at least more efficient than text in communicating certain content. For example, Flash Generator can create charts and graphs on-the-fly from a data source.

People who are text-centric tend to be geeks looking for tech notes. But if you want entertainment and to get excited about a "web experience" you're going to want more graphics and more motion (I think audio will be prevalent on web sites by 2003 and we might be smelling web sites by 2005 or 2006).

Keep in mind that Flash 5 ActionScript is substantially beefier than its predecessor, allowing developers to deliver more functionality. So you'll see both better content and better aesthetics in the next year or two. We are a visual (read superficial) species. The Web doesn't change that. Surely bad Flash doesn't help bad content, but good Flash can help overcome bad content.

Your second question is "Why not something other than Flash?"

Dale: Yes. Why Flash? Flash is proprietary software, developed by Macromedia which provided content creation tools such as Director for CD-ROM multimedia markets before the Web existed.

Bruce: "Proprietary" isn't a dirty word. It ensures that there is a well-funded marketing department working hard to push the technology. Macromedia has done a masterful job of promoting Flash. Director isn't just for CD-ROMs. Shockwave content, which is created in Director, has been around since 1995.

Macromedia has leveraged their expertise in both multimedia authoring and Web delivery to Flash's advantage. You could argue that Flash's success is largely due to Macromedia learning from the mistakes they made with Director and Shockwave.

Furthermore, Macromedia cross-promotes their tools heavily to their loyal user base, just like Disney does with its movies and videos. A lot of Flash users come from the Director community (and vice-versa) or learned of Flash through Dreamweaver and Fireworks. All of Macromedia's tools share common UI elements (which is actually the subject of a lawsuit brought by Adobe that claims Macromedia's UI infringes an Adobe patent). Regardless, all of Macromedia's products are well-integrated, so if you use Flash, you probably use Dreamweaver and vice-versa. Dreamweaver is used by an unbelievable percentage of professional web designers (somewhere around 80 percent), so that has helped drive Flash usage too. (Dreamweaver books also sold well in 2000.)

Dale: I don't mind proprietary software, but the Web has prospered largely because the software was open and not controlled by a single company (and thus didn't need a single marketing department to become successful).

Bruce: The web prospered atop those things, but it also prospered because people poured huge amounts of cash into commercializing it (I'm thinking about sites like Amazon that drive newbies to go online -- as Tim O'Reilly discusses in his article about "infoware.")

Macromedia has married most of the benefits of open standards and proprietary muscle in its management of Flash and the SWF format. Rob Burgess, CEO of Macromedia, has been relentless in transforming Macromedia into a Web-centric company with Flash and Dreamweaver as their flagship products. Furthermore, the Flash playback plug-in is completely free, and the Flash authoring tool is inexpensive. (Compare this to the Shockwave Remote fiasco and the expensive Director authoring tool.)

Dale: Flash is completely non-standard.

Bruce: Sorry, it is the de facto standard. Macromedia has kept the Flash plug-in ruthlessly small (and free) and expanded its feature set with every release (about one per year). Even though the authoring tool is proprietary, the Flash file format is public and many third-party tools create SWF files. This was a very smart move on Macromedia's part. They never opened the Shockwave file format and it hurt them.

Dale: You make a good point about the file format but I thought Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) was going to replace it. (I understand that SVG can't do all the things that can be represented in SWF.)

Bruce: Macromedia claims that SVG has 2% browser penetration. Flash has up to 96% (depending on the version you're talking about), so I don't see SVG displacing SWF in my lifetime.

Dale: I still don't like creating content in a format designed around a specific tool. This is like creating Word documents and needing everyone else to have Word.

Bruce: Adobe's LiveMotion and other software can output to SWF format. More importantly, SWF isn't geared toward working in Flash. Quite the reverse, Flash is merely a way to create cool SWF files. Macromedia has always emphasized the playback over authoring. This is not unreasonable considering that hundreds of millions of users have the plug-in whereas only about half a million use the tool.

Dale: Flash requires that everyone have a browser plug-in for viewing on the Web. I thought that most people grew tired of downloading plug-ins.

Percent Plugged In

The same NPD survey that said the Flash plug-in was available in 96.4% of the browsers also reported the following numbers for other plug-ins: Java at 87%; Windows Media Player at 64%; Acrobat Reader at 62%; Shockwave Media Player at 58%; RealPlayer at 52%; and the QuickTime Player at 35%. The RealPlayer number is low in comparison to the Windows Media Player, indicating that RealNetworks may be finding itself in the same position that Netscape was in, struggling to compete with Microsoft.

Bruce: Unlike Shockwave, the Flash plug-in is part of the minimal install of Microsoft IE, Netscape, and the AOL browser. It also comes preinstalled on Windows and the Mac, and ships with the browser installer provided by many ISPs. Again, Macromedia did a great job minimizing the barrier to entry. The plug-in is still small and when you have to download a new version, the upgrade process is relatively painless. Look at the popularity of the RealPlayer and QuickTime plugins. It is a matter of bang-for-the-buck.

Dale: Don't get me started on the Real Player plug-in. It wants to upgrade itself every time I use it, which is less and less.

Bruce: If you can't shut that off in your Real Player preferences, it is bad software design. Shockwave has an auto-update feature, but you can shut it off (I don't know if the same is true for Flash).

Dale: Flash has replaced Java on the client-side as an alternative for developing custom interfaces and complex graphical displays, but nobody was crazy about having Java applets running in their browser. Why is Flash different?

Bruce: Because Flash is more consistent across browsers and platforms, is generally more visually appealing, and is featured in well-publicized award competitions. The Flash applets aren't the boring stuff often done in Java and you don't have to load a huge JVM.

Dale: Good point. A big difference, too, is that Java applets required Java programmers who have ended up having better things to do than develop interface widgets. Flash has been a step up for those developers comfortable with HTML and JavaScript.

Bruce:Yeah, it is remarkable what you can accomplish with no programming skills in Director and Flash. The lack of computer science background really hinders some higher-end stuff, but basic point-and-click pieces can be accomplished without much insight into programming. That is another thing that SWF format has going for it. It is part of a larger architecture in which Macromedia has made programming easy for novices. You can program using pulldown menus, and increasingly, with drag-and-drop behaviors (something Director has had since version 6 and something added recently to Flash). Macromedia also features an "Exchange" site where you can find pre-made code. Sure, the same thing exists for JavaScript, but Macromedia has always had a tremendous, supportive user community.

Dale: Still, Flash is responsible for annoying intro pages or splash screens ...

Bruce: No, designers are responsible for annoying intro pages and splash screens. Would you have banned desktop publishing for the same reason?

Dale: So the <blink> tag was a good idea, too, only if designers knew how to use it.

Bruce: Macromedia is ruthless in paring down features to a bare minimum. Certainly, there is enough blame to go around for bad graphic design, bad information design, bad UI design, and bad typography, not to mention lousy programming. At least on the Web, designers are conscious of load time. It is not unusual for a CD-ROM to force the user to sit through a 3-minute intro. (Instead of waiting for your modem, you have to wait for the designer's ego.)

Dale: Increasingly, Flash is being used by advertisers who are moving beyond animated GIFs.

Bruce: Flash 4 introduced "WYSINWYP" (what you see is not what you print) enabling nice print-outs from little banner ads. Macromedia recently announced the Macromedia Flash Advertising Alliance and the Macromedia Flash Tracking Kit, which tracks click-throughs on Flash-based ads. So yes, Macromedia clearly sees banner ads as a big market for them. Certainly, it is easier to replace an animated GIF with a SWF than it is to restructure your entire site around Flash. I think it is a smart move by Macromedia.

Dale: Will Flash ads improve the quality or appeal of advertising, or will they cause people to be more greatly annoyed? I've actually seen a couple of Flash ads that were quite good, but were larger and a bigger distraction than a typical banner ad.

Bruce: Again, that is caused by bad marketing and bad design, not a bad authoring tool. Any profit-maximizing enterprise should give you precisely what you like -- an ad that is big enough to be appealing, but not so big as to be intrusive. Again, Flash is the messenger, not the message. The interest surrounding Superbowl commercials demonstrates that we're gluttons for advertisements disguised as entertainment. Flash brings this to the Web.

Dale: A recent talk at the Builder.com conference pleaded with Flash users not to use Flash inappropriately as they were giving Flash a bad name.

Bruce: True, but it is too late to stop its momentum. Regardless of the authoring tool, there will be developers who don't know how to use it properly. For example, although the browser's "back" button doesn't work with Flash, good Flash designers will include a "back" button. For what it's worth, Flash also has a feature that lets the URLs and text within it be indexed by search engines. (I haven't tested this feature personally.)

Dale: I had thought that most "real" programmers have abandoned the client side, although there are plenty of people using JavaScript, another language that hardly measures up to heavyweights like Java, Perl, and Python, which are used extensively on the server side.

Bruce: Flash's audience is designers and graphic artists, not "real programmers," so the scripting language is pretty easy to use. Flash 5 ActionScript is almost like JavaScript (they're both based on the same ECMA standard) so I think you'll see a lot of cross-pollination between the two communities.

Flash is getting more complicated and design is more demanding. Most people who come from a print background have no idea how to design for interactivity. It is the boom in interactive design that you are seeing reflected in the Flash book sales. Flash is but the chosen vessel.

Dale: No matter what you think of Flash, you have to give it credit for not just hanging in there all these years, but actually flourishing.

Bruce: It has seen high growth for some time. It had over 100 million users two years ago and it has over 300 million users now, according to Macromedia.

Dale: Now this is where I begin to choke. What is a user in this scenario?

Bruce: Macromedia claims to track unique users. Allegedly multiple downloads are discounted. I can't swear that I am interpreting their numbers or claims accurately. The important point is that Flash is popular enough that clients are comfortable approving it for use on their sites. The same cannot be said of Shockwave.

Dale: Are we saying animated GIFs have billions of users, too? Let's stick to relevant numbers such as designers/developers/programmers working in Flash or the number of Flash elements on sites around the world? Can we pin down Flash's browser penetration numbers? You've mentioned 96 percent.

Bruce: See the Macromedia Flash Player White Paper for details on the statistics and the methodology. I'm not going to defend Macromedia or MediaMetrix's numbers. There are probably 500,000 Flash developers (300+ million is the user base of the plug-in, not the authoring tool), but the more that users/clients demand a technology, the more developers will flock to it.

Dale: Yet the questions seem to nag: Is Flash just a toy? Is Flash superfluous?

Bruce: The debate is over. Flash is not a toy and not superfluous. Jakob Nielsen has denigrated Flash, but the Flash community disagrees with his assessment and outnumbers him considerably.

Dale: It goes back to what I said earlier. Flash doesn't seem to be making the Web more functional. It's window dressing.

Bruce: The same could be said of any GUI. Maybe you just have a yearning for command-line interfaces. I don't blame you.

Dale: On the other hand, I am reminded of my colleague Rael Dornfest who is interested in the fact that Flash has XML and XML-RPC support. He thinks this will allow him to build more functional interfaces on top of richer data sets. Tell me about Flash as an GUI tool.

Bruce: Flash is pretty full-featured for the kind of stuff you want to do on the Web and it can be used to create beautiful interfaces. See some award-winning sites at FlashForward 2001 (see Flash Film Festival > Previous Festival Winners). But Flash can also communicate with JavaScript and parse XML data. Macromedia and Allaire (which recently announced their merger) have also announced Harpoon, which allows Flash to act as a front-end to Cold Fusion.

Dale: Now I may come across as more negative about Flash than I mean to be.

Bruce: Oh, I'm in the same boat. I'm not a big fan of Flash or the sites created with it. But then again, as Chuck Barris was fond of saying, I like burnt toast. I pride myself on having the world's fastest-loading web site. There's one GIF on the whole site.

Dale: I have a feeling that Flash represents a trend among tools that are moving away from data processing and more towards content and communications. This is not just a different set of tools; it's a different way of thinking. It's about media.

Bruce: The medium has been the message for quite some time now. Flash is riding that wave and maybe helping to create it a little bit.

Dale: So is iMovie, and I believe that digital video editing is a tremendously important application.

Bruce: Now you are talking about something completely different. Flash is not a consumer tool. It is about corporate advertising more than home movies. On the other hand, a lot of people use Flash for subversive cartoons, so there certainly is a spectrum. But Flash is not for casual computer users. I think iMovie is for the masses, whereas Apple's Final Cut Pro is more of a professional tool. The professional enthusiasm for Flash is unbelievable, as is the pay scale for skilled Flash developers. Last year, you could charge $2,000/day in NYC for Flash work (and get it). But Flash users are not a bunch of sell-outs. There is a remarkable sincerity about them and true appreciation for the creative work Flash is allowing people to do. They are very excited. The FlashForward film festival had attendees hooting in the aisles.

Dale: The Perl Conference has a poetry contest but that's a parlor game, and I know Perl programmers are paid handsomely. The question I have is will the Perl/Python/PHP developer and Flash developer ever meet? That question is grounded in the belief that the breakthrough of the Web was collaboration, getting people of very different skills working together -- programmers and designers, for instance. If Flash is for designers only and Perl for programmers only, will the two groups grow farther apart? Are they such different ends of the spectrum?

Bruce: I think that a shared passion has a way of bringing like-minded people together even if they bring different skills to the table. Flash 5 ActionScript will attract more JavaScript programmers as higher-end stuff is created in Flash. As a multimedia programmer, you have to learn a lot about media, and interact with designers and artists. When things are simple, you can wear many hats, which is cool in its own right. But as projects become more intense, you need to specialize, which often means you have to collaborate with others to complete interesting projects.

Coming from a programming background, I had to work hard to understand graphics, audio, and video issues, especially regarding performance and memory. I gained a new respect for what content-providers did. Although C programmers consider authoring-tool scripting languages to be slow, in most multimedia applications, the loading and display of graphics and audio dwarfs the execution time of the code itself. Director and Flash might not offer the same performance as the Quake engine, but their rendering is pretty respectable, and Flash can automatically degrade to a lower quality to maintain performance.

Flash represents a great opportunity for programmers to do cool things and get closer to their audiences. Last Spring, I had the chance to create a really cool bartending simulation in Director. We'll likely create a scaled-down Flash version in the future. Programming a game to make a dry martini is a lot less dry than programming a financial calculator. There will continue to be very exciting opportunities in the Flash and Director markets for enterprising programmers with Web experience. Ultimately, interesting Flash projects will require more sophisticated back-end support. Designers will be excited to find skilled programmers who can make their creations come to life, and programmers will welcome working on projects that garner "oohs" and "aahs" from friends and relatives. So yes, I think that Perl/Python/PHP developers and Flash developers will be meeting frequently in the near future, and they'll both benefit immensely from it.

Dale Dougherty is the editor and publisher of MAKE, and general manager of the Maker Media division of O'Reilly Media, Inc.

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