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Why Flash Is Significant
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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.

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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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