Adobe fights back with Flash 11

The new version brings fast 3D graphics and a packaging technology to build Flash directly into apps. Also: Adobe adjusts to new Web technologies.

Flash Player logo

Long gone are the days when Adobe Systems could take its Flash Player's position on the Web for granted.

But Adobe, to counter a strong combination of opposition and alternatives to the browser plug-in, plans to ship Flash Player 11 in two weeks. The debut at its Max developer conference early next month is geared to send a message to programmers: Flash is still relevant, and Adobe is still investing in it.

Flash 11's highlight, an interface called Molehill for hardware-accelerated 3D and 2D graphics, won't change the minds of those who would like to see Flash fade from the Web, nor will it reverse Apple and Microsoft's Flash opposition. But it is a powerful new feature for games, and games are one of the Flash strongholds Adobe is seeking to defend.

"WIth direct access to the GPU [graphics processing unit], you'll see a thousand times faster rendering over prior versions of Flash," said Danny Winokur, Adobe's platform general manager. With the ability to animate millions of objects at a screen refresh rate of 50 frames per second, people can expect "console-quality games" such as those on an Xbox or PS3, but in a Web browser.

At the same time, Adobe has another strategy for maintaining the programming appeal of Flash's cross-platform nature. In cases where Flash apps can't run because the plug-in is banned or simply not installed, the new version 3 of Adobe's AIR software lets Flash apps be packaged as standalone apps.

In other words, for situations when developers can't count on Flash being installed, Adobe lets them build it directly into the app.

Also new is 64-bit support, which helps Flash stay compatible with browsers moving toward more modern processors.

Detractors might disagree, but Adobe's moves are real. Flash has plenty of experienced programmers, and the plug-in is installed on 98 percent of desktop browsers. It's clear that Flash is not the only way to write apps--heck, even Adobe is embracing the competition--but it's equally clear Flash still has a place for many.

Embracing Web standards, too
As Web standards have blossomed, Adobe has refined its Flash sales pitch to three main areas: games, advanced online video, and "data-driven" apps that provide a pleasant face to information stored in databases elsewhere on the Internet.

"There's been a lot of debate over the past year or two about Flash and HTML and what are the right platforms. We've tried, while being at the center of that debate, to stay grounded," Winokur said. "It's become clear our customers think there are important advantages in those three areas now for using Flash. We've continued to invest in those areas while taking a leadership role in driving HTML5 forward. It has the potential to be a fantastic platform."

The big question for Adobe is whether it'll be able to capitalize on the new Web standards era in time. New challengers are arriving--perhaps most notably Microsoft, whose Windows 8 Metro interface can run Web apps, and whose developer tools are highly regarded. For the long period when Flash and Web standards coexist, Adobe will have to balance the two.

Take WebGL as an example. It's a hardware-accelerated 3D interface for browsers, available now but still very new in the scheme of things. Microsoft doesn't support WebGL, but other browser makers do. Programmers will have to decide whether to use it or Flash's Molehill (officially called Stage 3D), and Adobe stands to lose developers to competitors if it doesn't embrace what they want.

Adobe won some notable endorsements for Flash 11 from gaming high-profile companies Zynga and EA, though you shouldn't expect either to concentrate solely on Flash. "The ubiquity of Flash helps EA to bring our chart-topping games to a broader variety of platforms and connect with consumers across a wide range of devices," said EA Interactive Chief Technology Officer Mark Vange in a statement.

Stage 3D is a low-level interface, but programmers also can use higher-level tools such as that Alternativa3D, Mixamo, and Away3D handle a lot of programming difficulties. Adobe's own option, Proscenium, is "coming soon," and it just announced a 2D animation toolkit called Starling; both are open-source software projects.

Turning the crank faster
Flash Player 10 arrived in 2008 and was on a more complacent old-era schedule when the software was the de rigueur way to handle streaming video, online games, interactive stock charts, Webcam chats, and any number of other advanced Web chores. But Web standards including HTML5, CSS3, and faster JavaScript have caught fire, with browser makers stoking the flames. Adobe picked up the pace starting with Flash Player 10.1 in 2010, the first to support smartphones, then 10.2 and 10.3 in 2011 to try to keep up the momentum.

At the same time, Adobe has begun an earnest effort to capitalize on Web standards with new tools for developing Web sites and Web apps. Developer tools for the new Web era are often as immature as the standards themselves, and Adobe is banking that its software will ease developers' and designers' coding pains. Some of those new efforts include Edge, Muse, and Wallaby.

Don't be surprised to see new versions of some of these projects at the Max conference. Adobe has pledged frequent updates as it develops Edge in public as a tool that can add sophisticated interaction and timeline-based animation to Web sites. It's geared for designers, not programmers.

Flash, though, is the here and now when it comes to Adobe's business with products such as Flash Professional, Flash Builder, Flash Catalyst, Flash Media Server, and Flex. It's got plenty of programmers who know it well, too. So naturally, the company is working hard to keep Flash at the forefront.

It's probably not an exaggeration to call the Flash disfavor from Apple and Microsoft an existential threat to Adobe Systems' browser-plug-in. Apple has barred the Flash plug-in from iPhones and iPads, and Microsoft said Internet Explorer 10 for Windows 8's next-gen Metro interface won't support any plug-ins at all.

The ally: Google
Google remains an ally, helping Adobe adapt Flash for Android phones and building Flash into its Chrome browser. But iOS is a key mobile operating system today, Windows 8 is a key desktop and potentially tablet operating system tomorrow, and the two companies behind them have a lot of clout with programmers.

In the mobile market, Adobe is claiming progress: 130 smartphones and 85 tablets can now run Flash, Adobe says, though that includes the "captive runtime" method that encapsulates Flash inside an AIR app. The company projects that 1 billion mobile devices will be able to run Flash by 2015.

Flash 11 has a notable feature for mobile users: support for the digital rights management available for video streaming. That's one of the big selling points in the "premium video" priority for Flash.

Another feature are native extensions, which will let programmers venture out of the cross-platform comfort zone to support new hardware in the latest smartphones even if Flash doesn't yet.

Performance has been a problem for Flash on smartphones, though. Adobe's working the problem, Winokur said::

There are a number of things at play on the mobile side. A complex stack goes from silicon hardware up to the device, then to the operating system, then to the browser. We are working at all those levels of the stack. With silicon vendors, there are some additional optimizations there. Some are [coming to] Flash Player in dot releases. We're also working closely with Google with the OS layer and Android browsers. There are driver improvements from silicon and GPU [graphics processing unit] providers that are helping. And improvements to OS and browser plug-in APIs [application programming interfaces] that are helping to improve performance quite a bit.

Adobe isn't working on pushing Flash to lower-end devices, though, he said.

The mobile market remains Flash's toughest nut to crack. But it's clear Adobe isn't throwing out the nutcracker yet.

Updated 12:06 a.m. PT with further details on Molehill, aka Stage 3D, and with endorsements from Zynga and EA.

 

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