Flash: More than just eye candy

For most Web surfers, Flash is the blinking, animated frosting on Web sites. Now Macromedia wants to make it the whole cake.

David Becker Staff Writer, CNET News.com
David Becker
covers games and gadgets.
David Becker
6 min read
For most Web surfers, Flash is the blinking, animated frosting on Web sites. Now Macromedia wants to make it the whole cake.

The software maker is pitching Flash MX, the new version of the software to be announced Monday, as a one-stop resource for designing entire Web pages and associated applications. The update signifies a greatly expanded role from Flash's initial function as animation software.

The promised payoffs include Web-based forms that don't send people back to the starting point if information is missing and transaction screens that don't try a customer's patience with screens telling them to "please wait."

"We've been looking at how people work on the Internet, how people use Internet applications, and what we saw was that...HTML was breaking down in a lot of cases," said Eric Wittman, Macromedia's director of product management for Flash.

"People are used to TVs, ATMs--that's how they want things to work. We firmly believe that with Flash, we can do that with respect to Web applications."

Flash MX is a collection of tools for creating Web pages and applications. It will be released March 15, in conjunction with Flash Player 6, a new version of the free application that resides on PCs to display Flash content. Flash Player is a free download, while Flash MX will cost $499 for the full version or $199 for those upgrading from a previous version of the Flash development package.

Flash MX will be available in versions for Windows and Mac, including support for Mac OS X, the latest version of Apple Computer's operating system.

The main drawback with Flash MX, according to Chris MacGregor, a Web designer and creator of Flash critique site Flazoom, is that it throws out much of what developers learned working with the last version of Flash.

Gartner analyst Lou Latham says that with Flash MX, Macromedia has taken the lead in the movement to change Web graphics from bitmaps into smart objects.

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"This is the fourth version of Flash to come out with a completely new interface," he said. "To me, that just makes the learning curve much steeper. Developers are going to have to focus on learning a new application."

An array of additional features
Besides expanded tools for delivering Web applications, major additions in Flash MX include:

  Modules that allow Web designers to automatically optimize content for handheld computers, mobile phones and other devices. Macromedia is in the midst of a far-reaching campaign to include the Flash player in all manner of Internet-connected devices.

  A built-in media player, based on Sorenson Media's video player, that will display videos as part of Flash-created Web pages. "You're able to play video and still be in the Flash environment...so the video becomes part of the overall experience," Wittman said. "We don't take over your system; there's nothing in the taskbar that's flashing." That contrasts with standalone video players such as RealNetworks' RealPlayer and Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

  Prefab user interface components that will free designers from having to write code for scroll bars, list boxes and other common Web page elements.

The promised results include business Web sites that will be substantially easier for customers to navigate and cheaper for businesses to maintain.

Steve Frankel, software analyst for Adams Harkness & Hill, said Macromedia has a convincing argument for expanding Flash's role.

"I've seen the grand vision, which I'm impressed with," he said. "The notion of moving Flash from eye candy to an application platform really intrigues me.

"They've made a pretty good case already for creating entire pages in Flash," Frankel said. "I think this is taking it the next step."

Faster loading, easier transactions
Much of Macromedia's case for the new Flash centers on usability--that Web pages and applications designed entirely in Flash will load faster, work more reliably and make it easier for customers to transact business.

For example, it's intended to eliminate page refreshes. Users will be able to continue to browse a site even while the Web page processes credit card information and other data.

"We've seen tremendous growth of the Web over the last four years, but it's largely content," said Kevin Lynch, Macromedia's chief software architect. "A small percentage is applications right now, and the usability of those is not that great. You try to book a reservation or get information on a stock, and you have to go through these multiple pages. It's crazy how difficult that is. You make a mistake, and you get put back to one of those forms with the asterisks (that say) 'fill this in.'

"We think that experience could be far easier," Lynch said. "We think with Flash, developers can build sites so that we can go from browsing to actually using the Web to get things done."

As an example, Macromedia touts the reservations site for the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo., created with a pre-release version of Flash MX. Instead of the typical welter of online forms, the site allows prospective customers to check room availability and rates, make a reservation and submit credit card data all from the same screen.

The usability argument is somewhat ironic, given that Flash has been identified as a key culprit in bad Web design, enabling pages of blinking text and galloping images that do little more than consume bandwidth.

Macromedia aims to make Flash its flagship tool
Kevin Lynch, chief software architect, Macromedia

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Flazoom's MacGregor said that Macromedia learned its lesson with the last version of Flash, when it began an extensive campaign to educate designers on appropriate use of Flash.

"I think the usability awareness issue, since about the fall of 2000, has been a big push for Macromedia, and it's paid off," MacGregor said. "Flash developers are being smarter about how they're using Flash."

MacGregor said the new version of Flash addresses some lingering usability concerns that plagued pages written entirely in Flash, such as the need to create scroll bars and other common page elements from scratch. Flash MX has pre-built page components that designers can drop into a page, allowing for more consistent user interfaces.

"Right now, you're more commonly going to find usability issues if everything on the Web site is done in Flash," he said. "There's no toolbox in (the current) Flash about 'this is what a button should act like' or 'this is how a scroll bar should act.' Putting out specific interface elements is going to benefit both designers and end users."

MacGregor also sees good prospects in using Flash for creating Web applications.

"When you compare Flash to other technologies for building applications, Flash offers the ability to create a better user experience," he said. "It's a much more controlled environment; it's much more stable than Java.

"Flash can provide a much better kind of visual feedback," MacGregor said. "You can have a Flash site that updates dynamically without having to redraw the page, which can really save frustration for the user."

An edge on the competition
The ubiquity of the Flash player on PCs has made it hard for would-be competitors to gain any ground. Adobe Systems has positioned its LiveMotion animation tool as an enhancement of--rather than a replacement for--Flash. Web sites now often combine HTML for static elements, Flash for animation and Java for applications.

Macromedia insists that usability isn't just a good idea; it's good business. Hard-to-navigate Web forms "are freaking people out" and pushing customers away from e-commerce sites, said Wittman. Flash-designed pages and applications will help businesses retain customers and provide direct savings. Because Flash doesn't have to redraw a whole page just to refresh credit card data, for example, server loads can be dramatically reduced.

Frankel said such arguments will be important as Macromedia pushes cash-strapped customers to upgrade.

"I think the challenge is convincing enterprise in today's environment to make that investment," he said. "But I think there's a compelling case to be made there. For starters, it means serving a lot less pages. And I think everybody can identify with the limits of the page metaphor for the Web. There's a good ROI (return on investment) argument; there's a good customer-retention argument."

The new Flash is the first step in a string of product upgrades Macromedia plans to make in coming months, dramatically extending the range of the company's Web products. Besides a new version of the Dreamweaver Web authoring package, ColdFusion, the server software Macromedia gained from its acquisition of Allaire, will be updated and tied in with the new version of Flash.

The upgrades come after several quarters of losses and uncharacteristic secrecy at the software company.

Moors & Cabot Dakin analyst Ed Bierdeman said it's not too soon for the company to step on the gas. "I'm kind of pinning my investment hat on this product upgrade cycle," he said. "That's the whole story for Macromedia now, is having the benefit of an upgrade cycle in every product category."