As Flash turns 10, Adobe looks ahead

The Web technology outlasted its 1990s rivals. Can it do as well in the new Internet video era? Video: What's next for Flash?

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
Can '90s-era technology for cute Web animations lead a new generation of cutting-edge Web applications?

Adobe Systems, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of Flash on Tuesday, hopes the answer is yes.

Still a popular way to add interactivity to Web sites, Flash has outlasted a number of competing plug-ins that emerged in the early days of the Web.

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What's next for Flash?
Adobe Systems' Mike Downey explains what we should expect from Flash.

Now, according to company executives, Adobe is trying to make Flash more of a general-purpose application development platform, one that focuses on video delivery, applications for mobile devices, and Web applications that run outside the browser.

"Today the shift is from animations to applications," said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect and senior vice president of Adobe's platform business unit. "The community around Flash has been pushing us--and technically we've been working--to enable" Web applications.

On Tuesday, the company intends to launch a microsite showing the evolution of Flash over the past 10 years, including video interviews with developers.

Those videos will no doubt be played with the Flash Video Player, something many high-profile Web sites, including YouTube, have chosen to use as well.

The success of Flash in the next 10 years rides largely on whether leading-edge customers like YouTube will design their Web sites with Flash, Lynch said. Adobe, which gained the Flash technology when it bought Macromedia, is trying to build an "ecosystem" of developers and partners, he said.

"We are able to enable people to use Flash where it's useful. It's not all or nothing. You can mix and match."
--Kevin Lynch,
Adobe Systems

"The bet is that as the ecosystem gets larger, there are more opportunities for selling software related to that ecosystem--tooling, frameworks, servers," Lynch said.

To recruit more developers and designers to Flash, the company has beefed up its development tools and outreach program. It introduced Flex, a Flash development environment, and upgraded the Flash Player to run scripts faster.

And while Flash may have made its name with flashy Web advertisements, the software is increasingly being used inside businesses, according to Lynch. SAP, for example, has tied Flash to its back-end NetWeaver software for interactive Web business applications.

Is AJAX a threat?
Flash became mainstream in large part through a 1997 deal between Macromedia and Netscape.

At the time, Macromedia made software for CD-ROM authoring. Rather than try to modify its existing software for interactive Web applications, it decided to buy a small company called FutureWave Software, which made what would be called Flash.

The company was faced with the chicken-or-egg problem, Lynch said. Without enough Flash content, the company could not get people to download the Flash plug-in, and without the plug-in widely installed, Web designers didn't want to use it.

So Macromedia decided to pay "a considerable amount of money" to Netscape--then the reigning browser company--to distribute the Flash plug-in, Lynch said. The plug-in had to be kept under 150 kilobytes.

"As soon as we did that, Microsoft--who was intent on winning the browser war--called us to include it in Internet Explorer," he said. Macromedia did not have to pay Microsoft to distribute the plug-in.

Macromedia and Adobe have sought to ensure that Flash applications run the same on different operating systems, which has helped its adoption, Lynch said.

Though Flash is a widely distributed, incumbent platform today, Adobe faces a number of challengers, as companies from Microsoft to various open-source projects vie for developers' attention.

In particular, the emergence of AJAX-style development--and several development frameworks--gives developers another option for adding interactivity to Web sites.

Lynch said that Flash and AJAX-style applications can coexist, and scripting developers can use their skills with Flash. For example, Google Finance uses a combination of AJAX and Flash, he said.

"It's a bit chaotic. There's lots of noise, lots of activity. That's great; there's a huge amount of innovation," Lynch said. "We are able to enable people to use Flash where it's useful. It's not all or nothing. You can mix and match."