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Macromedia Flash effort does slow burn

The software maker faces challenges in getting developers to support Central, a year-old plan to free its Flash format from dependence on a browser.

A year after Macromedia revealed ambitious plans to expand the reach of its Flash format, the software maker appears to have trouble building support for the effort among developers and information technology planners.

So far, only a handful of applications have been released for Central, a framework for allowing Flash applications to run outside a Web browser. Downloads of the Central player, available in a "developer beta" version since last fall, appear to be minimal, and Flash developers that CNET spoke to showed little interest in Central.

"There's not exactly a stampede for this," said John Dalton, an analyst for Forrester Research. "Technically, it's a great idea. But I think it's going to be a very hard sell for them to get developers on board."


What's new:
Macromedia faces challenges in getting developers to support Central, a year-old plan to free its Flash format from dependence on a browser.

Bottom line:
Some software architects say Central's benefits aren't evident enough yet to justify the cost of developing for it. Plus, its leisurely launch, with a developer beta preceding the planned public release by almost a year, hasn't helped build confidence.

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But Macromedia executives say Central is coming along nicely, despite the paucity of public support since last year's announcement. That's part of a deliberately drawn-out product launch intended to give Flash developers plenty of time to familiarize themselves with the technology, said Lea Hickman, senior director of market development for Macromedia.

The company expects to have a revamped version of Central ready for a public launch in late summer or early fall, Hickman said, at which time, there should be plenty of applications from the thousands of Flash developers who have downloaded Central development kits. "We're really focused now on improving the platform by adding the top things developers have been asking for," she said.

Macromedia revealed plans for Central a year ago at FlashForward, an annual conference for Flash developers. (This year's event begins March 3.) As described then, Central was intended to be the next step in the transformation of Flash from a glittery animation format to a broad platform for delivering information, services and slick graphics over the Web.

Central allows Flash applications to run outside a Web browser, permitting them to work whether or not a PC is connected to the Internet. Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia, envisioned a welter of "occasionally connected" applications that retrieve data from the Internet when possible for viewing later. Sample applications--which still account for the bulk of the Central universe--included a weather forecast aggregator and movie finder.

Flash developers would sell their consumer applications through a central directory maintained by Macromedia, with the company taking a cut of the proceeds.

Central also has been promoted as a tool for delivering corporate data, such as meeting room status or document availability.

A slow burn
While last year's Central announcement attracted much curiosity, there's been little visible support for Central among Flash developers since then.

Jesse Ezell, a software architect at design and development firm Activehead, said Macromedia hasn't done enough to establish the benefits of Central to justify the cost of developing for it. "The vast majority of Flash developers that I have talked with just don't see the reason to require the Central install to run their Flash apps," he said. "They already have Flash projectors and client side components, which can be used together to get everything Central is why should they dish out a substantial portion of their revenues to Macromedia, confine themselves to Macromedia's little sandbox, and receive nothing but promises in return?"

Ezell added that the leisurely launch of Central, with a "developer beta" preceding the planned public release by almost a year, hasn't helped build confidence, either. "The only justification I see for having a developer launch is that Macromedia hoped developers would create more apps and add value to the Central platform, so that users would actually consider downloading it after the consumer launch," Ezell said.

"However, a large number of developers have interpreted this as a sign of weakness on Macromedia's part and questioned the viability of the Central strategy altogether," he said.

Some question the need for a new class of applications. Alain Vergeres, a European Flash developer, said the spread of wireless Internet connectivity and cell phone services limits the need for offline information. And when connected to the Internet, Central applications don't do anything that can't be achieved with existing Web software. "In my opinion, rich Internet applications are working very fine in a browser," Vergeres said. "I don't see why we should install yet another client to perform the same tasks we can in a browser.

Macromedia's Hickman said that the company hasn't engaged in a broad campaign to promote Central, instead focusing on the subset of Flash developers doing work that can benefit from offline capability, proactive information retrieval and other Central concepts.

"We haven't bombarded developers with a lot of e-mail about it, because that just doesn't seem appropriate," she said. "I don't think that every Flash developer has to have a Central application...There are things that are inherent in the Central platform that you may need or you may not."

Other developers who might be interested in working on Central applications have complained about the licensing terms Macromedia imposes. Consumer applications can be sold under a try-and-buy license plan, in which developers don't pay Macromedia until they sell something. But internal business applications require buying in to a "capacity licensing" plan with significant up-front costs based on the number of employees expected to use the application. Developers have said that makes it difficult, if not impossible, to sell a new idea like Central to corporate bean counters.

"If you hold a carrot in front of a donkey, it will walk after it," one poster wrote in an online forum for Flash developers. "If you hold it too far in front of him, he won't even budge toward it. Right now, the Central licensing scheme is a carrot across the Atlantic, and the donkey can't swim."

Ezell added: "A lot of developers just aren't ready to accept any of the licensing models that Macromedia is promoting."

Hickman acknowledged the licensing complaints and said Macromedia is reviewing Central licensing schemes and plans to offer alternatives soon. "We're actively looking at fixing this for the developer community," she said. "We definitely want to remove whatever barrier this might create."

Central may face more long-lasting problems inside corporate IT departments, however, due to Macromedia's image. Macromedia tools are typically used by the "creative" people in an organization rather than the techie types who run IT departments. That makes it difficult to pitch Central as a technology for delivering corporate services, said Chris MacGregor, a Web designer and creator of Flash critique Web site

MacGregor said he's worked on several corporate accounts that Central could have helped by improving the delivery of corporate information, but the notion of using the software was never broached.

"As far as corporate applications, the people in IT just don't know about it," MacGregor said. "A lot of people in IT still think Flash is silly animation and games. The majority of people who are big supporters of Flash are just not the people making decisions in IT departments. (Macromedia has) been pushing Central and giving out a lot of information, but that's mainly to developers. They're not talking to IT people in a way that would make them interested."

Corporate adoption of Central is likely to be focused on small media companies and other minor-league players looking for new ways to deliver information, Forrester's Dalton said. "The Global 500 relying on this? No way," he said. "But bloggers will love it.

"I don't think Macromedia is going to let go of it, even if it doesn't become a big source of revenue. They'll let it capture its own momentum and go the way developers lead it."

The Longhorn problem
Central also could face long-term challenges from Longhorn, the next version of Microsoft's Windows operating system. The Avalon component of Longhorn could become a foundation for producing the same type of graphically rich Web-enabled applications Central is targeting.

"If (Avalon) is done right," said Larry D. Larsen, multimedia editor for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, it would "probably ruin a huge segment of the market for Flash desktop apps. People are probably waiting to see how it shakes out."

Added MacGregor: "Microsoft is promising some similar things with Longhorn. The concept is good. I just don't know if Central is going to be the platform to deliver it."

From Macromedia's perspective, however, it's way too early to deliver a verdict on Central. Hickman said Macromedia recently drafted a three-year plan to guide development of Central. "It's a long road map for the product," she said. "What you see right now is just the beginning."