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Macromedia frees Flash from the browser

Macromedia hopes to make its animation player a "first-class citizen" on PCs with a new addition that allows the software to operate outside a Web browser.

Macromedia hopes to make its Flash animation player a "first-class citizen" on PCs with a new addition that allows the software to operate outside a Web browser.

The company is scheduled to announce the planned Flash enhancement and associated services, dubbed Macromedia Central, Thursday morning at its FlashForward developer conference in San Francisco. Tools for developers will be available next month, but consumers won't be able to download the Central software until this summer.

Macromedia last year began a wide-reaching campaign to expand the role of Flash in Web design, promoting the software as a broad platform for designing Web applications and building user interfaces. Macromedia has made noticeable inroads with the push, with many sites rebuilt around Flash, but the Flash experience still has to happen inside a browser window.

That's a growing limitation, said Kevin Lynch, Macromedia's chief software architect, particularly when it comes to saving and reusing Web information in an offline environment.

"Right now, you have a very black-and-white model, where you're either fully online or you don't have access to data," he said.

Macromedia Central will create an environment where Flash applications can run independent of the browser. Along with providing the client software--a free addition to the free Flash player--Macromedia plans to sell a wealth of downloadable Flash applications created by third-party developers. Macromedia will take 20 percent of any software sales, with the rest going to developers.

Sample applications include a shopping program developed in conjunction with The Flash application lets online shoppers save and organize information on products they're interested in for viewing later.

Rob Lancaster, an analyst for research firm The Yankee Group, said it will take time for Central to catch on, as developers gradually incorporate offline ideas in their thinking.

"I don't think it's going to resonate right away," he said. "It's not as tangible as Flash or any of the real hands-on applications they've launched in the past. That's one of the reasons they've preannounced it so early, to get developers thinking about ways they can incorporate this."

Lancaster said one potentially significant market for Central is the corporate sector. Central could be incorporated into commonly used parts of corporate portals, such as employee directories, to make them available when a worker is away from the office and offline.

"What intrigued me is the potential for this application in the corporate space...running on the back end of a corporate system and giving people the impression they're always connected even when they're not," he said. "That's going to be a challenge for them, though, because enterprise applications have not been an area they've done much in."

Lynch expects many of Central's offline applications will be extensions of the online Flash experience companies have integrated into their Web sites.

"You'll see a lot of people providing a browser experience and then offering an offline experience that expands on that, something where you can engage the person outside that browser and become a first-class citizen on the user's machine," Lynch said.

Notebook computer users, who don't always have reliable Internet access at their fingertips, are expected to be a focus of the Central push. Intel is working with Macromedia as a development partner to promote its new Centrino technology for laptops.

Macromedia will publish developer guidelines for creating offline Flash applications, but developers will use the same Flash tools they use for online work. That should keep the barrier of entry low and inspire a wealth of experimentation, Lynch said.

"We're trying to leverage the Flash player and the skills our developers already have to bridge the gap between the desktop and the browser," he said. "We think there'll be a lot of small applications people will find helpful."

Lancaster said Macromedia's support among developers is likely to be its biggest asset in promoting the Central concept. "They've thrown the ball out onto the playing field without really knowing where it's going to go," he said. "I think they're leaving it up to their customers to say what they really need and what they can do."