April 1, 2002 4:00 AM PST

Vision of Flash-based Web raises doubts

Flash is having growing pains.

Installed on more than 96 percent of PCs connected to the Internet, Macromedia's Flash player has become the de facto standard for running Web page animations, which in turn are generally created by Flash-conversant tools.

But now Macromedia is lobbying for designers and Web-application developers to create entire pages in Flash, a position the company will push this week at FlashForward 2002, a developers conference starting Tuesday in San Francisco.

One promised pay-off is easier-to-use transaction sites with content that, through Flash-enabled browsers, can be updated selectively rather than having to redraw the entire page every time new data is submitted. Another pay-off is video clips that don't require a separate browser window.

But critics say a Flash-everywhere approach carries hidden potential liabilities that could stifle innovation.

"I think the question for Flash is, What are the unintended consequences of building an entire application in Flash and kind of defeating a lot of the benefits that have developed around the Web?" said Dale Dougherty, vice president of online publishing for programming-guides publisher O'Reilly & Associates.

Flash, for instance, doesn't readily lend itself to indexing, the process whereby search engines find a particular page, Dougherty said. Others said Flash can make exchanging links difficult and that it's tougher to work with than pure open-source code.

Macromedia says it is addressing such concerns as practically as it can. The Flash format, for instance, is open to any software maker who wants to write tools for it, and Flash incorporates many open standards.

Kevin Lynch "We made it work the best we can and had it be open," said Kevin Lynch, chief software architect for Macromedia.

Previous criticism of Flash has focused on misuse of the software by Web designers, particularly those who plague Web surfers with lengthy animated introduction pages.

Many of those problems have been solved through efforts by Macromedia and others to educate developers. Now critics are focusing on broader issues, wondering if widespread adoption will paint the Web into a corner.

An open or shut case?
Open-source software advocates, for instance, argue that widespread reliance on Flash could slow the spread of Web services.

"If the Web becomes dependent on closed standards, be they Flash or RealAudio or Windows Media Player, then it becomes difficult for new browsers to be created, it becomes difficult to place the Web in embedded appliances, it becomes difficult to have any experience outside what those companies define," said Bruce Perens, a co-founder of the Open Source Initiative.

Bruce Perens Tight control of the Flash player is necessary to maintain the integrity and lightweight character of the software, argues Macromedia's Lynch. The latest Flash player still weighs in at less than a megabyte. Allowing outside developers to modify the Flash player would likely result in bloated code, Lynch said.

"We think keeping the code very lean has been one of the reasons Flash has been accepted so well," he said. "It really would not be beneficial to the Flash player to have hundreds of engineers building things onto it."

Lynch noted that Macromedia has freely published the specifications for SWF, the main file format for Flash content, since 1998, allowing dozens of software makers--including Macromedia's chief rival, Adobe--to create tools for authoring Flash content. That's despite the fact that development tools are the main source of Flash-derived income for Macromedia, which provides the Flash player for free and collects no royalties or licensing fees on Flash content.

"The file format has been open for years now, so people can build whatever software they like around it," Lynch said. "We feel it really needs to be open and to promote an ecosystem where people can build software on top of it...We believe that's the best way to keep the player successful and still provide access to developers."

Noted Todd Oberly, a former support technician for a Pennsylvania Internet service provider: "They've done much better than many other companies--look at Windows Media Player. But they can...do better." Flash content still locks out Oberly's PCs running the Linux and Amiga operating systems.

What are your options?
Options for developers seeking more openness include SVG (scalable vector graphics), a standard for Web graphics developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the group responsible for maintaining HTTP and other Web standards.

"The nice thing about SVG is that anybody can write a viewer or anything else for it," said J. David Eisenberg, a graphic designer and author of "SVG Essentials." "I just think that SVG is more generally useful across a wider range of applications. Flash is Web-centered--that's the only medium it's designed for--whereas SVG is useful anywhere you're doing graphics. That can save you a lot of work if you're designing for multiple formats."

Lynch said Macromedia supports the W3C and is open to including SVG support in its products if the format, now primarily endorsed by competitor Adobe, catches on. He also noted that Flash incorporates open standards such as XML and the ECMAScript language.

"We're very practical about those things," Lynch said. "We adopt these things as we see customer demand. If we see demand, we'll be all over it."

Flash can also limit the sharing of Web information. Flash pages can't be easily indexed, making them inaccessible to search engines. And because everything happens within the same browser window, there's no way to link to specific parts of a Flash site.

"By doing everything in Flash, you're kind of going back to the early days of CD-ROMs, where the data is tightly linked to the application," Dougherty said. "One of the benefits we've had from HTML is that its openness allows for a variety of unexpected applications--all the Yahoos, Googles and AltaVistas were in one way or another able to index all the content that was out on the Web and make it a lot more valuable that way."

Los Gatos, Calif., Web designer Scott Stevenson sees potholes ahead with links.

"Macromedia's argument about a single-screen model where you don't have to reload screens, that's a good argument," Stevenson said. "But the usability is limited because you can't bookmark anything or send a link to anyone. The concept of sharing links is what makes the Web fundamentally more useful than something like America Online."

To get around these problems, Macromedia included tools in the previous version of Flash to allow developers to easily export an HTML page containing the key words used in their Flash site, Lynch said.

Beyond that, Lynch said, indexing is really up to the search engines, which can use the freely published SWF specifications to build new search tools.

"Something we would like to see...is for search engines to handle Flash content natively," Lynch said. "We think that's the right direction, and it should be a pretty straightforward thing to do. The file format has been open for years now."

 

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