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Come for Blu-Ray, please stay for Flash

April 15, 2010

“Come for the Blu-ray, stay for the Flash”. That’s the sassy slogan prominently displayed on the launch panel of Adobe’s Encore CS4 DVD professional authoring application, viewable every time it’s launched. Within a few years Blu-ray will likely be consigned to history as the last mass-market physical file format. More imminently, Flash will face serious challenges to its current web-based hegemony as emerging handheld devices (primarily the iPad) and open source-supporting tech (HTML5) drive new rich-media design models. For the time being however, Adobe, as the only company supporting this design workflow has a point and understandably wants everyone to know it.

This became apparent when a client recently asked for some high definition content to be put onto BD (Blu-ray Disc) with some editing and branching interaction added, followed by possible repurposing for web dissemination. I‘ve attended high-end BD production training at Sonic Solutions’ Soho headquarters so I’m aware of the functionality this format enables. Sonic make powerful, industry-standard authoring >ahem< solutions, but for projects of this level they’re mostly overkill. Apple, despite user demand for such authoring capabilities has neglected to provide either BD authoring or Flash support as part of their (professional) Final Cut Studio workflow, due mostly to conflict of interest they’re also a leading platform developer and content distributor.

It’s not all bad though, as current economic climate aside it’s a good time to be a digital content creator. Though well established, it’s rare that two such powerful, high quality competing product options exist simultaneously in one small, lucrative, professional space. Though different in many ways, Apple’s Final Cut Studio (FCP) and Adobe’s Creative Suite (CS4) provide distinctive workflow benefits via similar feature sets. Both offer superb exploratory design and creative production environments courtesy of their excellent GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces) and common distinction as established, flagship suites both from highly respected software developers. Nevertheless, Apple’s FCP eschews BD and Flash.

Flash was fast, Flash was cool

This is contentious stuff; so before I loose friends and alienate bloggers let me state my position on Flash. Once a lousy application to develop with, I have nonetheless designed and authored many programs, brand ‘experiences’, e-Learning applications and websites using Flash. I generally enjoy working with it; especially now Adobe has ironed out many of the UI (User Interface) idiosyncrasies left over from its meandering evolution. However, I also spend time arguing against it, dissuading clients from using Flash altogether or reducing the way in which it is utilized and deployed.

Flash is a divisive technology with a convoluted history. Often placed in the hands of inexperienced designers who like producing repetitive, superfluous and irrelevant animation, it is also routinely misused, misplaced and erroneously deployed as a result of poor strategic thinking and bad advice from inexperienced or partisan Designers. Debbie Harry once sang; “Flash is fast, Flash is cool…” when praising the famous New York DJ’s cutting and scratching skills – and not a propriety file format and browser plugin. However, on an individual level this sentiment outlines how many see Flash, especially when brand development and promotion-based projects are discussed. Or, quite conversely, they absolutely loathe it – not so different from early Hip Hop after all.

The problem is that in the wrong hands – and there are many, Flash can create more issues than is solves. Originally a revolutionary means of delivering vector animation over narrowband web, it has evolved to encompass raster animation (motion graphics), complex interactivity, bloated content and video. This latter aspect together with a preference as the marketer’s choice for generating horrible, flashing banner ads marked the point at which Flash became truly ubiquitous and usurped the dominant media playing triumpherte of Windows Media, QuickTime and Real Player. This function creep fundamentally explains why Flash also became power-hungry and, on the mac platform under developed to the point of neglect. For years Macromedia and now Adobe has valued end-user market share over platform parity. It’s hard to credit this shortsightedness given Apple’s relatively small desktop share, but long established and widely acknowledged position as creative platform of choice.

Return of the Mac (platform)

With Apple now a leading content distributor, (multiple) platform manufacturer, operating system and business/consumer software developer, Adobe face a real challenge securing a long-term future for Flash as a web-based video player. The emergence of ubiquitous computing via smart phones and other handheld devices has placed greater value on specific video formats and codecs (COmpressor/DECompressor) such as H.264 as opposed to broad, resource-hungry do-it-all media ‘wrappers’; that is, browser plugins and media players that provide wide access to a range of formats but often with variable results.

The upshot is that we can probably expect to see ‘unthinking’ use of Flash as a video player diminish in the face of HTM5 and .H264, the speed and extent of which won’t be fully realised until the handheld devices market takes off. Apple has recently announced a tightening of development criteria for iPad app development, effectively rendering Adobe’s shiny new Flash-based CS5 app development tool useless. This is a shame, as I for one was particularly looking forward to using it! The enmity between Adobe and Apple over this fallout is well documented, with developers, bloggers and commentators from both communities becoming increasingly vociferous in their condemnation of each opposing company’s behavior. If Apple were engaged in the building of a new, proprietary closed-format eco-system much of this criticism would be justified. So far however, Apple appears to be dictating that developers build apps in lower-level industry-standard languages such as C, C++ and JavaScript. While personally I have no particular desire to familiarize myself (in depth) with another language, Apple’s rationale can’t be faulted in this respect and it must be said there is no shortage of highly adept, experienced programmers on which to call.

Many ‘pundits’ are proclaiming the end is nigh for Flash. That’s unlikely. The ubiquity, versatility and pervasion of Flash gives it deep roots as an established and accepted technology. It also, uniquely, offers an accessible, rich interactivity and functionality that other technologies cannot yet offer. Indeed, Adobe have encroached on their own territory, as Director, once Adobe’s desktop interactive authoring application of choice was subsumed and displaced by the growth of Flash. For a while it was difficult to see a future for Director, even though it provided a more robust development platform and native 3D capabilities. Adobe recognized this and almost belatedly used this latter aspect to distinguish and demarcate the two products.

The moral of this ongoing issue is that even leviathans of software development cannot be complacent, especially not when building and hoping to sustain a global market share. As preposterous as it might sound now with hindsight, I remember back in the nineties when Adobe lost it for a while in positioning their Portable Design Format (PDF) as a real world alternative to HTML. Only years later did they tacitly acknowledge that PDF was primarily a format for design layout preservation and not a platform for an open-ended, hypertext-driven global information system.

Should Apple ever decide to build one, It’s hard to imagine them bunging the smug proclamation “Ignore Blu-Ray and forget about Flash” on a widely successful GUI-driven app builder. Adobe would do well to consider this and dedicate more appreciable resources and consideration to long-term strategic thinking instead of crowing about existing possibilities. I have deep affection for Adobe products and even ascribe personal feelings to PhotoShop, such is the integral role it has played over the course of much of my career.  For the time being I will continue to use both suites alongside each other; in many ways for designers and digital content creators it’s a no-lose situation. The bottom line is that it’s all about using the right tool for the job, and not holding onto developer and company allegiances, well intentioned or not.

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