The Lions Den | December 8, 2006
The last couple of days have been very quiet in Clearleft towers. However It’s not through a lack of work, as we’re currently booked up till March. It’s because we’ve all been nipping round the corner to catch the odd session at Flash on the Beach. If you’re not familiar with FOTB, it’s a new Brighton based Flash conference organised by our friend, John Davey. The event is a big multi-day, multi-track affair that has seen over 45 of the world’s hottest Flash stars present on subjects from abstract design to hardcore development.
Now considering Clearleft is very much a standards based shop, you’d be excused for finding it odd that we’d be attending a Flash event. However we decided to set up a cultural exchange program with the Flash world when we invited Aral Balkan to speak about Flex at d.Cosntruct 2005. It was now our chance to return the favour, so we sent Jeremy into the lions den with the provocatively titled talk, Ajax: Flash Killer?.
Jeremy was initially nervous at the thought of addressing a conference full of die hard Flashers. He needn’t have worried though, as true to form, he gave an excellent presentation to a packed audience. The crux of his talk was that Ajax is the perfect technology for small UX enhancements. For more complicated apps, the benefits start to dwindle to a point beyond which it makes more sense to build the app using Flash. Jeremy hypothesised that the tipping point was the point at which it becomes too complicated or time consuming to make the app degrade nicely. At this point, you lose one of the major benefits of the standards based approach, so if it’s easier to build the app in Flash, then why not use the best technology for the job?
I wasn’t sure how people would take this approach, as many Flash developers (like standardistas) have an all or nothing attitude. However the reaction seemed very positive and I was impressed with the audiences pragmatic approach. This was re-iterated the following day in a talk by Geoff Stearns on the subject of Flash and web 2.0. In this talk, Geoff discussed where Flash fitted into the current web app landscape and how developers needed to be open minded and chose the right tool for the job.
In the web standards world, many of us have a view of Flash that is somewhat out of date. I know that I stopped using Flash back around Flash MX when it had become synonymous with bad usability and designer excess. However things have definitely moved on, and and it’s a much more mature community that we give it credit for.
A great example of this was Niqui Merret’s talk on Flash accessibility –two words I never thought would be mentioned in the same sentence. It was amazing how many people in the audience had an understanding of accessibility and had began to integrate it into their daily workflow.
Another great example of the communities maturity was the number of times people talked about the user experience and the importance of user testing. This was exemplified by Aral Balkan who gave my favourite talk of the conference. Despite coming from completely different world, it was amazing how similar Aral’s development process was to our own, using a mixture of user-centered design and agile methodologies.
The Flash community has matured massively over the years, and so has the technology. While I’m sure a lot of the audience were still programming in the timeline, FLEX 2.0 has opened up a new world of possibilities. The thing that excites me the most about FLEX 2.0 is how similar it is to standards based development. You have an declarative XML-based mark-up language to build the UI. You can then add style in the form of CSS and behaviour using the ECMAScript based Actionscript language. Cool huh?
However the thing that really excited me at FOTB was a demo of Adobe’s new Apollo technology. Apollo is essentially a runtime that allows you to create Flash and XHTML/CSS based apps that run on the desktop. These apps can interact with the desktop like any native applications, but also have the ability to communicate via the Internet like a regular web app. So you have all the benefits of web deployment and update and live date, with the ability to save state and interact with your local machine. All very cool.
This looks very similar to what Microsoft are trying to achieve with WPF, WTF, XAML, Sparkle, Shnizzle Ma Nizzle or whatever the hell it’s called at the moment. The main difference is that Adobe are taking existing web technologies and trying to move them onto the desktop, whereas Microsoft have created a new desktop technology that has a web component. So basically both camps are coming at the problem from different ends.
The battle lines are currently being drawn and I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out. MS have the upper hand when it comes to marketing spend and desktop developer buy-in. However Adobe are trying to capitalise and the ubiquity of the tools and the shear volume of web developers out there. They also have the cross platform advantage which could be a deciding factor. We shall see.
Posted at December 8, 2006 12:16 PM