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Why Flash Is Significant

by Dale Dougherty
02/02/2001

Book sales are a useful indicator of interest in a particular technology. In Amazon's listing of the 30 most popular computer books for 2000, Flash occupies four slots, with the first Flash title in the 10th spot. Carla Bayha, computer book buyer at Borders, told me that "Flash was THE hottest topic last year and still is this year." I wanted to talk over the apparent popularity of Flash with someone who's been following Flash for a while, and who is familiar with the designers/developers that use Flash just as they've used Macromedia's Director.

I found Bruce Epstein, O'Reilly editor and author of Director in a Nutshell and Lingo in a Nutshell and more recently, the editor of an upcoming book on ActionScript, Flash's scripting language.

Dale: Why is there such interest in Flash? While Flash has been around for many years -- it's at version 5, Flash seems to have a lot not going for it.

Bruce: Your implication is that Flash suddenly burst on the scene out of nowhere. Macromedia has been making strategic alliances for years and Flash's popularity has been growing steadily. As to why there is interest, it is the de facto standard for animation and vector graphics, giving a platform-independent, low-bandwidth, cosmetically pleasing solution. The increased book sales in 2000 reflects its emergence into the larger public consciousness. There were enough big sites, such as Disney, using Flash that it has gained wide acceptance. There have also been a number of well-promoted, glitzy tradeshows covering Flash, most notably FlashForward, which was sold out in several cities. As the Flash plug-in moves toward ubiquity, so will the use of Flash in web sites, making it as commonplace as tables and frame sets.

Dale: I hardly implied that Flash came out of nowhere. It has been around for years, but its popularity has grown considerably in the last year. HTML and JavaScript books are similarly popular but they were about as popular the year before.

Flash Math

Based on a December 2000 survey conducted by NPD Online (NPD is the founder of MediaMetrix, Inc.), Macromedia claims that "96.4% of Web browsers already have Macromedia Flash Player installed. That means that more than 311 million people can view Macromedia Flash immediately." The appendix to this report says that 96.4% of users in the U.S. have the Flash 2 player. The current Flash 5 player is at 32% and the previous version, Flash 4, is at 86%.

The 311 million users is derived from an IDC number that projects worldwide the total number of Internet users to be 323 million. Macromedia takes 96.4% of 323 million to get its 311 million.

However, the actual number of participants in the survey was 2,634. They were asked online if they could view various formats in their browser and 96.4% reported that they could view Flash files. And so it is that 96.4% of 2,634 equals 311 million.

Bruce: You have to differentiate the popularity of software from the popularity of the books. The software has been big for some time. Now that it has expanded beyond the tight-knit Macromedia community, everyone wants to learn about it. I'm sure HTML and JavaScript had similar bubbles in their books sales when they became "hot topics." Their staying power is actually quite impressive. It remains to be seen whether the people buying the Flash books were just looking to cash in on its popularity (and high pay scale) or whether they'll participate in the community long-term. A lot of graphic designers were just getting their head around Flash in 2000, and that helped drive sales of books on interactive design as well as Flash tutorials. Flash books sales will continue to be strong in 2001, especially sales of advanced books for hardcore Flash users and ActionScript programmers.

The remainder of your question breaks down into two parts: Why do people want colorful interactive web sites and why do developers implement such sites in Flash?

It is getting harder and harder to attract customers and keep their interest. As the Web becomes more marketing-driven and the bandwidth increases, Web sites will look more and more like TV and print advertising. Flash gives you that splash -- it was originally called "FutureSplash" before being bought by Macromedia -- at low connection speeds. As connection speeds get higher, you'll see even more ambitious Flash incorporating better audio and even video (as yet unsupported, but expected soon).

Dale: Making a site more attractive seems, well, superficial.

Bruce: Sex sells.

Dale: Do users want more splash or is it just designers wanting to do more?

Bruce: Designers are only half the picture. Clients have a lot of input because they hold the purse strings. And they're loosening those purse strings because they believe Flash will sell more goods and services to their users. Surely designers want more Flash than the users do, but clients wouldn't pay for it unless users responded (or at least unless the marketing department believes they will).

Dale: I'd think users want sites to be more functional, to provide more or better services.

Bruce: Although I agree with you, I'm not representative of the world (for one thing, I've never downloaded any MP3s). But function and service need not be in conflict with design. You're really bemoaning poor design, which isn't exclusive to the Web. Although plain text may download faster than graphics, vector graphics are very compact and a picture can be worth a thousand words. Therefore Flash can be more functional, or at least more efficient than text in communicating certain content. For example, Flash Generator can create charts and graphs on-the-fly from a data source.

People who are text-centric tend to be geeks looking for tech notes. But if you want entertainment and to get excited about a "web experience" you're going to want more graphics and more motion (I think audio will be prevalent on web sites by 2003 and we might be smelling web sites by 2005 or 2006).

Keep in mind that Flash 5 ActionScript is substantially beefier than its predecessor, allowing developers to deliver more functionality. So you'll see both better content and better aesthetics in the next year or two. We are a visual (read superficial) species. The Web doesn't change that. Surely bad Flash doesn't help bad content, but good Flash can help overcome bad content.

Your second question is "Why not something other than Flash?"

Dale: Yes. Why Flash? Flash is proprietary software, developed by Macromedia which provided content creation tools such as Director for CD-ROM multimedia markets before the Web existed.

Bruce: "Proprietary" isn't a dirty word. It ensures that there is a well-funded marketing department working hard to push the technology. Macromedia has done a masterful job of promoting Flash. Director isn't just for CD-ROMs. Shockwave content, which is created in Director, has been around since 1995.

Macromedia has leveraged their expertise in both multimedia authoring and Web delivery to Flash's advantage. You could argue that Flash's success is largely due to Macromedia learning from the mistakes they made with Director and Shockwave.

Furthermore, Macromedia cross-promotes their tools heavily to their loyal user base, just like Disney does with its movies and videos. A lot of Flash users come from the Director community (and vice-versa) or learned of Flash through Dreamweaver and Fireworks. All of Macromedia's tools share common UI elements (which is actually the subject of a lawsuit brought by Adobe that claims Macromedia's UI infringes an Adobe patent). Regardless, all of Macromedia's products are well-integrated, so if you use Flash, you probably use Dreamweaver and vice-versa. Dreamweaver is used by an unbelievable percentage of professional web designers (somewhere around 80 percent), so that has helped drive Flash usage too. (Dreamweaver books also sold well in 2000.)

Dale: I don't mind proprietary software, but the Web has prospered largely because the software was open and not controlled by a single company (and thus didn't need a single marketing department to become successful).

Bruce: The web prospered atop those things, but it also prospered because people poured huge amounts of cash into commercializing it (I'm thinking about sites like Amazon that drive newbies to go online -- as Tim O'Reilly discusses in his article about "infoware.")

Macromedia has married most of the benefits of open standards and proprietary muscle in its management of Flash and the SWF format. Rob Burgess, CEO of Macromedia, has been relentless in transforming Macromedia into a Web-centric company with Flash and Dreamweaver as their flagship products. Furthermore, the Flash playback plug-in is completely free, and the Flash authoring tool is inexpensive. (Compare this to the Shockwave Remote fiasco and the expensive Director authoring tool.)

Dale: Flash is completely non-standard.

Bruce: Sorry, it is the de facto standard. Macromedia has kept the Flash plug-in ruthlessly small (and free) and expanded its feature set with every release (about one per year). Even though the authoring tool is proprietary, the Flash file format is public and many third-party tools create SWF files. This was a very smart move on Macromedia's part. They never opened the Shockwave file format and it hurt them.

Dale: You make a good point about the file format but I thought Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) was going to replace it. (I understand that SVG can't do all the things that can be represented in SWF.)

Bruce: Macromedia claims that SVG has 2% browser penetration. Flash has up to 96% (depending on the version you're talking about), so I don't see SVG displacing SWF in my lifetime.

Dale: I still don't like creating content in a format designed around a specific tool. This is like creating Word documents and needing everyone else to have Word.

Bruce: Adobe's LiveMotion and other software can output to SWF format. More importantly, SWF isn't geared toward working in Flash. Quite the reverse, Flash is merely a way to create cool SWF files. Macromedia has always emphasized the playback over authoring. This is not unreasonable considering that hundreds of millions of users have the plug-in whereas only about half a million use the tool.

Dale: Flash requires that everyone have a browser plug-in for viewing on the Web. I thought that most people grew tired of downloading plug-ins.

Percent Plugged In

The same NPD survey that said the Flash plug-in was available in 96.4% of the browsers also reported the following numbers for other plug-ins: Java at 87%; Windows Media Player at 64%; Acrobat Reader at 62%; Shockwave Media Player at 58%; RealPlayer at 52%; and the QuickTime Player at 35%. The RealPlayer number is low in comparison to the Windows Media Player, indicating that RealNetworks may be finding itself in the same position that Netscape was in, struggling to compete with Microsoft.

Bruce: Unlike Shockwave, the Flash plug-in is part of the minimal install of Microsoft IE, Netscape, and the AOL browser. It also comes preinstalled on Windows and the Mac, and ships with the browser installer provided by many ISPs. Again, Macromedia did a great job minimizing the barrier to entry. The plug-in is still small and when you have to download a new version, the upgrade process is relatively painless. Look at the popularity of the RealPlayer and QuickTime plugins. It is a matter of bang-for-the-buck.

Dale: Don't get me started on the Real Player plug-in. It wants to upgrade itself every time I use it, which is less and less.

Bruce: If you can't shut that off in your Real Player preferences, it is bad software design. Shockwave has an auto-update feature, but you can shut it off (I don't know if the same is true for Flash).

Dale: Flash has replaced Java on the client-side as an alternative for developing custom interfaces and complex graphical displays, but nobody was crazy about having Java applets running in their browser. Why is Flash different?

Bruce: Because Flash is more consistent across browsers and platforms, is generally more visually appealing, and is featured in well-publicized award competitions. The Flash applets aren't the boring stuff often done in Java and you don't have to load a huge JVM.

Dale: Good point. A big difference, too, is that Java applets required Java programmers who have ended up having better things to do than develop interface widgets. Flash has been a step up for those developers comfortable with HTML and JavaScript.

Bruce:Yeah, it is remarkable what you can accomplish with no programming skills in Director and Flash. The lack of computer science background really hinders some higher-end stuff, but basic point-and-click pieces can be accomplished without much insight into programming. That is another thing that SWF format has going for it. It is part of a larger architecture in which Macromedia has made programming easy for novices. You can program using pulldown menus, and increasingly, with drag-and-drop behaviors (something Director has had since version 6 and something added recently to Flash). Macromedia also features an "Exchange" site where you can find pre-made code. Sure, the same thing exists for JavaScript, but Macromedia has always had a tremendous, supportive user community.

Dale: Still, Flash is responsible for annoying intro pages or splash screens ...

Bruce: No, designers are responsible for annoying intro pages and splash screens. Would you have banned desktop publishing for the same reason?

Dale: So the <blink> tag was a good idea, too, only if designers knew how to use it.

Bruce: Macromedia is ruthless in paring down features to a bare minimum. Certainly, there is enough blame to go around for bad graphic design, bad information design, bad UI design, and bad typography, not to mention lousy programming. At least on the Web, designers are conscious of load time. It is not unusual for a CD-ROM to force the user to sit through a 3-minute intro. (Instead of waiting for your modem, you have to wait for the designer's ego.)

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