Macromedia has unveiled the newest version of its tools for building Web applications, called Flash MX, along with a number of partnerships with hardware and software makers who will support the new tools.
Macromedia chairman and CEO Rob Burgess hailed the new version of Flash as the broadest and most radical product the company has ever released. "It's really a generation change," Burgess said in an interview.
Macromedia is positioning Flash MX as an application development environment for building rich Web-based applications rather than just a tool for creating animation clips at Web sites, a stigma that attached itself to the technology as it found acceptance among developers in the early days of the Web.
The goal is to position Flash as a technology that can be used to build applications that users can interact with over the Internet, such as an order form on a Web site. It's an objective that Macromedia could realize with the latest incarnation of its Flash tool, analysts and users said.
"If developers start to incorporate Flash MX into Web sites you're going to start seeing what could be the killer apps for the Internet," said Rikki Kirzner, research director at IDC. "This is really cool stuff."
One addition to Flash MX allows video to be integrated more easily into a Flash application and viewed on the new version of the Flash Player, which will be released in conjunction with the Flash MX upgrade. That means that when a Web site developed in Flash displays video, it doesn't have to open up a separate media player. Macromedia announced a deal Monday to incorporate video compression technology from Sorenson Media into the player.
Kirzner, who has seen Flash MX in action, said the technology allows video to be viewed "almost instantly" regardless of what speed a user's Internet connection is running at.
Flash MX doesn't require the use of any additional media player, and allows video to be compressed into smaller files than other technologies, according to Macromedia. Because of this, Web developers may opt to use Flash instead of competing technologies such as Apple's Quicktime and Microsoft's Windows Media, said Jason Weiner, chief executive officer of San Rafael, California, Web development company SON Heavy Industries. Weiner said he used the new Flash tools to develop content for the official Web sites of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"Probably the most attractive addition is to be able to stream video through the Flash Player," he said. "You won't see as many people adopting Quicktime or Windows Media because the Flash player is all over the place."
Another new feature Weiner lauded was an update that allows developers to use a library of pre-built components to build Web applications. For instance, adding a scroll bar or a "buy now" button to an application can be done by dragging and dropping these components onto the page, significantly speeding up the development process, according to Macromedia.
Jim Whitney, chief technology officer of application development company Webvertising, has created a Web-based reservation system used by nearly 300 hotels with the previous version of Flash. His company recently deployed an updated reservation system for one customer using the Flash MX tools, and he noted a number of benefits.
Webvertising was able to build the reservation system as a "single-screen experience" so that a user didn't have to navigate several windows in order to make a hotel reservation. Instead, a user can input all of its personal information, credit card information, all on one screen. "What could be a five to 20 step process, we were able to put on one screen," he said.
Macromedia said the new Flash Player is designed to do most of the data processing work locally. For instance, when a customer enters personal information into Webvertising's reservation system, the data is sent back to the server only when the order is complete. Similar systems developed using HTML typically send data back to a server multiple times as a user is fills out various parts of an order form, according to Macromedia.
By migrating to Flash MX from Version 5, Whitney said he was able to cut down on the time it takes to develop the applications. It also reduced the cost of hosting a Web site because there are less transactions taking place between a client machine and the server, and because the software cuts down on the bandwidth needed to run the application.
Macromedia is banking on the ubiquity of the Flash Player to propel its new technology. About 96 per cent of the computers shipped by manufacturers currently include a pre-loaded Flash Player, according to market research from IDC. The Flash Player is the client side application used to view animation created in Flash as well as execute code to run applications developed with Flash.
Microsoft ships the Flash Player in Windows XP, as do some Linux operating system vendors. Another two million to three million people download Flash every day, according to Macromedia.
With Monday's release of Flash MX, Macromedia is also continuing its push to extend the technology beyond PCs. The company announced industry support from makers of set-top box devices, video game consoles, handheld computers and mobile phones. Devices now shipping with the existing Flash Player include Sony's Playstation 2, a set-top box from Moxi Digital, as well as handheld computers that use the Pocket PC operating system.
Many of the changes in the new version of Flash propel it past competing technologies from Adobe, IDC's Kirzner said. Flash MX also now can compete in a broader market, including the market for tools used to build applications for mobile devices where Java and Windows are widely used today.
"It sets up sort of a three-company race toward who's going to control the environment where software plays out," said Randy Souza, an analyst with Forrester Research.
One of those companies is Microsoft, which is developing its .Net initiative to allow applications to be delivered across the Internet. Sun has also been promoting Java for building media-rich applications to run on small devices such as cell phones.
Burgess said Macromedia wasn't trying to unseat Java by allowing developers to build similar video and media applications for small devices. "It's kind of what Java could have been," he said.
Flash MX is expected to be widely available on March 15, the company said.
Macromedia also said Monday that it is working on new server software, to be released in the next few months, that will allow developers to build Flash applications that run more efficiently off of a server. It will also allow developers to use Flash for more rich applications, such as teleconferencing.
The next release of Macromedia's ColdFusion server software, which hosts Flash applications, will also include new support for standard technologies being adopted to deliver services over the Internet such as XML (Extensible Markup Language), the company said.
"The Flash player will provide a user interface that can talk back to a server," Burgess said. "Over time we'll be able to deliver Web services to PCs and wireless devices."