Flash Player 9 & Flex 2 Released

I don’t typically plump for Adobe products in this blog. But the official release tonight of Flash Player 9.0 and Flex 2.0 is a special case, and IMO is also significant for the future of digital publishing.
The extended Web/browser ecosystem largely is based around three client-tier file formats: HTML, PDF, and Flash SWF. People are finding that Flash is not just a great solution for interactive animations and video, but also a great cross-OS platform for rich internet applications (RIAs) that break the page-at-a-time barrier of typical Web applications. The new Yahoo! Maps , the new Google Finance, Zillow, Redfin, and many others are Flash-powered. But despite growth in adoption of Flash for interactivity and applications, AJAX web apps are getting all the attention. One reason is that Flash has been challenging to program, with a timeline-based authoring metaphor and a scripting language (ActionScript) that, while bytecode-based, offered no real advantages in either language capabilities or performance over browser JavaScript.
Well, now Flash app development is even more compelling and a lot easier. Flash Player 9’s new ActionScript 3, compatible with proposed next-level of ECMAScript, is a powerful language that supports direct XML processing (ECMAScript for XML, aka E4X), strong types, inheritance and mix-in interfaces, exceptions, and other robust software-engineering capabilities. It’s also got a JIT compiler which means a lot closer to native-code performance. Adobe folks don’t like it when I call AS3 “Java Lite” but that’s not far off the mark (and not a bad thing either IMO, given the API bloat of J2SE). And, unlike Java, AS3 is built on an optimized graphics and media engine which enables a far richer user experience than typical Windows desktop apps, much less HTML-based web apps.
And Flex 2.0 makes developing these rich interactive apps much easier – goodby timeline-centric designer-focused UI, hello IDE and XML UI description language for MVC applications and structured data binding to visual controls. Adobe is also easing in to the open source community by building the new development tooling for Flex, Flex Builder, on top of the leading open-source IDE, Eclipse. I’m a useless manager, and even I have been able to whip up cool things with Flex Builder. With 10x less code than, say, a Swing or SWT Java application, and 100x less time than it would take me to debug an unmanaged-memory C++ app or the JavaScript spaghetti of an AJAX web app.
I’m truly impressed with what the Flex and Flash Player teams have pulled off here, and we are eating our/their dogfood. Our team’s forthcoming eBook solution (codename “Twist”) leverages the Flash platform, with a Flex-based UI layer.
And I believe the potential importance of the Flash platform to digital publishing goes a lot further than how app UIs will be put together. As eBooks evolve, they increasingly will not be just digital replicas of paper. They will have interactive multimedia and the line between “document” and “application” will further blur, especially in publishing segments like K-12/higher-ed textbooks and STM. I don’t believe that HTML, even with AJAX and SVG, is going to cut it for representing this interactivity and richness in digital books. AJAX apps are tough enough to make work on the browsers du jour, much less to be expected to be usable on browsers of the future. PDF’s great but is really optimized for representing electronic paper, not interactive applications or free-form rich media. Microsoft’s WPF has a great “spec sheet” of capabilties but a Windows-lock-as the industry-wide cross-platform solution is repugnant. Java is way too heavy and not content-centric enough. Thus Flash SWF seems like an obvious choice to deliver the “surround sound” richness for the books of the future.
OK, sure, SWF and MXML can be viewed as “proprietary” – at least for now. But ActionScript 3 is fast becoming the future of the ECMAScript standard, and there are an increasing number of open source Flash solutions. And Flex is a great way to consume standards-based XML data. It certainly seems possible that some or all of SWF could, like PDF/A, follow the road from vendor-developed innovation to ISO standard. Meantime – trying to be neutral about it – if I were a publisher and had to choose between a cross-OS solution from a vendor like Adobe and a Windows-centric solution from Microsoft for interactivity and rich media in my digiital publishing strategy… or sticking with static PDF or XML documents that don’t deliver the richness that users increasingly expect… the choice seems pretty easy.
Anyway it should be an interesting next twelve months. I congratulate “Macro-Adobians” on FP9 & Flex 2. They rock.

7 Responses to Flash Player 9 & Flex 2 Released

  1. bloodflash says:

    OK, nice try.
    But where’s the promised version of Flash-Player-9 for Linux? ~30 employees here and nearly 100 customers with 5 to 120 employees each are begging for this plugin.
    http://blogs.adobe.com/penguin.swf/
    Only 1 Programmer for Linux-Flash at Adobe? Is this right?
    Shame on you!

  2. Well, Flash 9 sounds great — except I’m still waiting for Flash 7 for the Nokia 770 Internet Tablet. I carry my phone and my 770 with me everywhere, in a hip bag, but I know other people simply stick it in their pocket — it’s small, lightweight and accesses the web anywhere there’s WiFi. In other words, it’s a real-world example of the walkaround web. Unlike my desktop or laptop, I can surf walking down the street now (yes, I’ve done it) with a cell-phone connection or at any location inside a WiFi cloud. I access the web more often, in more places.
    So why does Adobe go to the trouble to push Flash to the limit but doesn’t want me or other 770 users to see websites that use Flash. (Well, at least not any current content — the 770 does have a Flash 6 player that works with the Opera browser included on the 770, but you know that most sites deliver Flash files newer than that.)
    The 770 sells for about one-third the price of Microsoft-initiated UMPC’s, but has the same 800×480 display. It’s not like you’d be going out on a limb — the device is a already a huge success and Nokia is a global company.
    BTW, the Nokia 770 can read PDF’s already. It’s just that Adobe is the only one who can create a Flash plugin and so every Nokia 770 user is stuck when they want to visit one of those Flash-based sites. You provide all these fabulous features for websites, push them to deliver Flash, but you won’t give us a way to see that content. There’s a contradiction here that I hope will finally be recognized and rectified. Maybe you could point this out to somebody who could do something about this?

  3. Ben Trafford says:

    “…if I were a publisher and had to choose between a cross-OS solution from a vendor like Adobe and a Windows-centric solution from Microsoft for interactivity and rich media in my digiital publishing strategy… or sticking with static PDF or XML documents that don’t deliver the richness that users increasingly expect… the choice seems pretty easy.”
    Given that Flash applications are inherently not usable by the visually disabled, and that most people I know hate hitting websites splattered with egregious amounts of animated hoopla, and that a goodly chunk of the world is still on dialup…I find this proposition highly questionable.
    Moreover, the idea that Flash might pervade electronic publishing is a very scary thing. I don’t want to open a book and have little people dancing across the screen, distracting me from my reading. I want text and words, and I want to know that if I give that publication to somebody who is visually impaired, that they will be able to work with it via a simple screen reader.
    Accessibility issues aside, this idea that users expect rich content (meaning SWF) is wrong-headed. Artists? Maybe. Marketing professionals? Probably. Everybody else?
    Naaaaaah.

  4. Bill McCoy says:

    Ben,
    I am not an accessibility expert but I understand that Flash accessibility capabilities are significantly improved in recent versions. So I think “inherently not usable by the visually disabled” may be a bit over-harsh. See: http://www.adobe.com/resources/accessibility/best_practices/bp_fp.html for a white paper on this.
    Regarding people wanting more than “text and words” in digital content. Well I guess it depends on the people, and the content. I don’t want little people dancing across the screen of my mystery novel either. But textbooks, children’s books, and many other kinds of books are far more than “text and words” and my children appreciate visual richness. I strongly suspect that my children, when adult, will want and expect richness and interactivity broadly in their digital content, even if I do not. Indeed the concept that a text-centric work should be limited to “text and words” and nothing else is arguably a buggy-whip artifact of the paper medium. You can as well say that fiction eBooks should have no color pictures because they aren’t practical in today’s printing. Or that movies should be filmed stage plays (as once they were). I doubt any of us can accurate predict where digital books are headed, but it’s a safe bet that it’s headed beyond being a replica of paper.
    And it is simply a reality that visually impaired people may be unable to fully experience visually-rich interactive content. I agree that we should strive for liquid, structured text content whenever feasible and leave interactivity and illustrations to where they deliver value add, whether that be instructional or entertainment, or even (I hate to say it) advertorial. The market is fully capable of sorting this out. I’m just pointing out the potential role for Flash in that aspect of the overall solution.

  5. I think Ben and I may have different views on the utility of animated and interactive texts (dancing people aside :-), but I think the ubiquity of Flash is worth noting.
    If an all-text no-dancing e-book were delivered within a Flash-based* e-reader, it would be capable of being read on more computers than any existing e-reader. The XML processing capabilities of the new version would seem to be well worth exploring for this reason. If Flash 9 can get onto my platform, that is. (If not, I withdraw my approving words.:-)
    Roger
    * Obviously, I mean something that’s Flash 6 or perhaps earlier.

  6. For someone like me, working every day within the limitations of the soon-to-be-extinct Adobe Content Server, any news of a new and improved Adobe ebook solution is most welcome!
    Bill, is there any way to learn more about Twist and your plans in that regard or is patience our only option, as has been the case so far? By our experience nobody else in Adobe seems to know anything regarding ebooks.
    The company I work for here in Denmark aims to provide publishers and readers with a credible and easy alternative to printed books. Since I’m the one responsible for providing support to all those who buy our Adobe-based ebooks, I’m hoping that any new ebook solution improves on ACS, especially regarding the DRM, which seems to be causing most of our customers’ problems.
    Martin Krøger

  7. oscar mondragon says:

    How about using Flash to run a desktop with fully-featured GUI aapps? Spanish-speakers can today with http://computadora.de and this same service will soon be available in English too. But as long as there isn’t a newer Flash player available for the 770 we’re out of luck.