The rise and fall of the Rich Internet Applications

Published by Manfred Karrer on Thursday, 19 of January , 2012 at 02:38

With the heavily discussed announcement from Adobe about their commitment to Flex they crossed the line were it seems very likely that the Flash platform will not survive in the long term.

What Steve Jobs started, seems to be completed by Adobe themself.

This is somehow weird and bizarre because they own a technology which was incredible successful the last 12 years and is still the best solution for many kinds of Rich Internet Applications.

To just name a few reasons why I see Flash as such a strong platform:

  • Nearly multi-platform technology. Ubiquitous penetration of the browser plugin + AIR (well I know: Steve Jobs left his marks….)
  • Good development environment (language, tools, community, Flex framework…)
  • Good performance and security model
  • Easy and cheap to deliver good looking multimedia enabled user experience

Flash has set new standards and drove the internet forward (ok, I know ads are done with Flash as well…). Animation, multimedia, rich user interaction and the possibility to build desktop-like applications running in the browser are with Flash not a big deal. The rise of what Adobe coined Rich Internet Applications (RIA), were mainly driven by Flash/Flex.

I am not saying Flash is the best platform, and there are many things on my wish list and stuff to complain about. I also would prefer an open source technology following standards.

From a technology point of view there are many better solutions, like Director or the Java plugin were in the past much better then Flash but did not survive because of the low plugin penetration and the odd installation process. Flash was somehow the star for a long time and left the others behind, probably mainly because of the ease to install the plugin which leads to the high penetration rate of >98%. With Flex Adobe managed it to deliver a pretty good GUI framework and also attracted developers from more traditional languages like Java or C#.

The competitors like Silverlight, JavaFX or now HTML5 are seeming somehow (in the best case) like a copy and did not shine with much innovation.

Of course Flash is used in many places where it does not make sense, like for video or more complex web page navigation combined with HTML pages. So it is good that the modern browsers are able now to do this stuff directly without the indirection of a plugin. And of course it would be much better to have a browser being capable doing all kind of stuff directly which is done currently in Flash or with other plugins.

But why has this not happened in the last 15 years since browsers are prominent actors in the IT world?

Probably the biggest advantage of Flash was, that it bypassed the nasty problems with the incompatibility of the browsers and the slowness of innovation with the trick of using the plugin architecture to deliver a standard runtime for any browser and OS.

Like Java Flash can proudly proclaim: Write once, run everywhere!

And it looked great, was fast, was multimedia aware and made fun to play around. Concentrate the work on the application or game and not on dealing with browser compatibility problems.

With Actionscript (2,3) they set the foundation for a robust development environment. When you read about features of Googles Dart or some of Scala it somehow seems similar to that hybrid and well cooked mixture of Java and dynamic language features.

On this foundation it was possible to build large scale applications which were previously build as Java or C# desktop apps.

Why did companies move from the mature software development standards to something new and risky like Flash/Flex?

Because the apps looked good just out of the box, it was easy to develop and customize, multimedia was just a natural ingredient and it was more suitable for agile development models (rapid prototyping). At the end the costs were much lower as with a traditional software development process.

I think that was the main driver why RIAs became a success story. I think often the real reasons are pretty trivial.

Of course it is a benefit to have a browser based application available anywhere and the management of updates is much easier to handle. But the nature of RIAs is different to web pages. With an application you have a closer relation and there is no real barrier to install the app if it shows some real benefit to you. The success of mobile apps is proving that users have no problem to install an app they are using on a regular basis. If the way how to install it is easy, secure and free, the user does not mind the installation and even prefer the app model over the browser model (If you use twitter on your mobile, you use the app not the browser, right?).

What I want to say with this:

I do not believe the rise and success of RIAs came from the fact that the application is available on any computer via a browser, but more from other factors.

  • The browser is recognized as trusted environment (no problems with security issues)
  • The development costs are lower
  • The maintenance costs are lower
  • The User experience is often better (looks better)

With the decline of Flash/Flex I do not see yet any alternative technology which has the strength and market power of Flash.

The main problem with HTML5 I see in the politically motivated fragmentation of the browsers.

That seems even worse then 10 years ago. Back there was Microsoft against the rest. Now we have Google against Apple against Microsoft ignoring the rest.

They are all following totally different business targets with their browser concepts and I do not see any reasons why they should work better together in the future.

For me the problem with HTML5 is that you have to write code handling the differences of the most important browsers, so the main features works on all of them. Then you need to support some other browsers with a reduced feature set. And you need to test all versions in a very fast changing environment. That all comes with a poor language (Javascript is like Actionscript 1 12 years ago), a poor development environment and poor performance. I do not see any technological progress with this HTML5 hype. Flash 5 in 2000 was already more advanced (is the matching version number a coincidence?).

So in my opinion the only solution will be a technology which strongly supports multi-platform compilation.

Unity3D does this, haXe is doing this and openLaszlo did this partly already since 2004, as well as some other interesting moves in this direction (Joa Ebert). Adobe seemed to missed this trend.

The developer should not care about the output platform and concentrate to build applications without hacking to make it run in different environments.

Isn’t that the evolution of computer languages?

Machine code -> assembly -> C -> VM languages -> ?

Liberate the developer from the low level technical implementation and let him concentrate to the domain he is modeling in software. Writing hacks to make an application run on different browsers is against this evolution.

Of course writing multi-platform apps comes with some inherent problems. There are different capabilities, sizes, contexts and limitations to deal with, but they come naturally with the platforms and are not politically motivated hurdles created artificially by browser vendors.

I think the right candidate must be able to deliver an application for all major target platform without dealing with significant adoption problems and provide a modern, state of the art development environment (language, tools,…):

  • Desktop (Win, Mac, Linux)
  • Mobile/Tablet (Android, iOs)
  • Web (Flash, HTML5)
  • And maybe also Consoles or even Set-top boxes

This will define a new situation for the RIAs:

Assume you can develop an application for any platform, getting results which are close to native apps for this platform.

What are the benefits of RIAs when the Desktop app is much faster and has more capabilities?

Of course sometimes it makes sense to have the app, maybe as light or demo version, in the web for giving a lower entry barrier or to get a higher visibility. But in general the choice for the main platform will be much more derived from the nature and usage of the app then from external factors.

The stuff I use regularly I want to have as desktop or tablet app to get the best performance, security and feature set. If I need it to be mobile I install it as mobile app. Only the casual stuff will be a target candidate for the browser.

I do not think the browser will have the same importance in future like now (I know I am in opposition to Google with this). With a multi-platform compiler you can choose which platform matches best to your needs, and the browser will be reduced to that what it can do best. Displaying web pages and not imitating desktop applications.

I think sometimes ones success is more driven by the weakness of the others. Again pretty trial and no hot slogan for driving a hype.

Flash was successful because the browser vendors did (and still do) such a bad job in making a common standard and to being innovative.

The browser has been so successful because the OS vendors did a real bad job to not providing an easy and secure installation environment (the reason for Apples app store success). As well as not providing a native platform for cheap and easy software development (it is much easier to start with Flash or HTML then to write C code) and ignoring the importance and integration of the internet.

I guess in future there will be a multi-platform paradigm with focus on a main platform which makes most sense for the specific domain. The Desktop applications are looking somehow old as they have missed many important trends and can learn a lot from some successful RIAs. The RIAs which are imitating desktop apps will loose ground as with a multi-platform compiler there is no much motivation anymore not to deliver the better target platform.

Maybe I am all wrong with this. I know that I am against the current trends with these opinions, but i simply cannot see any real progress with this HTML5 hype and feel that there is a real need for something new.

Comments (2)

Category: Actionscript,Flash,OffTopic,Software,Unity3D

Unity will support Flash platform

Published by Manfred Karrer on Monday, 28 of February , 2011 at 16:22

Great news!: Unity will support the Flash platform in future!
Wow that is really an exciting move!

I have had recently a look to Unity in search for alternatives to Flash, and was wondering why they are not supporting the Flash Player. They already supports a lot of different platforms, but Flash was missing. I thought the technical limitations and differences would be a too hard barrier.

But now they released the news that they are working on the support for exporting Unity projects to the Flash platform as well as to Android, IPhone (and the rest of the I… derivates), XBox, Mac/PC desktop apps and their Unity Web Player (Linux Player is in development). It is becoming a real tough multi-platform tool! This could have a deep impact, as Unity seems from technological point of view much more advanced then Flash and the main barrier for using it in the web, was the low player penetration of the Unity Web Player. So it was locked to the special cases where the installation of a new plugin is no problem for users, but unfortunately for 90% of the mainstream clients and projects this is a no go. But with this strategy they will get in one move the support of the 99% penetration of the flash player (ok, with the latest player version that is not correct, but people don´t care so much about an update of the Flash Player then about a new installation of an unknown plugin).
And Adobe is getting a real strong competitor, so hopefully they are forced to pay more attention to performance and development environment. The current Flashbuilder is compared to the tools available for Java or .NET not very competitive, to express it friendly. I have not worked with Unity yet, but will use the next opportunity to try it out.

I am also wondering how much they can cover outside the classical 3D world? Flash has started as a pure animation tool and has become a main player for web application development. I bet the inventors didn´t expect this. So why should not Unity become a tool also for classical applications, 3D comes free if needed, and it seems that 3D will become more and more an intrinsic part of up to date software. 3D-TV sets and Mobiles are currently the hot thing and I think it´s only a question of (hopefully not too much) time, until 3D displays are common also at desktops. 3D content will be the missing link then.

Unity is just ready to take off!

Looking forward also to the new Flash Player (Molehill) which brings GPU-accelerated 3D to the Flash platform.

Comments Off on Unity will support Flash platform

Category: Flash,Flashplayer,Flex,Flex Builder,Unity3D