BitDepth 630 - June 03

Flash has added a lot of excitement to web pages, but it's also created some hurdles as well.
Why Flash must die

At the CSS Garden, web designers work from the same HTML file and add their own design, images and CSS stylesheet to redesign it. Each of these four images shares the same base HTML code.

Flash, Adobe's software for building sophisticated animation for web pages, is the dominant method for distributing motion based content on the Internet. It is the foundation of the YouTube phenomenon, and the cornerstone technology of almost every website created to support a movie.
But is Flash good for the Internet?
In 2008, the technology is beginning to feel like a clumsy kludge, unsupported on the iPhone, not very well supported on most mobile phones and a figment of the imagination on Linux distributions.

In addition, Microsoft clearly isn't happy with the product's dominance, and has crafted a competitor, Silverlight, which it hopes will displace Flash or at least match its functionality and appeal to Internet users.
The product was introduced in 1995 as Futuresplash Animator from Futurewave, originally as software for doing cel based animation. Macromedia bought the product in 1996 as an adjunct product to its multimedia products Director and Authorware, which were, respectively, designed for CD ROM delivery of entertainment and for building educational content.
Macromedia renamed the product Flash and inadvertently killed off both of its existing products. Director still exists, after a fashion, but Authorware was officially spiked in 2003.

Flash or fax?
The success of Flash is really the success of the fax machine. At the same time that faxes, a crude method of transmitting a picture of a page from one point to another were being marketed to the public, a far superior way of transmitting data, the first nodes of the Internet, already existed.
It is no accident that the screeching sounds that a fax made while connecting seemed so similar to those of the earliest modems. Both technologies operated by turning data into electronic pulses that could travel along phone lines before reassembling them into readable documents at the other end of the connection.
But fax machines were cheaper than the earliest computers, easier to explain and the technology delivered something that was usable, if only barely. Flash forward, so to speak, to 2008, an era in which e-mail is finally pervasive and the fax as a data transmission tool is slowly dying off.

The arc of Flash popularity is beginning to show a similar trend, as new coding techniques begin to replace its role.
In its earliest days, the HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) that defined much of the World Wide Web was pretty crude, but it was also relatively easy to understand. You could, with a bit of effort, figure out how to bang out a straightforward web page without reaching for a pocket protector.
Over time, the design needs of the web led to various hacks that worked around the annoying flexibility of web pages, such as frames and invisible images that brought structure and reams of additional code to the typical web page.
It was in the midst of this chaos that Flash arrived, allowing not just motion graphics in a controllable environment, but absolute, repeatable design that stayed the same from browser to browser.

CSS to the rescue
Now most serious web designers use CSS (Cascading Style Sheets), a coding system that brings the principle of document stylesheets familiar to hardcore word processing users and page layout specialists to the web.
Unlike typical word processor stylesheets, which typically affect just the formatting of text, CSS can also control the positioning of items on a web page with startling flexibility and accuracy.
This is something that's actually harder to explain than to show. Visit the
CSS Zen Garden for a stunning display of just how much flexibility CSS coding can offer a web page designer.
From the user perspective, CSS means no plug-in to download or update, you just need a browser released within the last two years. It is worth nothing, however, that most browsers have various inconsistencies (bugs, dude) in CSS rendering.

From the designer's perspective, CSS adds another layer of complexity to the code of a typical web page, but it's nothing that an experienced hand coder would find insurmountable. More compellingly, CSS is another step toward separating web page design from content, which makes redesigns less of an intimidating prospect.
With more flexible options available for designing the look and feel of pages, Flash will, with any luck, be relegated to the purpose for which it was originally built, packaging content in a controllable window. There remains much room for improvement even in that function as the quality of a typical YouTube video would suggest.
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