Can Flex save Flash?
A lifetime ago, I wrote an article titled Flex and PHP: Party in the Front, Business in the Back in which I had this to say about Flex.
Flex won’t help developers like me design eye-pleasing interfaces any more than a new pencil would improve my inability to draw.
After writing the article and the accompanying source code, I packed away my Flex license and went back to programming PHP application because…well, because PHP solved the problems I was working on (honestly, that’s the only real reason to use any tool).
In 2009, Marco Tabini (now a business associate of mine, at that point just a good friend) contacted me and asked me to present on Flex during the CodeWorks ’09 conference tour. It had been a long while since I had even thought about Flex, so I installed the 60-day demo and started playing around again. (Yes, that’s one of the things I love about flex: Adobe recognizes that you can’t get the feel for a language in thirty days so the test drive is sixty. Go Adobe!)
Over the course of the seven cities that made up the CodeWorks ’09 tour, I presented 11 hours of sessions on Flex. At each stop, I built a simple twitter client from scratch as the attendees watched (incidentally. I learned a lot about live coding in conferences sessions and the importance of not depending on conference Internet connections). Even though I hadn’t worked with Flex in more than 2 years, I was able to easily slip back into the groove and build this simple example from nothing more than an idea every time.
Since then, I’ve moved back home to the US and am now a partner with Blue Parabola. The very first project I worked on was a simple but media-rich online contest that I chose to build in Flex for the New York Red Bulls soccer team. The final product looks excellent—I did not design the User Interface—and works well (I did write all the code). I was very pleased at how easy it was to build a moderately complex piece of front-end code.
The point of the above preamble was to show that I feel that Flex and Flash are both still useful technologies. The question is, how much longer will Flash be useful and can Flex extend that useful lifetime?
Apple vs. Adobe
No one has been beating the drum the anti-Flash drum more than Apple. With it’s top management reportedly claiming that Flash is buggy and performs poorly, Apple has allegedly denied Adobe access to the iPhone and iPad like a spoiled child protecting a favorite toy. If true, Apple’s attacks on Adobe are especially grievous since if Adobe had not been so supportive of Mac in the early days—producing top quality graphics tools for Mac first and giving Microsoft and Windows users the cold shoulder—Apple and the Mac platform would not be enjoying the loyalty of the graphic design community. It is disheartening that Apple seems willing to forget its friends when it’s convenient. Even when it’s pointed out than many of Apple’s arguments against Flash are specious at best, they continue to liken Flash to floppy disks.
Apple’s bad behavior notwithstanding, the question of whether the venerable Flash has reached its end of life is, of course, the crux of the matter.
Flash vs. HTML5
It is true that HTML5 contains many—but not all—of the features that Flash has given the web over the years. I do look forward to HTML5’s finalization and adoption, the fact of the matter is, Flash is here now. With the exception of Apple, it’s widely supported and usable now. Flex adds to Flash in very important ways, the most important being that it makes the tool much easier for programmers to work with. Even if HTML5 were adopted in a consistent way across browsers tomorrow, there are still no tools like Flex Builder that programmers can use to build applications with it.
It ain’t over until it’s over
So, to answer my own question, can Flex save Flash? The answer is a resounding “for now.” No technology lives forever and Flash has had a great run—however, it’s not quite done yet. Apple’s petulance aside, Flash will continue to be an important technology for some time. Flex will allow programmers more freedom to create Flash-based applications for both the web and for the desktop.
Microsoft’s Silverlight and HTML5 will both challenge Flash for dominance in the coming years. One of them may eventually unseat it. However, don’t expect to see that happen soon: given the slow rate of adoption on the web for new technologies, it could arguably be in the five years or more before one of them has the adoption rate to unseat the reigning champion. Remember—Flash is still installed on 99% of computers (and that’s according to both Adobe’s own metrics and several independent surveys), a statistic that other technologies would kill to have. It will take time and a good set of tools to unseat Flash from its throne.
So for the time being, developers and designers alike will continue to develop Flash applications for the web and the desktop. As for me, I’ll continue to develop ugly apps and turn them over the likes of the lovely and talented Kathy to make them look nice. A sharper pencil just gives me another way to hurt myself and others.