Recently, the media has been focussing on the possibility of a single company gaining control over the open technology upon which the internet is based, namely Microsoft's attempts to "embrace and extend" internet technologies such as HTML, XML, and Java. Furthermore, Unisys's patent on the LZW compression used in the GIF format used in almost all Web sites today, and their claim of royalties from every webmaster that does use it, has rightly outraged many people.
The general concensus is that the technology used to create web sites should be open to all without restriction, and no company should be trying to control the development of the web with proprietary technologies. To this end, the World Wide Web Consortium was established to guide the development of open standards for fundamental web technologies such as HTML, XML, PNG, and CSS.
In fact, despite the reluctance of user-agent developers to adopt the W3C specifications (witness Internet Explorer's and Navigator's lacklustre attempts at CSS-1 implementation) the W3C has been a reasonable success, and most of their recommendations are now used in the daily expansion of the web.
However, despite the apparent lack of proprietary technologies on today's Web, there is one company that is gently shaping the future of its technological foundations, through an emerging technology that has already become a de facto standard by reason of its widespread adoption. This is Macromedia's Flash.
Originally, Macromedia's efforts were concentrated on the rather unwieldy and difficult to learn Director. However, in December 1995, Macromedia developed Shockwave for Director, an interactivity plugin from which Flash eventually evolved. Flash is a vector-based animation and interactivity plugin that has dramatically altered the perceived potential of the Web.
Early uses of Flash generally involved users downloading the plugin to view a show-piece animation created by enthusiatic multi-media developers keen to get onto the Web. In its later incarnations, Flash has been used as the basis of interactive, animated Web sites with streaming sound and advanced functionality. Of all Web technologies that showed early promise, Flash is the one has most lived up to its potential.
It should come as no surprise then that estimates show Flash to be in use by as many as 70% of all Web users, a figure that browser vendors can only dream of. Despite being a proprietary technology, (you need a Macromedia plugin to view it, a Macromedia editor to create with it, and Macromedia own the rights), Flash has become a de facto standard for lightweight, Web-based interactive multi-media. In a world where the first technology to be widely adopted is unlikely to be displaced by competitors (and Flash is distributed with most browsers and even Windows 98), Flash looks set to remain the standard for implementing vector graphics on the web.
Is this a Bad Thing?
As web developers, we are constantly exposed to the war between browser vendors to have their proprietary (and often buggy) extensions to standards adopted by the general public before those of the competition. This no-holds-barred approach has perhaps delayed our ability to roll-out new technologies by four or five years as we are forced to either accept buggy implementations, multiple versions of sites, or to wait several years for users to adopt the latest technology.
With Flash, Macromedia has steathily avoided the issue of vendor compliance by ensuring that they control the Flash standard and specification. Suddenly, web developers find themselves with a fully-functional, cross-platform standard for dynamic presentations of astonishing depth and impact.
Such a technology cannot be ignored, and developers are showing that to be true. At the recent London International Advertising Awards, every single winner made extensive use of Flash on their sites. In a world where development occurs at a phenomenal rate, a rate with which HTML implementations cannot keep pace, Flash is the killer application for which we have all been waiting.