Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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Flash Versus LiveMotion

As you may recall, last month we undertook an investigation of standards and their application in nearly all aspects of daily life. This time out we'll continue this theme with an article comparing two web based technologies from competing vendors Adobe and Macromedia.

Until very recently (like anything is other than "very recently" when discussing the Internet) the presentation layer on the ‘net was composed of static text, low resolution graphics and at best an animated gif or two. Then in 1996, a company called Future Wave came out with an application that created complex animated vector graphics which could be rendered within existing browsers and yet maintain the very low KB threshold required to function acceptably over the low bandwidth connections of the day. The problem with "FutureSplash" was that it was distributed as a pluggin which required users to download it in order to view animated content. This wasn't such a big issue for users of Internet Explorer, as the pluggin was an Active-X component which downloaded and installed automatically; however, those in the majority (at the time) who used Netscape had to manually download, install and then restart their browsers to access the content. By the time many had accomplished this, they'd forgotten why they were doing it in the first place. As a result, the standard for vector graphics over the Internet was slow to emerge.

As Internet Explorer gained marketshare however, the popularity of this graphics format rapidly increased and Future Wave became an acquisition target of multimedia software vendor Macromedia. Once purchased in 1997, the combined resources worked to enhance the functionality of the format, incorporating streaming audio, server-side interactivity and renamed it "Flash".  The world at large suddenly began to take notice; both Microsoft and Netscape offered installation options which included support for the ".swf" file format and Flash enabled sites started popping up everywhere. In addition, Dreamweaver, the company's advanced HTML editor, was gaining tremendous support among serious web designers. It seemed the world was Macromedia's oyster... that is until the sleeping giant was awakened.

While Adobe Systems has been by far the world leader in graphics and publishing software for many years, its recent foray into the web publishing space with support for HTML renderings of formerly print only document types inherent in all its core product offerings certainly demonstrates that you can teach an old dog new tricks. Now old-school designers can relatively easily translate their print skills to the new medium utilising tools and techniques they are already well familiar with. The result? A huge increase in professional presentation layer renderings on the web.

Next, Adobe turned its attention to the upstart's proprietary vector graphics format. First they created an alternative development  environment with their LiveMotion product which fully supports Macromedia's .swf file format and uses an interface already familiar to users of Adobe's sundry applications. While LiveMotion certainly needs some work to match Macromedia's Flash development environment, it definitely shows promise and in some ways (especially for Photoshop and Illustrator users) is clearly superior. Yet this application isn't the real threat to Macromedia's dominance in the web enabled vector graphics arena.

Adobe is now championing a new file format known as "Scalable Vector Graphics". SVG is an open standard written in XML and thus has the advantage of being text based vs. the binary format of Flash. This allows for file manipulation by a multitude of scripting languages without the having to reopen, edit and save the SVG file in the application that generated it. Let's say for example you wanted to alter the common  background colour of 20 different animated banners ad or intersessionals site wide... simply change an associated CSS file and viola – you're done. Another advantage of the text based format is that all content is searchable; not so with Flash. Further, great Photoshopesque effects including gausian blur, drop shadow, and glows - not normally associated with vector graphics may not only be rendered but layered and independently  animated as well. sRGB and ICC colour management systems are both supported, enabling the designer to ensure the online version stays true to that of the print version and the customer actually gets a product of the hue they see on the screen. Adobe's commitment to this standard is evident in its current versions of Illustrator and GoLive! -  both of which export to SVG format. Obviously the next release of LiveMotion will further raise the bar with its inclusion and promises to be a more robust implementation of the standard.

So will SVG emerge the victor despite the current ubiquity of Macromedia's Flash or will it go the way of VRML? If anything, the browser war taught us that current market dominance is no guarantee of its continuity. Adobe will be fighting an uphill battle as it faces the same pluggin dilemma that Future Wave did in '96 with the additional burden of having to oust an incumbent. However, with a consortium of companies including Corel, Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Xerox, and now even Macromedia on the W3C working group, you can be assured that there will definitely be some choppy seas ahead for Flash in its current incarnation.

Originally published in Ottawa Computes! magazine, April, 2001, by technology columnist, Ray Richards.

Sidebar

In the end, Adobe just gave up competing with Marcomedia and simply aquired them, leading to the creation of the web and graphics behemoth we all know today. While this certainly hasn't been good for the competitive landscape, Adobe has definitely put out some great products lately; and we can only hope that this trend continues and the aquisition doesn't serve to elicit complacency or stifle innovation.

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