by Eric Oldrin
Since its release in 1996, Flash has expanded into a platform of integrated technologies surrounded by an ecosystem of support programs, business partners, and user communities. As this platform has evolved, designers and developers have innovated. Their efforts have defined the Flash ecosystem as much as the Adobe engineers who develop it.
In this article, we ask those designers and developers what they think of the Adobe Flash Platform — what it is and how they're using it. Each shares a unique but consistent tale of rich, immersive experiences coupled with powerful technology. We hope their perspectives will both inform and inspire, as the story of Flash continues to unfold.
With more than 150 million active users, the Facebook platform enables developers to build tools that help people stay more connected. Knowing they could not possibly build every application on their own, Facebook opened its platform to the world. Since then, it has attracted over 660,000 developers who create more than 100 social applications a week.
We asked Josh Elman, program manager at Facebook, how these developers are using the Flash Platform. "Flash is the natural tool for developers to build social apps," says Elman. "What we're seeing with apps in general is a movement toward deep, immersive experiences, often built in Flash and Adobe Flex."
Elman sees the Adobe Flash Platform as a way to move social applications toward the richness of a desktop-level experience, while tapping into the power of the social graph, social connections, and a wealth of what Elman calls social context — the millions of connections to activities, personal media, and shared experiences.
Some of Elman's favorite examples of rich, immersive applications include Zynga poker, which leverages Flash and Flex, bringing Texas Hold 'Em to more than five million users a month (see Figure 1); the iLike music application, which utilizes Flash to enable simple music players to be seamlessly integrated into user profiles (see Figure 2); and Playfish, which offers several popular multiplayer games such as Bowling Buddies and Mini Golf Party (see Figure 3).
Figure 1. The Texas Hold ‘Em application from Zynga.
Figure 2. The iLike music application.
Figure 3. The Mini Golf Party multiplayer game from Playfish.
According to Elman, the Flash Platform enables Facebook developers and many like them to create immersive experiences that would previously only have been available in purchased software. "When I look around the web, Flash is by far the simplest and most powerful platform on which to build those experiences."
A leading innovator in online shopping, Allurent is bringing eCommerce to the next generation of technology and user experience. We spoke with Joe Chung, cofounder and CEO. "Offline, shopping is a pleasant experience. It's a destination, a form of therapy. Online, it's awful. It's a very static, frustrating experience. There's an enormous gap in that regard."
Allurent builds eCommerce solutions using Flash, Flex, and Adobe AIR to recreate the same sort of environment you'd expect from the store down the street. "We chose the Flash Platform because of the visual detail and finesse we could create in the end-user experience," says Chung.
With the Flash Platform, Allurent has begun to redefine online shopping for popular retailers such as Borders, Alltel Wireless, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie by delivering immersive experiences that accentuate the best parts of shopping without all the crowds.
Chung explains, "One of Borders' most differentiating qualities is its iconic store layout, and Staff Picks are a favorite part of that presentation." When Borders decided to relaunch its store, Allurent brought those Staff Picks online with the Magic Shelf through Flash and Flex (see Figure 4).
Figure 4. Borders' new eCommerce site, featuring the Magic Shelf.
Alltel Wireless understood that its customers are very visual and, in most cases, make their choices by reviewing a variety of phone styles rather than by reading a lengthy description of cellular functionality. "So Allurent enables people to browse along the wall of phones, see what's available, and just buy one," says Chung. Again using Flash and Flex, Allurent built a compelling visual experience that delivered an immersive eCommerce solution that's more in line with customer expectations (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Browsing phone styles on Alltel's customer-friendly site.
In both examples, Allurent was able to deliver a level of detail and finesse with Flash and Flex that is difficult to achieve with other tools, and as the company has worked to bring the pleasure of shopping online, the Flash Platform has been essential.
After years of building large-scale enterprise software, Cynergy Systems discovered Flex and literally reinvented the company. Dave Wolf, vice president of business development, says, "We think the Flash Platform is the future of how people are going to write software." Cynergy is now a leader in rich Internet applications, focused primarily on Flex and AIR.
The company saw enormous opportunity in leveraging the ecosystem of Flash to build rich Internet applications. According to Wolf, "A lot of people call the Flash Platform Web 2.0, but we feel it is really Software 2.0 or Desktop 2.0. Flex, combined with AIR, is really the route to achieve that." For Cynergy Systems, the Flash Platform is that cross-section of desktop-level power and browser-level relevance. The combination is a collection of incredibly powerful tools.
Using Adobe Flex and Adobe ColdFusion, Cynergy developed NavTrak, a fleet monitoring, management, and reporting application that enables real-time vehicle tracking, including vehicle positions, status, and health. From a single intuitive interface, fleet managers can locate their vehicles, receive alerts, play back vehicle travels, and publish reports (see Figure 6).
Figure 6. NavTrak, Cynergy's fleet monitoring application.
Using Flex, Cynergy also built Nimblefish Vision, a scalable, fully automated web video publishing system that dynamically assembles video from media elements to deliver personal, relevant video presentations (see Figure 7).
Figure 7. Nimblefish Vision, Cynergy's video presentation application.
For Cynergy, the Flash Platform is about useful tools with desktop-level interactivity. Leading the way in rich Internet applications, Cynergy's work has contributed greatly to the identity of the Flash ecosystem.
Ensemble Systems has more than 14 years' experience designing, implementing, and integrating enterprise solutions. An Adobe Enterprise Solution Partner, Ensemble boasts an impressive client list that includes software giants SAP, BEA, and Oracle as well as clients in the government, manufacturing, financial services, and media and publishing sectors.
The majority of Ensemble employees are technical consultants, essentially seasoned Java developers with years of server-side integration and front-end development experience. Three years ago, after years of frustration with JavaServer Page (JSP) development, Ensemble standardized on Flex — and, with it, the Adobe Flash Platform.
"Flex is a natural fit for our Java developers," says Vlad Ghelesel, VP of business development. "And obviously, when we're using Flex, we're using Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR as runtimes for our applications." Ensemble also uses Adobe LiveCycle to streamline and automate business processes, such as data capture, information assurance, and document output.
According to Ray Blaak, CTO of Ensemble, "With Flex, our Java developers can approach a web application as if it were a desktop application: we can code in a straightforward programming language; work with familiar object-oriented concepts, user interface components, and event models; and program and debug the application in a manner that is very familiar to us."
Ensemble is currently working with a large enterprise customer to build a survey system for capturing on-site assessments. "We could have built a management console for them (to manage form templates and collected survey data) using JSPs, but the development and maintenance of JSPs is very time-consuming and tedious. The obvious choice was to use Flex for front-end development and to deploy the application using Flash Player," says Ghelesel.
And with all this talk of Flex and Java developers, you may be asking "What about the .NET community?" Ensemble recently introduced a new offering called Ensemble Tofino for Visual Studio, a plug-in that enables .NET developers to create Flex front ends for their C#/.NET web applications using Microsoft Visual Studio.
From eCommerce and social applications to product ideation, the Adobe Flash Platform means something different to every designer and developer who uses it. Each perspective adds to the story of this important Adobe product. Yet throughout the Flash ecosystem, the common view is that the Flash Platform inspires immersive, powerful experiences across multiple devices, products, and businesses.
Eric Oldrin is Executive Producer / General Manager at Digital Kitchen.