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The future of Flash

Continuing Adobe's drive towards internet domination, the next incarnation of Flash Player is imminent. An update that promises major upgrades to both performance and scope, Flash Player 10 has plenty of designers eagerly anticipating the software's arrival.

The new version features a number of performance boosts (not least for the much-maligned Mac version), in part thanks to greater use of hardware acceleration. Other key features of Flash Player 10 include custom filters and effects, advanced text layout, an enhanced drawing API (enabling designers to craft sophisticated shapes without coding them line by line), and new sound and 3D APIs. The company argues that this collection of improvements will lead to creativity and interactivity in web-based experiences reaching a level that is currently only possible on the desktop.

Andrew Shorten, an Adobe 'platform evangelist', reckons it's the new 3D features that have the most potential to change the way designers work with the internet. He explains that they make it simple to transform and animate 2D objects in 3D, and in tandem with new custom filters and effects enable the creation of increasingly fluid, realistic and responsive designs. "I'm hoping that we'll see designers leverage these capabilities in order to bring 3D into mainstream web experiences," he says.

As an example, he proposes a revolution in online stores, with users being able to navigate using a fully 3D interface. Although this kind of thing has been tried online before, Shorten argues that the improved performance of Flash Player 10 combined with increasing broadband speeds makes such rich multimedia experiences a viable proposition.

You'd fully expect Adobe personnel to celebrate the company's favourite adopted child, but various designers we spoke to were also quick to make similar claims regarding the potential of Flash Player 10. Christian Auth at German full-service agency Scholz & Volkmer is dedicated to Flash. In his words, it's the "only technology with an acceptable distribution that enables the creation of sophisticated high-impact front-ends that combine images, motion design and video". Although he says that 3D in Flash is currently hampered by performance issues, he reckons Flash Player 10 will cause a rush for 3D libraries and give his agency wider scope for designing and delivering innovative interfaces and navigation concepts.

Jacek Karaszewski of Warsaw's new media agency Endorfine is more cautious about the new 3D opportunities, however, insisting that although he's interested, he'd sooner wait and see how such things are implemented by designers: "If this is an effect that's easy to abuse, it could lead to a proliferation of garbage, 3D, spinning logos 2.0." Instead, his attention has been grabbed by the many touted improvements to Flash in the 2D plane. "A good example is the ability to create custom filters and blend modes," he enthuses. "We've often had problems recreating Photoshop layouts in Flash, and this will pretty much solve them."

Shorten notes that many of the updates within Flash Player 10 were created to address problems designers faced with previous versions of Flash. One of the most requested features is better text support. "With Flash Player 10, we've added a new text layout engine that provides low-level access to text," he explains. "When combined with new text layout components, it offers right-to-left and vertical text layout, as well as text that flows around tables and inline images." He adds that this will make it easier for Flash designers to fully internationalise content and applications.

But the new text features aren't just about translation, and Auth reckons Flash could now finally provide designers with the typographic control they require, doing away with the need for workarounds. doing away with the need for workarounds. He reckons Flash Player 10's advances will lead to creatives developing typographically sophisticated designs that are of a much higher quality, and in much less time. Auth is similarly optimistic about the new drawing API, feeling constricted by the existing feature set and its limited functionality, and looks forward to creating more dynamic animations more easily.

Flash also appears to be gaining ground in gaming - notably branded online games - and application development. Along with the aforementioned 3D capabilities, Alistair Macdonald, a designer at Brighton-based Flash gurus Kerb, has had his interest piqued by the new sound API in the Flash Player update. He reckons it will finally enable designers to synthesise and sequence music within Flash, providing the end user with changing music that reflects the state of play.

However, it's a number of smaller changes that he's most looking forward to. "Built-in custom cursors!" he raves. "Finally, we'll be able to use button, hand and I-beam cursors without having to use a custom sprite that follows the cursor position." He also sings the praises of new file reference methods that enable you to save and load files from a user's desktop: "This is fantastic news when you're making a level editor, because we can just save out an XML file with all the level information in it."

Of course, new features always come at a cost. Anyone who's worked with PCs and Macs for years will be aware that desktop computing rarely feels any faster than it did in the 90s. As computers get more powerful, increasingly complex software drains resources, and you're back to square one. Adobe's been getting it in the neck regarding Flash performance for some time. "I'm most excited by Flash Player 10's promise of hardware acceleration," says Karaszewski. "I can't even imagine the possibilities Flash will present when this barrier is at last gone."

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