Flash Basics

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2522, 2007-06-01, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 16-17) and their website.

When the uninitiated hear that a particular website has "Flash", they may think it means the site has pizzazz. Actually, it means the site uses a technology known as Flash, which allows the site to display "rich content". In other words, the site can present to the visitor video and audio content, like a movie playing within a region of a Web page.

At first glance, this might not sound special, given that Web pages have offered animated images and embedded music files during most of the Web's history. But Flash takes it one step further: A Flash movie — also known as a Flash presentation or Flash application — can be made interactive, so that it can respond to input provided by the site visitor, consisting of keyboard and mouse commands.

That sort of capability should seem familiar to all computer users, aside from the use of Web pages: Flash movies can be made to work much like desktop applications, with an additional benefit that they can be delivered over the Internet, obviating the need for downloading and installing to a local drive.

Admittedly, there are substantial limitations to Flash movies that prevent them from rivaling the more mature desktop applications written in advanced programming languages. Nonetheless, Flash applications can be remarkably powerful. To experience these capabilities firsthand, try some of the free online games, all implemented using Flash (Flash-Games.net, funflashgames.com, and Flash-Game.net offer many such games).

Those same technical limitations also prevent Flash from being used to develop operating systems. But that certainly has not prevented some imaginative souls from doing the next best thing: emulating an operating system. For instance, former Mac OS 7 users can take a trip down memory lane via http://www.myoldmac.net/webse-e-flash.htm. Its functionality is implemented entirely in Flash. Naturally, several of the games work; even the word processing and drawing programs work!

A Rich History

Flash originated during the 1980s, when a small software firm, FutureWave, created a vector-based drawing program, SmartSketch — neither of which garnered much attention. But with the Internet revolution, the SmartSketch developers saw the potential for delivering rich content within Web browsers. They added frame-by-frame animation to the program, thus positioning it to compete against Macromedia's Shockwave product, whose movies took longer to download — a critical factor during that era of largely dial-up Internet access.

SmartSketch saw some use by Microsoft, and was offered to Adobe. But it wasn't until late 1996 when it acquired the marketing potential offered by a larger firm, when Macromedia — in a Microsoftian move — eliminated the Shockwave rival by buying the company. Exactly 10 years later, Adobe did the same, when it merged with Macromedia.

In the meantime, the technology, renamed Flash, was made more powerful with many new features, including improved color support, stereo sound, a scripting language (ActionScript), support for downloaded video, and eventually streaming video. These capabilities made it possible for website developers to embed Flash movies into Web pages, such as banner ads, and as the "splash screens" that serve as the (often visually stunning) start pages for many websites.

Although countless Web developers became enamored with Flash and what it could be used for, even more Web users began to despise what it was being overused for, such as obnoxious ads. People increasingly disabled Flash within their Web browsers, whenever possible. Users of the Firefox Web browser began to block Flash advertising, using extensions, such as Adblock Plus and Flashblock.

No Flash in the Pan

Even though Flash movies can be excluded from one's individual Web experience, Flash as a technology is a powerful factor on the Web. Adobe claims that more than 97 percent of Internet users have Flash installed in their Web browsers. This market penetration is largely a result of the major browsers bundling Flash as a plug-in, as was done with Windows XP. Prior to these inclusions, anyone wishing to view a Flash movie would have to download the plug-in.

Adobe Flash is holding up well against the competition, such as Apple's QuickTime and Microsoft's Windows Media Player. That is likely because Flash generally downloads and installs faster, consumes less memory, and starts up faster. Flash movies themselves can typically be downloaded faster, as a result of the greater efficiencies of vector graphics. (There are several technical factors which can greatly affect performance, but we will not delve into those issues.)

Given the market share and capabilities of Flash, it should be considered by anyone creating a website, even if they elect not to utilize it. However, one hurdle to the would-be developer, is the cost of purchasing Flash Professional, which is Adobe's development tool for producing Flash movies. An alternative is SWiSH Max.

Flash-ifying a Web Site

Regardless of how a Flash movie is created, the end result is a file, containing all of the video and audio for the movie, and possessing ".swf" as its file extension by default. The Flash movie can then be added to any Web page using the and HTML tags, which each have their own attributes applicable to Flash files. Space limitations prevent an in-depth discussion of these tags and attributes, as well as the problems of one Web browser supporting certain ways of coding the tags and attributes, but not other ways, which are preferred by alternative browsers.

For more details on how to choose the tags and attributes so as to maximize the chances that your site's visitors will have no difficulty viewing Flash movies, read the discussion at http://www.dgx.cz/trine/item/how-to-correctly-insert-a-flash-into-xhtml. It offers what may be the best compromise, and points out specific problems with an approach that had been recommended by Macromedia.

Fortunately, the Internet offers a wealth of information as to how to use Adobe's integrated products for creating Flash movies, as well as how to use HTML tags for embedding those movies on a website. Perhaps the first resources to explore are the Flash tutorials found at http://www.tutorialized.com/. As of this writing, they number 1627 — plenty to keep the aspiring Flash developer busy. Flash Kit, a developer community that apparently has more than half a million members, offers hundreds of tutorials, in addition to a newsletter.

But if you find online tutorials to be inadequate, or simply too fragmented to give you a solid understanding, then you should check out some of the many books that explain how to develop Flash movies and publish them on your site. You could start with O'Reilly Media, a favorite with programmers, and use their site's search facility to list hundreds of Flash books and articles.

No matter how you begin learning this impressive Web technology, just be sure not to use the power of Flash for the Dark Side, i.e., obnoxious flashing banner ads and annoying splash pages.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.