One of the more interesting debates at the Ajax Summit this week concerned Flash and its relationship to or inclusion in Ajax. The discussion was more interesting because of the Flash demo that Kevin Lynch (CTO of Macromedia, the makers of Flash) gave on the first day — and maybe also simply because he was there at the table.
When the demos ended and we started to talk about the question of outcomes for the meeting, the group seemed to share Kevin’s stance on Flash and Ajax, at least to start. “Flash is Ajax” was the top bullet on the outcomes page. I’m sure a bit of this was in deference to Kevin, who after all was sitting right there, but I also think that people were very impressed by Kevin’s demo. David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals and Ruby on Rails fame said something like, I never thought I would use Flash, but after seeing that demo, if that’s what Flash is, I’m interested in it.
Jesse James Garrett, who coined the term Ajax, took a different stance, though, and soon the bullet on the outcomes page changed to read, “Is Flash Ajax?” What is served, Jesse asked, by saying that we’re seeing a new and interesting way of making web applications, but then saying that a technology that’s been around for a decade is exactly the same thing? Jesse’s comments seemed to ignite some dormant fuel in the crowd, and soon we were going back and forth about whether Flash was really a lightweight tool for highly responsive web apps, or was instead a heavyweight tool not suited to “true” Ajax apps. When the moderators finally cut off the discussion so as not to crowd out other topics, Eric Costello complained, “Okay, but the next topic had better be as good as this one!”
This debate is just the sort of rat-hole large groups of geeks love to spelunk. Who really cares whether Flash is Ajax or not? The page will work just as well if we call it Ajax as it will if we don’t. I do think, though, that the move towards Ajax web applications will crowd out some uses of Flash — were I in Kevin’s shoes, I would view Ajax as a competitor, one that I’d want to co-opt.
For a few years after Java’s announcement in 1995, “dynamic” web applications usually found a home in Java applets — not that there were so many such applications overall, but where they did exist, Java was often the platform of choice. In the past five years, though, Flash gained popularity as a way of embedding dynamic elements within a web application, and compared to Java, it was a much-improved experience (faster load times, wider platform support, and much more consistency across platforms). Of course, we still haven’t seen a great desktop-style app in Flash, and I suspect that at this point we won’t. (I have to wonder, in fact — is Flickr the most-used application ever in Flash, apart from animated ads or standalone movies such as those from JibJab?)
Kevin is right to try to position Flash as a useful extension tool for Ajax applications, and there are definitely times where that model will be very useful. I’m glad he was at the summit and advocating for his technology; I think the discussion would have been one-sided otherwise. In the long run, though, I think the rise of Ajax will cause Flash to specialize in media more and more. The JibJabs, Flickrs, and Odeos of the world — as well as the advertisers, alas — will continue to use Flash until something better comes along. For the rest, though, Ajax will probably knock Flash aside.
(Disclosure: Tim is on the board of Macromedia, but I haven’t talked to him about this topic at all.)