Alex Wright

Macromedia Central: Next Big Thing, or Pointcast redux?

March 26, 2003

For about as long as there have been Web browsers, it seems, people have been predicting their imminent demise.

The phrase "beyond the browser" has become such a catchphrase on the conference-and-trade-rag circuit as to have become almost an inside joke. How many predictions have we heard by now about this or that next big client-side technology coming to liberate us from the pleistocene model of hypertext document delivery: first there was Java, then the network computer, Pointcast, Active desktop, Netscape Constellation, .NET (whatever that means), IBM Sash, and any number of other one-off Internet applications that managed successfully to shed the browser window (like Spinner or Realplayer).

All of these initiatives tried luring developers with baubles that browsers could not: a session state, client-side processing, dynamic interface handlers, reducing latency in the UI and eliminating all the inevitable data redundancies so inherent in HTML. Yet for all that wishful marketeering, users somehow remained steadfast, exasperatingly loyal to that clunky old warhorse, the Web browser.

Last thursday,
Kevin Lynch and the Macromedia gang announced their new foray into the browser-less future: Macromedia Central, a new framework for deploying Flash applications to the desktop.

Viewed through the prism of all those previous failed attempts, one might easily be tempted to predict Central going the way of Pointcast and the rest: another much-ballyhooed "beyond the browser" platform that ultimately fizzles in the face of users' apparently intractable preference for using Web browsers. Of course, it's much too early to predict, but I think there's a chance that this one may just turn out differently. Here's why.

There are somewhere around 2 million Flash designers and developers out there: a much, much bigger developer community than any of those previous initiatives enjoyed (with the possible exception of .NET, but that's a whole other story). Long ridiculed as a platform for all those painful "skip intro" animations, Flash may finally be turning the corner to become a viable platform for networked application development.

When Macromedia released Flash MX last year, they offered a sop to developers by releasing a set of standard UI components, a set of script-able building blocks for constructing basic application interfaces. Coupled with native Web services support (e.g. SOAP, XML), Flash MX made it more practical for developers to consider Flash as an application development environment.

But Flash MX was a young and not a little buggy platform, with performance issues and a few utterly inscrutable bugs, many of which we learned about the hard way while developing Postio, the first - and as far as I know, only - email client built entirely using Flash MX. One drawback loomed larger than the rest: at the end of the day, our application was still trapped inside a Web browser. That meant users had to a) always be connected to the Internet and b) access our application by opening a Web browser and typing in a URL. Although we developed an application that approached the performance of a desktop OS application, we nevertheless ended up with what was essentially a glorified Web mail client.

Central changes that equation. Now, applications can run offline or online (or a combination of both), no longer dependent on a Web browser with its layer of rigid and sometimes inappropriate interface controls. Central is essentially a "wrapper" application that provides a sort of invisible browser for running small, lightweight Flash applications.

For the past few months, I've been working with Macromedia on designing and developing a couple of new applications for Central. At FlashForward, Kevin Lynch invited me to demo an application we developed for PriceGrabber (which will ship as part of the Macromedia Central "app pack"). I'm currently working on a new Central application that will ship later this year (which is probably as much as I can really say about it right now).

Will Central turn out to be the long-awaited browser killer? In a word, no. I have a very hard time forseeing anything disrupting users' long-entrenched love of the Web browser. But for certain kinds of applications - lightweight, networked, transaction-intensive interactions - Flash provides such a compelling performance advantage that it may just be enough to lure a subset of users looking for more GUI-like performance in an Internet-based application. It's much too early to say whether Central will even achieve anything resembling Next Big Thing status, but I do think Macromedia is at least trying to take a step in the right direction.

more on Macromedia Central:

File under: User Experience

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