In the SSL/CW list of top IT skills, Flash is number 81, writes Nick Langley
What is it?
Flash is Macromedia's animation software for developing interactive graphics for websites, desktop presentations and games. Flash sequences on the web are displayed by a web browser plug-in and offline presentations are run by a Flash player, which can be included on a CD-Rom.
The world is divided into three kinds of people: those who love Flash, those who hate it, and those who think people should not be divided into kinds. Some of the people in this group love Flash, but the rest hate it. The majority of Flash lovers are developers; the majority of Flash haters are users.
The position of the Flash haters was summed up by Macromedia's chief technical officer, Jeremy Allaire. "Macromedia Flash invokes visions of swirling graphics, thumping (and bandwidth-gobbling) techno beats and intro screens for websites that most of us would just rather skip." Indeed, Flash has been dubbed the "skip intro" tool.
Not any more, apparently. Macromedia now claims Flash is "a serious environment for serving applications that interact with server logic and instructions" and is part of "a simple, services-based architecture for connecting back-end services with front-end user interfaces".
Where did it originate?
In 1997, Macromedia acquired Futurewave Software and its flagship product Futuresplash, which was renamed Flash. Macromedia Flash was a revolutionary product built around an extremely small and efficient vector graphics engine. It allowed for animation and interactive graphics with a very small download.
Since then, Macromedia has built an impressive portfolio that includes Dreamweaver, Ultradev and the Coldfusion web application server and development tool. These have been integrated with Flash into Macromedia Developer Studio MX.
What is it for?
Macromedia has added Flash Remoting, which includes a set of client-side APIs for accessing services including Coldfusion components, ASP scripts, .net components and XML.
Where is it used?
Traditionally on home pages, where if something could be made to move it was animated, whether it added value to the site or not. In future, Flash could become the gateway for all kinds of useful services. Macromedia says more than two million users download the Flash player every day. But some commentators accuse Macromedia of creating a kind of proprietary parallel internet environment alongside that sanctioned by the World Wide Web Consortium.
What makes it special?
Instead of developing manually using the Flash language, Flash MX applications are component-based, use drag and drop and have extensive code re-use.
How difficult is it to master?
Macromedia claims developers at all levels can get the hang of it in no time.
Not to be confused with...
An indecent act by a sad man in a raincoat.
What systems does it run on?
It can be downloaded to most, but not all, combinations of operating system and browser. It is also shipped with Windows XP.
There are versions of the Flash player for TV set-top boxes, PDAs, Nokia phones and Sony's Playstation 2. Macromedia aims to make it "technology agnostic", but its new website, launched in March, excludes some browsers.
Not many people know that...
In 2000, web usability guru Jakob Nielsen wrote, "Ninety nine per cent of the time, the presence of Flash on a website constitutes a usability disease."
He cited three reasons: Flash made bad design more likely, it broke with the web's fundamental interaction style and it consumed resources that would be better spent enhancing a site's core value.
Macromedia promptly retained Nielsen as a consultant and he has now come up with 117 guidelines for Flash usability.
What is coming up?
The Flash MX data connection kit, with pre-built connections to data sources.
See developer weblogs at www.oreillynet.com
117 guidelines for flash usability
Training: There are plenty of free tutorials, either from Macromedia or from the dozens of independent sites.
Jobs and money: Web design skills have fallen in value. Depending on your skill set, look for £16,000 to £30,000. Senior positions will offer more.