But the launch also marked a change in emphasis by the web tools vendor that, it hopes, will see Flash increasingly used as an interactive front-end for Internet-based applications of all types – not just ecommerce sites, but for heavyweight enterprise applications as well.
Chief technology officer Jeremy Allaire – one of the original authors of Macromedia’s ColdFusion scripting tool – points to Broadmoor Hotels as an example of the enterprise-class credentials of Flash MX. The US-based hotel chain scrapped its online HTML-based order forms in favour of an all-in-one Flash-based front end.
This encapsulates all the logic, including prices and availability, which users previously had to spend time clicking between forms to see – all downloaded to the client PC. Users can change details, such as the number of nights or the number of rooms and instantly see how that would affect the total price.
End-users can fill in the form in any order and there is no clicking ‘forward’ and ‘back’. Once the Flash “applet” has been downloaded – which takes no
longer than an ordinary HTML page – the response is instant and any errors or omissions in the form when the user clicks ‘submit’ are immediately flagged up.
“[Broadmoor Hotels] went from an 85% drop-off rate to 5% and revenues [from the web site] went up by 50%,” says Allaire. But he believes Flash will, in future, facilitate more than ecommerce transactions. Allaire’s goal is for Flash to be used as an intelligent front-end for web-based applications of all kinds.
This vision has some substance, given the poor client-side capabilities that web-based versions of enterprise applications offer, particularly when compared to the ‘fat’ client software typically found in traditional two-tier client/server applications.
Flash can provide rich end-user function without compromising the cost and ease-of-management benefits of running Internet-based applications, says Allaire. Furthermore, Flash imposes less of a bandwidth burden on servers than similar, HTML-based Internet applications, he claims. Not only that, but it is considerably less costly than piping an enterprise application through thin-client software such as MetaFrame from connectivity specialist Citrix.
Allaire’s idea has won some support from analysts. “It’s very compelling, very interesting and actually very well-timed,” says Forrester Research analyst Randy Souza. But Souza does not believe that many serious developers, let alone major application software vendors such as SAP and PeopleSoft, will be rushing to adopt Flash.
“There’s a legacy associated with Flash because it was originally an animation tool. It’s not perceived in the minds of developers as a tool for building front-end user interfaces,” says Souza.
In a bid to appeal to the widest possible audience, Macromedia has built Flash MX so that developers can use a range of server-side scripting languages to build the links between Flash and the application servers running the core applications.
Supported languages include Microsoft active server pages (ASP), open source PHP and Java server pages (JSP), as well as Macromedia’s own ColdFusion MX, a move that will appeal to Macromedia’s existing ColdFusion customers, among whom the company is most likely to find ‘early adopters’ for its new vision.
But within the wider developer community, it will first have to overcome users innate suspicions of the Flash software – a technology that enterprise developers frequently sneer at as a tool for ‘mere’ web site designers.