Bring on the Flash

Well, not really, but we're getting closer!  Flash is a great technology, and like any great technology it has been abused and misused for quite some time.  That doesn't mean there isn't a good use case for flash.  There are several fantastic instances where flash really shines, but more often then not flash is over used in situations where plain text would have sufficed, not just for the end user's needs, but also for the customers needs.  In fact, more often than not, the customer is almost always better served by plain text than they are flash.

Today marks a great step towards changing that as Google announced late last night that they will now be indexing a significant portion of the flash in the world.  What does this mean for web developers?  Unfortunately it doesn't mean a whole heck of a lot.  It's a great step in the right direction, but that's all really.

Flash is very similar to classic html in a number of ways.  The primary example would be content management systems versus flat html.  As a company the only flat html we deal with any longer are very old legacy customers who are unwilling to upgrade to something newer.  Flash has traditionally been very similar to this in that, if you want something developed in flash, chances are the company who designed it is the only group that can change it (they have the source .fla files) and as such, you're stuck going back to them for even the most minimal of changes.  If  you happen to be in this boat, then Google's previously mentioned announcement is GOOD NEWS for you as these are generally the sort of Flash files they'll now be able to index.  However, for those of use who work with content management, the prospect of changing flash files regularly is unappealing.  To these ends many firms (ourselves included) make use of xml files to pass information to the flash to allow us to dynamically alter the text, images and any number of other potential elements.  These xml files can be easily controlled by a content management system like Drupal, and allows us to free our customers up to alter the flash documents on their site without needing to know flash, or contact and pay us more.

Unfortunately Google's new indexing doesn't associate those xml files with the flash properly yet, and until that happens, main stream content managed flash will still be impractical for most customers.  With that said, we like to point people towards the future whenever possible, and Google's working on these problems, so I expect we'll see solutions (especially for this particular problem) very shortly.  If you want to begin exploring those potential futures, you should really check out Open Laszlo.  It's a fantastic system that allows you to create flash .swf files without any need for Adobe's IDE.  It also has implications for the open source communities since it's a pure text system, this allows the "source files" for our flash to be kept in CVS or SVN repositories and allows our fellow developers to easily edit/maintain these files.

We've built a number of sites that actually interface Flash and Drupal together.  This is again one of the biggest reasons for going with Drupal.  It makes it very easy on the developers to output content managed XML to our flash.  I personally prefer doing this via the Views module.  If you've played with Views ever, you probably know that you can re-write the output of any view to whatever arbitrary code you would like.  Writing out xml is as easy as writing out html, and it's this feature that has allowed us to create dynamic flash maps, updating flash-based portfolios (like on The Worx Site) and many other small flash projects for maintaining different flash-based campaigns.  Up until now all of this has been rather low key because of Google's inability to index that content, but with Flash and Google becoming for friendly towards each other... the sky may soon be the limit.