Adobe refreshes Flash Player

Facing stiff competition in RIA space, company gains an edge, observers say

Facing serious challenges to its dominance in the RIA (rich Internet application) space, Adobe Systems will refresh its bread-and-butter Flash Player technology Thursday with capabilities that could provide an edge on the RIA battleground.

Adobe officials argued that improvements in its new Flash Player 10 such as custom filters and effects are merely in response to customer demands. But the company nonetheless has seen its market niche -- rich graphical presentations via a browser plugin -- become more crowded lately. Microsoft's highly touted Silverlight technology is drawing attention from companies such as NBC while Sun plans to leverage the prevalence of its Java technology to promote its budding JavaFX RIA platform.

Analysts see Flash Player 10 as an answer to what else is going on in the marketplace.

"Everything in this space is a response," to keep up with the competition, said Jeffrey Hammond, senior analyst at Forrester. Flash, though, remains a leader with capabilities in drawing surface and canvas, he said.

"I think that Adobe continues to basically build on the Flash franchise and try to defend it," said Gartner analyst Ray Valdes. "It’s a competitive response in some ways."

The beta release of Flash Player 10, codenamed "Astro," is available Thursday at Adobe Labs, with the general-release product scheduled to ship later this year.

"Flash Player is the most ubiquitous runtime," allowing for "stunning" user experiences, said Tom Barclay, Adobe senior product marketing manager for Flash Player. Repeating Adobe's mantra about the Flash Player's broad adoption, Barclay said Flash Player works on major OSes and is installed on more than 98 percent of Internet-enabled desktops.

Customer filters and effects capabilities in version 10 enable users to create fills, blend modes, and effects using the new Adobe Pixel Bender language and toolkit that is accompanying the beta release of Flash Player 10. Pixel Builder had been codenamed "Hydra" and provides pixel-shading.

"[Users] want to be able to create any kind of special effect they want," Barclay said.

Pixel Bender can complement Adobe's Flex development platform for building applications to run in the Flash Player. "It just expands the palette of available functions," for the Flex developer, said Barclay.

Also enabled in Flash Player 10 are capabilities to transition from one part of an application to another and apply effects to images. Effects can be parameterized and animated at runtime. 

3D functionality is highlighted in Flash Player 10. 2D objects that developers are used to working with in Flash Player, such as a 2D image, drawing, or video, can be transformed into 3D. 2D objects can be rotated onscreen. This capability is exposed via ActionScript APIs. 3D capabilities, Valdes said, are the main differentiator over Silverlight.

GPU compositing in Flash Player 10 accelerates compositing calculations of raster images, such bitmaps and video overlays faster than if performed in software on the CPU.

"This basically frees up some of that processing power to do other things," said Flash 10 beta tester Grant Skinner, CEO and chief architect of gskinner.com, an ActionScript development shop focused on Flash, Flex, and Adobe AIR (Adobe Integrated Runtime).

Also featured in Flash Player 10 is a text engine enabling developers to build sophisticated text components, such as ones featuring text that can curve or take different shapes. Also, device fonts can be used that are native to a specific OS. Developers can leverage capabilities like anti-aliasing and rotate a font. The text engine benefits Asian character sets that tend to have very large font sizes that need to be embedded, Adobe said.

"The text engine is very impressive," Hammond said. With this engine, Adobe is getting to the point where what is seen on the screen compares to what is seen on a printed page. Others will have to keep up with this technology, he said.

A question mark about Flash 10 is how it will affect Flex applications, Hammond said. Users of applications built with the next version of Flex might have to upgrade to Flash Player 10, he said.

Developers using the Adobe Flash authoring tool and Flex Builder will use upcoming versions of these tools to develop SWF content that takes advantage of Flash Player 10, Adobe said. No announcement was being made at this time about the availability of these tools.

Adobe believes it offers the leading-edge platform when compared to rivals such as Silverlight and JavaFX. No other plugin offers the same capabilities in 3D, custom filters, and effects, Barclay said.

"We’re allowing developers to create new types of experiences on the Web that just weren't possible before," he said.

Silverlight lacks capabilities such as filters and blend modes, while JavaFX is not even a released product, Barclay said. "It's hard to comment on something that's only vapor at this point," said Barclay. Flash Player 10, with its 3D and other capabilities, also offers a different set of benefits than what is available to AJAX developers, he said.

But Flash Player 10 is not intended as a countermeasure to Sun and Microsoft, Barclay said. "This is being done in response to community demand for new expressive features," Barclay said.

When asked if Silverlight offers capabilities cited in Flash Player 10, a Microsoft representative responded that Microsoft's Windows Presentation Foundation, which is leveraged by Silverlight, supports bitmap raster images, bidirectional text, and native 3D effects. But WPF does not support blended modes and effects.

Skinner said he has looked at Silverlight and found it to be trailing Flash Player in functionality. "I don't think it's there. I think Microsoft has a lot of catching up to do. Obviously, they have a lot of resources to throw at it, but it kind of remains to be seen what they can do to differentiate themselves and provide greater value than Flash, which obviously already has great ubiquity," he said.

Still, Skinner said Silverlight and JavaFX create competition and pressure to innovate.

With the Flash Player 10 announcement, Adobe did not offer up any of its new technology such as Pixel Bender to open source. The company already has made the Flash Player virtual machine available via open source, said Barclay.

Earlier this month, Adobe with its Open Screen Project took steps to open up Flash technology such as removing license restrictions on the SWF specification.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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