I've been following the "Apple vs. Adobe" debate about Flash for several weeks now, and have recently come to the conclusion that it's not really about Apple forcing its will on Adobe as many in the media seem to be reporting. A milestone occurred yesterday when Adobe's Flash Platform product manager, Dan Chambers blogged about Adobe giving up on creating further iPhone app development tools.
As a designer and developer of corporate training materials, I obviously have a vested interest in this debate. Why, you may ask? Well, if you scan the landscape of eLearning development you can be rest assured that a large majority of online educational material relies on Adobe's Flash platform for its delivery.
I go back all the way to the pre-Internet Authorware days... yes, Authorware 1.0 when it was Mac-only authoring software. I loved Authorware. It was designed specifically for development of computer-based training programs. As the Internet era dawned and Macromedia put its energy behind Flash, I saw the writing on the wall for Authorware. I mean, at first, it was great... Macromedia kept rolling out new versions, and even put a lot of effort into the Authorware web player. The dark days eventually came, and I knew when I talked to some friends at Macromedia what was happening when they lamented that no new Authorware engineers were being hired... and there was only one left at that time!
As Flash emerged, the learning developer community embraced it and began retrofitting it for educational interactivity. I never completely transitioned from the flowline to the timeline. I still remember Robert Milton's explanation of the flowline in Authorware training, and how dang logical it was. For me, the timeline was anything BUT logical.
When Flash became the de facto standard for learning development, chaos ensued:
- Constant player updates adversely affected courses designed in earlier versions of Flash
- Just TRY to get Flash to communicate with any LMS without having a programming wizard (if you could find one). I used to beg Andrew Chemey (a Macromedia engineer) to help, and he could always make it work, but he could never explain how.
- Say goodbye to Authorware's text handling capabilities and welcome Flash's completely horrible rendering of fonts.
- Throw out the idea of modular development, which was Authorware's coup de grace.
- Expect a new or heavily modified scripting language with major updates
- And the list can go on
All this for a "light web player" -- people complained about the 3-6mb Authorware web player (this was pre-broadband). Granted, Flash has made important progress as it relates to learning development, but this whole "Apple/Adobe" conversation got me to thinking about the state of tools in eLearning design and development.
Flash the parent, and all its unruly siblings such as Articulate, Captivate, Camtasia... all the tools that produce .swf files, are essential for various tasks in eLearning development. And Adobe seems to be whining that Apple is being a big bully about the Flash platform. I think it's actually the opposite. I think Adobe has been the bully over the last several years.
Apple is basically saying, "we don't want to have to adopt or promote a company's proprietary technology on our platform when it's not consistent with the technologies that serve as the foundation for our platform." Flash is anything but open.. it's locked technology that requires software available only from the vendor. It's not open source, or even open for that matter.
I remember the days before the Flash player (remember DHTML?). I remember coding HTML to work in various versions of browsers, and it wasn't pretty. Flash made life a whole lot easier on several fronts because it created its own "walled garden" that was guaranteed to operate consistently across multiple operating systems and browsers. I fear HTML5 will bring back the whole issue of compatibility and interoperability.
I also know from first-hand experience that creating a software product with the Flash platform is fraught with potential issues because any potential change in player versions could cripple features/functionality. And try getting updates from Adobe on changes, or roadmaps on functionality.
I tend to side more with Apple on this matter, only because they're really not bullying Adobe -- they're just saying, look we have our "walled garden" and we've decided what the best technologies are to support it. You have your proprietary technology that may be a standard with a specific group of developers, but it's not an open standard for the Internet.
What does this mean for learning developers? I think just as we all were forced to move away from Authorware several years ago, we need to have our eye on where the industry is going. I tend to think more open technologies will always win at the end of the day. But that must be countered with how we get our jobs done as well. Tools like Flash do allow developers to get work done in an efficient manner. Change is guaranteed, and learning new tools and languages will always be a task we must perform.