August 20, 2005

Flash Earth

Writing about web page

There's a continuing debate amongst web developers about whether Flash or Ajax is a better platform for interactive web applications. Google make some cool apps using Ajax – Google Maps, GMail and so on. Now, one guy has experimented to see whether the Google Maps satellite imagery interface could be done as well or better using Flash. The results are impressive: the redraw is better than Google's original, as is the panning and zooming, and he's added rotation, which is easy in Flash, but hard in HTML.

His interface feels nicer partly because he's gone to some trouble to polish the behaviour of the application; when you click the "zoom in" button, or the "pan north" button, the zoom (or pan) starts and slows to a stop smoothly. Handling both rotating and panning using the compass is a nice UI touch, too. And letting the user switch seamlessly between Google Maps and MSN Virtual Earth to compare and contrast the two is clever and elegant. It's details like that which make the difference, and at the very least, this shows that Flash can do as good a job as Ajax for certain types of application – and, of course, this application works in every browser that can handle the Flash plugin, and there only needs to be one version of the code for all browsers – no conditional hacks to hide things from browser X. Worth a look.

- 3 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Chris May

    The thing about flash earth is that it's not as good as google earth (which is an immersive 3d thing) and it's not as open or extensible as google maps (c.f. this and this for example). It's good at what it does, but it doesn't actually set out to solve the same problem as either Google Earth or Maps.

    It's certainly true that there's a class of applications* that flash is better than dHTML for – 2D graphics-intensive stuff with relatively limited client-server interactivity seems to more or less encapsulate it right now. But it seems to me that browser-based stuff is taking steadily more and more territory away from flash. My experience so far with Prototype suggests that descent libraries can hide an awful lot of the platform-specificity from the developer, effectively giving you a kind of javascript VM to work against. Those with more flash experience than me (>0) tell me that the flash platform independence' thing becomes less true,too as soon as you try to interact outside of the applet (e.g. making an HTTP request for more data)

    It'll be interesting to see whether forthcoming SVG support in browsers allows dHTML to take on some of the 2D graphics apps too.

    * as distinct from animations, where flash is still way ahead.

    21 Aug 2005, 14:29

  2. John Dale

    the flash platform independence thing becomes less true, too, as soon as you try to interact outside of the applet (e.g. making an HTTP request for more data)

    That may be true in some cases, but I don't think it can be absolutely true in all cases, because almost every Flash applet that isn't just an animation is doing some sort of interaction outside of the applet; Flash Earth is using the Google/MSN API to request more data whenever you zoom or pan; SlideShowPro requests new images from the server regularly, and so on. I suspect that it might be slightly truer to say that our own developers haven't yet fully got to grips with Flash server interaction, rather than that server interaction generally breaks platform independence.

    21 Aug 2005, 17:33

  3. Steven Carpenter

    Although many of the headline developments in Flash 8 have been about the new visual effects, it has a number of new tweaks to further improve server interaction and address some of the shortcomings in relation to Ajax. One of the new classes is ExternalInterface, providing tighter integration between Javascript and Flash – it now supports direct callback and function invocation directly. There's an all-new FileUpload class, and support added for GIF, PNG and Progressive JPEG images. Add this functionality alongside Flash Remoting, support for WSDL/SOAP and the emerging back-end development environments (Zorn, Flex, Laszlo etc), with the odd exception Flash has more than few of Ajax's bases covered these days.

    22 Aug 2005, 21:42

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