Hmm, it's been an interesting last few days, work-wise. I was crying out for some more client work to get my teeth into, and lo and behold on Friday morning I had a call from a friend wanting to enhance their website. A few bits of PHP, but most challengingly for me, some Flash - and that is the topic of today's
Now, let me be clear, I really do not like Flash, and that's about as much as I am prepared to say in a family-friendly diary! But, away from annoying animations and website splash screens missing "click here to skip" buttons, I have to concede it is sometimes useful, and one of its strong areas is in helping making video in particular cross-platform. Look at the rise of sites like YouTube and Google Video - using exactly this technology - for simple proof.
The #1 drawback of Flash is of course its cost. Depending on the exact version, unless prepared to blag being a student, or to succumb to the temptations of spammed offers of "OEM" and pirated versions, we're talking £300+ even for the most basic current edition. There are a few alternative development environments around, but they are all commercial too. So I was quite pleased to find a free system called OpenLaszlo, not exactly a Flash development environment, but able nonetheless to export the necessary SWF files, and (on paper at least) supporting exactly the subset of media-handling functionality I needed.
But two days later, I'm still scratching my head, reluctant to commit to whether I really can do what my friend has asked for. OpenLaszlo is conceptually great, being reasonably programmer-friendly (unlike Flash itself) and based around the rock-solid XML format. But it is just so buggy, and the documentation is inaccurate at best and downright non-existent at worst. All I want it to do is reliably play a sound or video file, from start to finish, reliably report its position in the file, and reliably detect when it has finished. Now, I realise this is technically non-trivial (thanks to the vagaries of streaming content via the web), but it is a fundamental part of OpenLaszlo's core functionality and simply does not work. It worked enough to lead me down the path to believing that it had the answer to Flash authoring on a budget, but has left me feeling like I've wasted two days of my life that I really could have been spending doing something productive with. Of course, it could be Flash Player itself that's the problem, since that's the ultimate delivery engine, but I'm really not convinced. Other related bugs suggest OpenLaszlo really is as unpolished as it seems, e.g. tell it not to auto-play a sound, and it plays the first (arbitrary and variable) fraction of a second of it anyway.
For a system nearing its fourth major release version, I am disappointed, and it's reinforcing my long-held contention that such software is "free" only for those whose time is worthless.