21 Nov 2011

Development: Web Mapping Enabling Technology - Are Flash and Silverlight dead?

This is the 4th post in the Web Mapping series examining the technology that will change the boundaries of what is possible for geospatial applications. In this post we will take a look at Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight as technology enablers for Web Mapping. The post will illustrate concerns over the future of these technologies, examine their adoption for GIS and Web Mapping and review the direction of the key technology vendors.

When selecting a technology to develop an application its important to not only consider the functional and architectural match of the technology but also how future proof it is. Future proofing is a tricky thing to assess however, standardized, widely adopted and well supported technology tends to have a long life span. In addition a clearly defined road map helps prove a vendor has a clearly defined strategy and direction for the technology.

Its fairly well established that HTML5, Silverlight and Flash are all functionally capable of delivering Web Mapping solutions but they have very different future proofing... 

Silverlight and Flex are not standards. They are proprietary technology from Microsoft and Adobe that provide extensions to the browser to deliver additional functionality in a non standards compliant way. Both technologies were created prior to the recent significant evolution in web standards through HTML5 hence, filled gaps that are starting to be closed with standards.

Flash is currently still the most dominant RIA technology with >97% adoption followed by HTML5 (Canvas and Video) at 81% of all browsers. Silverlight only measures 76% penetration. Its interesting to note that HTML5 adoption has grown rapidly in the short time it has been available. This may be the result of browser automatic updates. Its surprising how low support for Silverlight is. This information is based on RIAStats.com statistics.

Road Maps and Direction
The future of both Flash and Silverlight has come under the spotlight in recent months as support for HTML5 has swelled.

Flash's dominance and future appears to be undergoing evolution at present. Adobe recently announced it will no longer offer Flash on mobile browsers instead focusing on HTML5. The rationale provided was that HTML5 is so well adopted its no longer needed as a browser plugin alongside Adobe Air. However, at the same time Flash player 11 for desktop browsers will be continued and Adobe recently added GPU level support for 2D and 3D vector graphics. Adobe also added support for HTML5 video streaming to its media servers - probably to provide access to iOS devices. This shows a slightly split personality. "HTML5 is great for mobile but desktop still needs Flash". Considering the on going convergence of mobile and desktop paradigms, rapid evolution of desktops to support tablet style capability, massive jumps in mobile computing power (dual core etc) and wide adoption of HTML5 in the desktop this does not entirely add up. In addition Microsoft has also stated Windows 8 Metro will not offer support for Flash instead offering stronger support for HTML5 (wired.com) and pushing Flash users to old interfaces.

Is this the first signs of Flash being marginalized in desktop browsers?
Are Adobe preparing the ground to move to Air only on the desktop through HTML5?

Microsoft Silverlight:
There have been rumours of the demise of Silverlight for a while. Microsoft has been pushing HTML 5 for over a year as a major part of the answer for dynamic desktop applications but insisting at the same time the two technologies can coexist happily. However, in a diametrically opposed direction to Adobe Microsoft has stated Silverlight is the platform for Windows mobile development despite major improvements in HTML5 support in Windows Mobile 7.5 and IE 9 for desktop. Microsoft also stated that Silverlight is their cross platform development environment for mobile, desktop and web. Strange as HTML5 seems to solve the same issues....

GIS Vendors and RIA Technology
What do Autodesk, MapInfo, ESRI and the OSGeo Foundation offer as enabling technology for web mapping and what are their future technology directions for Web Mapping?

ESRI - ESRI provides support for Silverlight, Flash, Javascript, .Net Web Parts and mobile SDKs for Android, Windows Phone and iPhone. Everything to meet every developers preferences and ensure there are no bases left uncovered. ESRI has restated its on going support for all platforms on 17 Nov 2011. Supporting every major platform will answer their customers needs but creates a huge product development overhead and with it the obvious pressure on rapid progress across all these platforms. It will be interesting how long ESRI continues this approach as mobile and web technology evolves and standardised solutions become viable.

Autodesk - Infrastructure Map Server offers support for Javascript and thick client mobile viewer for 3D models. Autodesk recently released technology to their labs program using WebGL and SVG to deliver a 3D viewer for large scale 3D design models in the Autodesk Cloud. It looks like Autodesk are exploring the maturity of WebGL before diving in.

Pitney Bowes Business Insight - MapInfo - PBBI recently released MapInfo Spatial Server with support for Javascript HTML5 and a road map showing these same controls being extended to support mobile browsers and form factors. PBBI has recently defined their strategy as providing standards compliant open solutions using HTML5 for both desktop and mobile browsers enabling their componentary to be used on "any platform, any where and on any device". Its interesting to note they have included Open Layers as their solution for mapping preferring to support well used open source solutions over creation of another proprietary api.

OSGeo Open Source - There are many member projects in the OSGeo foundation. Its difficult to classify all these products as similar to a single vendors solution as they do not really form a suite. However, key support for web mapping user applications is provided through map servers (GeoServer, Map Server, Open Source Map Guide) and Open Layers map control. Open Layers based on Javascript and is adapting quickly to HTML5 for desktop and mobile. Similar to PBBI the same components are being offered for mobile and desktop browsers.

Microsoft Bing Maps provides the widely used Bing Maps Javascript and Silverlight map controls. As you would expect there is no news on the future of the silverlight implementation and it remains fully supported. We watch with interest for a formal direction to be announced.

Google Maps provides the ever popular Google Maps Javascript API and map control. Google has started to really take advantage of the power of HTML5 with the use of vector graphics in modern browsers to provide route lines and interactive route dragging and the recent release of 3D maps using WebGL.

There is sufficient evidence that both Flash and Silverlights positions have been changed by the rapid adoption of HTML5. The future direction for Flash and Silverlight appears to be evolving quickly. Its clear alot will hinge on the pace of evolution and adoption of HTML5 to meet the gaps that still exist today. Most of the geospatial vendors are well positioned to accommodate change with very few having invested heavily in Silverlight or Flash. ESRI of course is the significant exception to this.

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