Part 5: . . . and the Flash, iPad and mobile device saga continues: 1 step forward, 2 steps back

In her Insider Comment column in WEB Designer, Issue 173, Stephanie (Sullivan) Rewis states: “Long, Long Ago (in web years that is) we built our code to work in the browser that was currently the leader . . . . Life was tough. It was nearly impossible to make everyone happy.” She then refers to the “Revolution” that held the promise of permanent cross-browser and cross-device WEB standards, and the end of our frustrations and “Best Viewed in . . . ” WEB designer disclaimer. Standards based CSS and HTML were going to solve the lack of consistency issues and the world ahead looked rosy. Then came smartphones . . .

Rewis lays out an important historical development in WEB design, but the problem dates back even earlier. For many  interactive multimedia began with the WEB. That is actually when I was finally able to explain to my parents what it is that I do! But the current standards issues that many are tearing their hair out about today – because of the “move” from desktop to mobile devices – have multiple historical precedents.

Before the WEB, we worked with interactive laserdiscs, which were rendered obsolete by computer software like Hypercard. But we had high def full motion video on laser discs, and it disappeared with the “advance” of computer multimedia. Then CDs allowed for video and bigger files and transportability, but still not the “quality” that laserdiscs had offered.  Colored Supercard blasted Hypercard out of the water. Then Macromind Director made Supercard “stacks” look silly. Then Macromedia bought out Macromind, and Flash usurped Director’s omnipotence, but many of us bemoanded the demise of Director (with its far greater animation and external device control capabiliities) . . . Throughout all, languages changed and changed again. We wrote in Hypertalk, Lingo, ActionScript 1., 2. 3 . . . and I am just referring to interactive on the Mac. Cross platform issues plagued us throughout all this history. With each “innovative step forward” designers and developers were forced to start again, to learn again, to think again.

Then came the WEB. For those (me included) who are currently bemoaning the steps backward that smartphones and tablets are forcing us to take from desktop displayed web browsing, quadruple that as far as the steps backwards we took when the WEB “revolution” arrived! In 1994, we interactive designers and developers were working with full motion video, millions of colors, all kinds of cool interactive capabilities. Then the WEB showed up, and suddenly we were reduced to 8bit (256) color, NO video, way limited interactivity, no design of graphics or text (I’m sorry but I can’t even count those ridiculous tiled graphics backgrounds we were reduced to!). Many interactive designers and developers simply jumped ship at that point. Interactive “rock stars” disappeared over night. Who wanted to work in that new limited WEB world?

Now both the WEB “babies”  – those who began developing interactive with the WEB – and those of us who hung around for the WEB interative iteration, are confronted with the same crazy technology-advancement-that-drives-content-and-interactivity-development-backward scenario that those of us working in interactive already experienced when the WEB appeared – and before that with each successive interactive advancement. Smartphones are a new technology and an advancement as far as tech goes, but they are in their primitive days. Computers, and thus the computer based WEB, had evolved technologically allowing content, and development of content, and interactive computer-based features to become quite advanced. Smartphones mirror the early WEB as a technology. They are primitive. We cannot do much with them. We are thrown back in time as developers, just as we were when the WEB usurped computer and CD-based interactive applications.

We can only hope now that makers of these new technologies will admit their role in this evolution and do what they can to get designers, developers and everyone else back on track with standards and full-blown interactive creation capabillities. None of us creative types want to have to wait too long for this new tech phase to catch up with where we were yesterday. We can only hope that Steve Jobs and others will quit trying to sell us this bridge to nowhere story about smart phones and tablets being more advanced than computers. Give us a break. Let’s hope that he stops with the mythical PR and settles down to make them that advanced.

We are likely to add a new generation of interactive designers and developers who know nothing of this history, and think soon that it all began with smartphones. We are also likely to lose a few WEB and pre-WEB interactive designers and developers who get frustrated waiting around for the future to catch up with the past. Let’s hope there are a few great ones who stick around and bring their experience and expertise to the future generations, and keep the history lessons alive.

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