So, what is the platform of choice for folks who want to create interactive graphical educational software (see for example all the stuff at PHET and NLVM). Currently, there are two primary options: Flash and Java Applets. I’m not covering in this post web applications, which can still use just about anything you want: PHP, Java, Ruby, Python, .NET, etc., or business/office/administrative software which can either be web apps or desktop apps coded in C++/Java/.NET/Python, etc., or 3D desktop games, usually coded in C++/Java/.NET/Python. I’m centered on interactive, graphical educational software like you see all over the web now.
The PHET project, for example, uses both java and flash. These haven’t always been the main options, however, and I suspect it will change again in the near future. Here’s a short history of some of the development tools I’ve leaned on for educational software development over the past 15 years:
- early 90s – hypercard / supercard, Perl/CGI for web apps
- early 00s – by this time, commercial options no longer cut it for me, too many bugs, ignored feature requests, too expensive, vendor lock-in – free and open source is king: python, java (later open sourced), C#/vb.net (esp. the Mono open source clone). Unfortunately there is no alternative to the commercial, proprietary flash, which becomes king of RIAs (rich internet applications) instead of java applets.
- early and late 10s? – This is the question of this post. Mobile platforms can no longer be ignored, and that means no java. Actually android is essentially java (dalvik), but standard java applets do not work. Flash is only just now being ported to work on android, and it may become available for the iphone as well, although Apple is hostile to it (as well as java). Since google doesn’t support browser applets (even android applets), and Apple wants total control of their platform, Flash is only increasing its dominance and importance.
Since Oracle bought out Sun, and there is no support nor any planned support for java on the android and iphone platforms, it appears the only open source alternative for the future of RIA apps may be HTML5. But that cannot be used for creating the kind of highly interactive graphical educational software that you can create in java and flash. For this to work in HTML5, it would require WebGL, a 3D (OpenGL ES) canvas for HTML5. WebGL still does not work out of the box on any mobile platform, but it has been or is being ported to work on WebKit (the browser engine for Palm’s WebOS and the iphone web browser) as well as android. Currently, to run WebGL you need to grab a nightly build of Firefox, WebKit, or Google Chrome (I’m trying out the last one). Official builds will have likely have built-in support for WebGL come November 2010 or so perhaps (Firefox 4). Here are some more resources on WebGL:
- Learning WebGL – blog
- Vladimir Vukićević, blog of the main developer for the canvas control, and porting it to android. He did similar work on the mono platform earlier.
- Planet WebGL – aggregator
- Blender to WebGL exporter
- Copperlicht – sample 3D engine for WebGL
- WebGL Wiki – User Contributions (other libraries)