Toronto Flash user group FlashinTO is planning Canada’s first-ever Flash conference in March, thanks to a groundswell of Canadian and international support.

FlashinTO started back in March 2000 as a barroom meeting of half

a dozen people, according to founder Shawn Pucknell. Its membership has now grown to 600 — a mix of Canadians and even a few from places like Argentina and France. “”It’s really, really weird, because it’s a Toronto-based Flash user group. We’re getting, like, 20 new registrations a day,”” says Pucknell.

Pucknell and company use their monthly meetings to swap Flash tips and share code. “”They crack open their movies and they show other people and they collaborate that way. That’s where the really interesting work comes from,”” he says. “”We have traditional presentations, we have a bar. It’s kind of a mix between a party and a classroom. (The gatherings) are growing to the point where we’re running out of space.””

Next month, Pucknell will put a more formal spin on his information sessions with the blessing of Macromedia, which recently recognised FlashinTO as an official user group. The Canadian Flash Festival will be held March 25-26 in Toronto’s Design Exchange as part of interactive media festival Digifest. Pucknell has invited 18 speakers — 13 from Canada, three from the U.S. and two from the U.K. — to address such topics as broadcast quality Flash content, ColdFusion, ActionScript and Flash on mobile devices.

“”My real agenda is to create a couple of Canadian Flash superstars — to put Canada on the map,”” says Pucknell, who’s also a partner at Web design firm 10plus1 Communications. “”I’m doing that through community building and bringing in speakers.””

Macromedia recognizes the importance of its developer base, says Macromedia Canada manager Stephane Le Sieur, and encourages them to swap information through user groups and its developer platform. Macromedia has its own division to liase with user groups, he adds. “”What we try to do with the user group folks is provide them timely information about where we’re going, how you can use the technology maybe in a different way . . . and so on. But the main goal of the user group is to get users involved in sharing their experience about the technology,”” he says.

Before a user group can be recognized as official, Macromedia must first determine that the group isn’t being used to promote a single company or service, says Le Sieur. On the other hand, he adds, “”we don’t want the user group to become a seminar platform for Macromedia to promote its technology. It’s mainly to help the people from a technical perspective.””

Macromedia is trying to spread its wings beyond being that company that helps create fancy splash pages for Web sites, says Le Sieur. “”The message is so much more than that. Flash is going to be the next browser technology from the perspective of creating business applications.””

Flash is now being used in hotel booking applications and Web-enabled enterprise applications like human resources. Macromedia has also thrown its hat into the Web services arena, supporting both Microsoft’s .Net and Sun Microsystem’s J2EE. “”We want to be open to both worlds,”” says Le Sieur. “”We realize that a lot of organizations will have a mixed environment. We don’t see major organizations are going to be pure .Net or pure J2EE.””

Pucknell notes that Flash has also been part of more showy, entertainment-driven projects of late, like Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo’s GameCube, and has the distinction of being one of the most-downloaded pieces of software on the Internet.

“”I’ve had people tell me Flash can’t be around forever, and they’re right,”” says Pucknell. “”But with the market penetration that just the plug-in has got right now, nothing’s going to touch Flash for at least three years.””

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