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Doing creative work in the browser has, over the years, delivered a fair bit of hype. What it hasn’t delivered is a tool with any real apparent staying power. And as we watch the meltdown of creative Web poster child Aviary’s music suite, caught between changing business models and evolving standards, there’s reason for concern. That’s not to say that Web-based music making can’t work. But it certainly isn’t working like this.

Aviary had been a key example of powerful in-browser editing tools, with an extensive suite of tools built in Flash. But Aviary switched their business model, focusing instead on providing editing tools to other developers on mobile. And the transition from Flash to “HTML5” isn’t helping, either. Flash has done a great job of exiting, but HTML5 hasn’t made the same confident entrance. The plug-in Flash, for all its flaws, at least delivered the same experience across operating systems and browsers. HTML5, which is really just a name being (somewhat inaccurately) applied to a bundle of Web standards and codecs provided in-browser, is still evolving.

Aviary is just one example, but the way in which cloud services shut down is itself worth some attention. Whereas a defunct native application might still run on your machine, the “cloud” service here just shuts off. It’s gone. Not only is your data gone, but it’s as though the whole application never existed. Now, in fairness, with OS updates and the like, a native app may not fare a whole lot better. But part of the appeal of doing work online is supposed to be not having to worry about maintaining software; here, it’s quite the opposite. One possible remedy, standard file interchange formats, seems generally an afterthought in online services even more than in desktop software.

In fact, whatever the bigger trends, in browser software as with any software, let the buyer (user) beware. You may want to be cautious about protecting your work. Albert Santoni, who writes us with this tip, puts it this way:

I just received the following email from the creators of Aviary, the flash-based online audio editor “in the cloud” that has over 180,000 users in the Chrome Web Store alone.

The audio editor has had a presence as the most popular audio application in the Chrome Web Store since its launch, and is available here: http://advanced.aviary.com/tools/audio-editor

I think this might be worth warning your readers about – If you store your music creations in the cloud (especially for free), you’re susceptible to losing all your work if the company decides to change directions or goes out of business. This is maybe the first time a cloud-based music production application has died, but it certainly won’t be the last.

At the moment, I’m more optimistic about free and open source software solutions. Free software can for some be a philosophical choice. But here, you can make a more practical argument. CDM has run on WordPress for nearly eight years; we’re now investing in Create Digital Noise as a forum on another open platform. Part of the reason is, those tools can be more future-proof. I’ve frequently gone in and modified code to make it work the way we need, and a well-run community and updates, a community who is collectively invested in keeping something alive, can make this stuff outlast proprietary solutions. (By way of comparison, a lot of the commercial tools we might have used have since died, as their business models failed to survive.)

Proprietary software and stables businesses can provide software with a longer life, sometimes in ways that provide superior support to free software. But at the moment, it seems the Web itself may be moving so fast as to require collective effort by developers of free tools.

There, too, HTML5 technology is moving forward, with work on everything from codecs to better audio support.

But for now, the reality on the ground for users of these tools seems a long way from being able to compete with more powerful, better-supported, more-usable, more-understandable, more-flexible desktop tools. And the obituary from Aviary is sobering.

If you’re out there and do believe in browser-based tools, as a user, a developer, or both, it’s not a bad place to begin as a cautionary tale. Whatever you do, do better than this.

And for Aviary, at least, the business was much better in apps – iOS, in particular – than on the browser, and better in supporting someone else’s apps than their own.

With Flash’s general decline as a platform over the last few years, it is becoming more and more of a time sink for our team to fix and support these issues.
We therefore have made the difficult decision to retire the advanced suite of multimedia Flash apps for artists (located at advanced.aviary.com) on September 15th, 2012. Between now and this time period, you are encouraged to download (and/or export) any files currently residing on the system as they may not be available after that time.
We will unfortunately no longer be able to offer additional support for this suite between now and then, though you are welcome to continue to use it without support until it officially closes.
This is obviously a very difficult and sad announcement for us to make – much love, sweat, passion, investment and energy went into building our advanced suite of multimedia Flash apps. But our team, board and investors all recognize that continuing to support and develop a suite of legacy products on a platform that is declining would be a tremendous waste of resources, in addition to being too big a distraction to the success of our current focus.
To answer the obvious question: Will we rebuild the advanced multimedia suite for artists in HTML5 (or natively on mobile)? We have no plans at this time to do so. We feel that we’re currently on the right path to success and it would be too distracting to have to completely rebuild products from scratch that are off that path, at this time.
We have no recommendations for other apps you could use as alternative to our advanced suite of multimedia flash apps for artists right now, but will try to compile some closer to September when we send out a reminder notice. We do recommend that if you are a member of the artist community at advanced.aviary.com, you join the awesome community of artists at Worth1000.com.

Avi Muchnick
CEO / Aviary

Announcement, via email
Aviary’s new direction

Now, I don’t want to be all gloom-and-doom here.

Are there online apps you really are using on a regular basis to make music? (Not just share music, as on excellent tools like SoundCloud – what about creation?)

For those that do interest you, have you checked lately what options they give you for export, and are those tools sufficient?

Here’s a look at what one of the Aviary apps accomplished.