The web up to this point has had a nice balance between accessibility and innovation. Technologies like Flash are important catalysts of a better web. Current trends in standards-driven web design have been highly inspired from the Flash landscape. Flash raised the bar and standards-centric technologies rose to meet it. Flash was a necessary evil to achieve the things we wanted on the web. Now, many would say it simply is not necessary anymore – with myself leaning heavily in that corner. This is something I have been alluding to for years. In the past, Flash offered solutions for needs that HTML could not meet which is why I historically supported Flash. That day is proving to quickly be over.
Flash has always had a contentious place on the web. However, it pushed the internet kicking and screaming into a richer realization. Much of what we see in the HTML5/CSS3 specs look like they were pulled directly from the Flash playbook – and we are all happy for it. However, for one reason or another, Flash has not been able to leap-frog HTML as it had in the past. This could likely be that our needs have now been met. In a more optimistic take on it, Flash has accomplished its mission of “bring[ing] the Internet to life”. Its job is done.
What made Flash the go-to technology in the past is that it accomplished things that HTML just could not do. Flash existed out of needs from designers and wants from (some) users. A few examples include:
- HTML5 video is looking very promising, with YouTube and Vimeo already having HTML5 video players.
- Vector graphics
- Canvas seems to be able to do much of what one can do in Flash with vectors.
- CSS3’s @font-face now allows custom font embedding.
- High motion
- Rich graphics (opacity, gradients, etc.)
- Support for transparent PNGs and new CSS3 rules have come a long way to narrow the gap.
- Asynchronous data transfer
- AJAX anyone?
From my view, these were the core distinguishable features that made Flash the hard pill that was necessary to swallow. Many developers embraced Flash despite being closed because it offered unique solutions. Users installed Flash (many against their desires) so that they could consume content that most often could not pragmatically be viewed in any other way. Yes, there will be some growing pains with HTML5, but it can be done and, in theory, with less effort. Any technology that loses the qualities that make it needed is not long for this world.
Now, enter the iPad. It is shiny, affordable and at the very least looks fun to use. Here’s the difference, the iPad already is not a necessary evil. Other devices achieve the same functionality, just in a different, if less polished sort of way. We do not need the iPad, therefore I think it would be unwise to let it determine how we use the web or consume media. With Flash, we had to make the compromise to install a proprietary browser plugin to view rich media on the web in a way that we otherwise could not. With the iPad we will have to make the compromise to buy a device with a closed application platform where Apple chooses what we can install, a closed 3G market with only one carrier, media formats which may or may not be protected with DRM and the ability to browse the internet with only Apple’s browser. All this to do things that we already do, just in a debatably more enjoyable way. Simply put Flash served an inarguably vital service to the progression of the web. The iPad does not.
All that said, I am excited about what the iPad could do for media consumption. What concerns me is the trend that Apple takes more and more control from users with each new device. We need to let users and web publishers decide if Flash is an unnecessary technology. There are still certain areas in the browser where Flash is optimal, such as games and complex data visualizations. Additionally, no one seems to be considering the scenario where Adobe steps up Flash’s game and comes up with the next big idea that we simply cannot live without. Does it still make sense to block Flash entirely? It has long been considered that Apple’s decision to not support Flash lies in part with the fact that Flash offers direct competition to many apps produced for the iPhone/iPod/iPad. If Apple truly is concerned about the web user experience, why are we not talking about an ad blocker? An ad blocker would filter out the vast majority of negative instances of Flash (banner ads) while preserving the (potentially) positive instances. Blocking Flash seems just too close to how they blocked Google Voice.
Barring some mind-blowing innovation by Adobe, Flash is on its way out as a mainstream web technology regardless of the success or failure of the iPad. What irks me is that I don’t want Apple deciding what I can or cannot install on my machine. Standards-supporters are cheering short-term victories for long-term defeats. This new Apple has a history of blocking technologies on their mobile devices once they deem it a competitor or a threat. Who’s to say they will be fine with standards if it ever ends up conflicting with their business interests? I could easily see a scenario where Apple’s mobile Safari only supports the H.264 codec for HTML5 video – putting us essentially in the same place where we are now for video. Yes, we need a standard, non-proprietary platform to start from. However, it is also highly beneficial for outsiders to push new concepts and technologies that do not have to wait for slow moving organizations agreeing upon final specifications. We need both these forces in balance with each other. What we do not need is a company artificially impacting that balance.
Adobe is not the good guy. Ultimately, they are not concerned about an open platform, they are simply irked that Flash was not accepted and are crying for an ‘open’ web to protect their interests. If they were truly concerned about an open web, they would have open sourced Flash Player years ago (yes, I know the SWF file format is open, but that’s far from the same – see the notoriously spotty Linux support) and/or accepted the fact that the web is just moving on. Additionally, Apple is not the good guy either. They are not concerned about an open platform, they are simply blocking out a technology that could potentially chip away at sales from their AppStore. If they were truly concerned about standards, I would like to remind them that standards go hand-in-hand with openness – something Apple has been devoid of with their mobile devices.
Make no mistake, this little spat between Apple and Adobe is a power struggle about how we consume media. Both are fighting tooth and nail to give users the best media consumption experience available, as long as it’s theirs. In conclusion, what is most sad to me is to watch the different development communities duking it out over what is almost certainly two companies vying for a larger stake in how we consume media. It surely doesn’t seem like either community wins in the end. As my colleague Justin Windle mentioned to me lately, we should concentrate on building great work rather than try to intervene on this corporate cat-fight.