Flash, the iPad, He Said, She Said, the Frying Pan and the Fire

Even if the iPad is not a success, media producers are understanding the implications of using a technology that could be rendered lame almost overnight. It is as if in an instant the world saw what has been taking place for years; HTML/CSS/Javascript has been catching up to Flash – pushing it closer to being inessential. You cannot put the cat back into the bag. However, Apple is not to be applauded. They are upping the ante for how closed an experience can be for next-gen mobile devices. After the unveiling of the iPad we have heard sniping from both Adobe and Apple, however neither have the best interests of the public in mind.

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
New Javascript engines are frighteningly fast and can hold their own on the equivalent of typical motion in Flash.
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.

6 thoughts on “Flash, the iPad, He Said, She Said, the Frying Pan and the Fire”

  1. If the full HTML5 spec was implemented in all browsers today, feature wise it is still only comparable to Flash Player version 6 to 8. There’s still plenty that can be done in Flash Player 10 that is not capable in the browser.

    Example Flash Player 10 has peer-to-peer capabilities to share files, audio and video. Peer-to-peer video is likely going to be big in the future for live events, greatly reducing the server costs to host such events.

    The new text engine in Flash gives developers control over text seen at the level of desktop publishing applications (Adobe’s InDesign team were apparently responsible for it).

    These are 2 examples, but look over what is capable in Flash Player 10 and the player is still several steps ahead of the HTML5 spec. I think Flash still has it’s place in the web, innovating and expanding what is capable on the web.

    Meanwhile, Adobe has been including HTML5 features in Adobe AIR 2.0 and has been demoing HTML5 support in Dreamweaver CS5, which is set to come out this year. At MAX 09, Adobe even demoed exporting Flash animation as a FXG file and loading it into the canvas tag .Here’s a video of Illustrator exporting to the canvas tag followed by the same thing done with Flash: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v69S22ZBBqA

  2. As long as IE is still in use, web standardization is just a dream…Flash will still there, not only for the web, but for any other devices including cellphones, TV and many more.

  3. I’m sick of the Flash drama.

    If Apple creates a device (*their* device) and decides not to include a product from another organization that is their prerogative. It’s their product. And they alone decide the features.

    I use Google Analytics about 20% of each work day. But I don’t get the cool graphs on my iPad – and I knew that when I ordered it. I’m waiting (somewhat impatiently) for the incredibly smart, profit-driven Google engineers to rework the display features so I can take my Analytics to the coffee shop to mull over with a cup of Earl Grey and some light conversation.

    As for the new licensing ‘restrictions’: iPhone OS 4.0 will be an optional, probably paid, upgrade so current owners are free to decide whether they want those ‘restrictions’. Consumers are also free to make future purchase decisions based on these so-called restrictions. If an end-user absolutely positively has-to-have Flash they’ll opt for something other than an iPhone. To be honest I believe few consumers know, nor care, about licensing restrictions or the hoops a developer must go through to get their product to market. They want a product to “DO” things.

    If a developer wants their product in front of the bajillions of iPhone users, they’ll adapt and use the tools required to compete in that market. Or choose a smaller, less populated market, in which to peddle their wares. The choice is up to developers.

    In reality, Flash is just not that important anymore. 15 years ago, when the web was young, Flash was revolutionary, compelling, and sometimes over-used. But, today, it’s a small widget in an ever-expanding box of tools available to designers and developers. Don’t get me wrong, Flash makes it dead-simple for novices to create interactive content and apps. But other products offer the same functionality – though with a higher (usefully higher in my opinion) knowledge-barrier to entry.

    Adobe’s subversive coercion tactics are growing a bit thin. Actually, very thin. It’s not Adobe vs Apple. It’s developers vs a crowded market. The only folks with real skin in the game are developers who must decide how to focus their limited development energy.

    Unfortunately, Adobe is afraid developers will choose the market with the greatest profit potential. Which does not include Flash. And that’s why Adobe is *really* grousing about this.

  4. Another article proving that you know nothing about the direction and current place for Flash in this world. The advantage of Flash is that a developer can create one application, game, ad (sucks but true), or any other construct for consumption and have it appear, behave, and give the same user experience in any platform that supports Flash. Currently that’s across platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux), mediums (internet, desktop, mobile), and who knows what other future devices will be able to host the flash player (Automotive or home control devices anyone?). There is no other technology that can currently do that, and certainly no current technologies aspiring to do that.

    How many places can I view and play with my Apple Appstore applications? iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch… How many places can I consume Flash applications? Computers, netbooks, laptops, phones, tablets, my Wii for cripes sake… everything BUT the above listed devices.

    If you hate options and love to only use Apple products by all means keep buying those three products, they are very easy to use and have great style. If you prefer options and content that is more than likely free, and can be consumed on every other device in the world, then you should enjoy what Adobe has been working hard to accomplish.

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