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Apple vs. Adobe – or how Flash became irrelevant

In General on May 15, 2010 at 18:42

Apple Inc.Adobe FlashSurprise, surprise, Steve Jobs has been causing controversy, again, as only he knows how, sticking it to Adobe about how bad Flash is, and how it will never appear on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Well, never say never, but for technology professionals tasked with implementing websites and mobile applications, the current situation is clear — steer clear of Flash if you want people to be able to access it on iPads, iPhones, or iPod Touches.

How did we arrive at this position, that Steve Jobs’ comments are linked from the home page of the Apple website, and it becomes mainstream headline news? Look at my previous post on how we got here to see the background.

It’s important to remember the Apple perspective here. It was very late to the party with the internet, even more so than the famously late Microsoft. Even with the launch of MobileMe in 2008, Apple quite clearly didn’t understand the importance of web based services, and the special skills needed to make these services a success.

It had also sat by and watched the internet be dominated by Microsoft (with Internet Explorer) and Adobe (with Flash). Web 1.0 was lost to Apple, but it pulled itself together, and set about making a world-class browser with which to tackle the next generation, Web 2.0. It forked an open source browser, WebKit, that became the rendering engine for its browser, Safari (as well as powering the Google Chrome browser).

WebKit’s open source roots meant that it really played in the same pond as the web standards movement: sites coded according to web standards worked great in Safari (a big change from days of yore, where the least popular task in the dev team was debugging pages in Safari…well, at least after support for Netscape 4 had been dropped).

Apple therefore was completely committed to WebKit and Safari. A consequence of this was that when browsers on mobile phones (read Safari on iPhone) became popular, sites coded according to web standards pretty much worked out of the box. In the first wave of mobile development, Japan had something called i-mode, a proprietary technology from NTT Docomo, that relied on websites rewritten in cHTML. This worked well, and delivered a great user experience, but development costs were high as it generally involved a complete rewriting of website code. The rest of the world was much less fortunate. It was stuck with WAP, which also required rewriting, but had the added disadvantage that it was clunky text and a sprinkling of images. No wonder that users were underwhelmed, and mobile internet didn’t really get going.

So now we have websites on mobile phones. People are delighted with this. Are they missing Flash? Hardly, although there is frustration when sites don’t work on their phones.

I’m going to make a big generalisation here, and you may not agree, but in the eyes of (non-Japanese) consumers, Apple essentially created the mobile Internet with the iPhone in 2007. Before that it did of course exist, but no one used it as it was such a trial, with little in the way of reward for the foolhardy user. But. No Flash. Critics were quick to round on Apple for this omission — how can they call if a great web experience if there’s no Flash? No matter that there was no other implementation of Flash on a mobile phone (which is still true today…there’s not a single mobile phone you can buy which does Flash).

Lots of reasons have been given: Jobs listed 6 on the Apple site. He stresses the point about Flash not being ‘open’. As a Mac user, the third reason he gives, “reliability, security and performance” are the most important (to me as a user): Flash chews up your machine, making everything run slow and hot…if something is going to crash your browser, you can bet it’s Flash. Adobe apparently has a fix up its sleeve, which will give the Mac version the same abilities as the Windows version. Well, after all this time, it’s the least we could expect.

To me, there’s another critical business reason, which is ignored by commentators: Apple realises that letting Flash onto the iPhone OS (which also powers the iPad) means no less than the death of the App Store. Flash can still do more than web apps built using HTML (even HTML5), and Apple fears losing its revenue stream if Flash applications are used on the iPhone.

What of the Adobe counter-argument, that Flash is not just about the high-end brand sites and self indulgent intros? What about Flash video? Well, it’s true that for years the only effective way of delivering video was by Flash, and consumers were grateful for it: no one wants to go back to the days of Real Player. But this masks the current state of affairs. These days YouTube plays videos in h.264 to browsers without Flash, so the whole of YouTube, in all its dubious glory, is available to iPhone users. Plenty of other sites have followed suit, with Hulu pretty much the only major hangover (word has it that they are working on this issue). Stats released this month show that of all the video being encoded now, 66% is also being encoded in iPhone-/iPod-/iPad-friendly formats. HTML5 allows video to be played directly in the browser without any plugin, Flash or otherwise. However, this is unlikely to be a huge threat in the short term: not all browsers are HTML5 ready, and there is a religious war going on about which de facto standard codec content providers should cluster around (Apple and Google preferring the high quality and performance of the not-guaranteed-to-be-free-in-the-future h.264, and Mozilla, the second biggest browser developer, which favours the completely open source Ogg Theora). Content providers are unlikely to provide support for both due to the costs of reconverting to a different format, so they’re waiting for the spat to be decided. At the moment, it looks like h.264 is winning.

HTML5 also has Flash-like features baked in. Sites such as Sketchpad and Pixastic have fantastic functionality — they’re both photo editors — without any plugins.

The thing with Apple products, is that they aren’t bought by digital paupers: of all the computers bought in the US last year over $1,000, 66% were from Apple. iPhones aren’t cheap. iPods aren’t cheap. iPads arguably are cheap, if you can get them, but that’s not quite the same, they’re likely to be bought as a second computer, which music and photos are grabbed from, so it’s a luxury purchase. Then there are all the apps, music and movies the users are buying. The takeaway: Apple buyers aren’t afraid to splash the cash. This in itself creates a powerful incentive to create products for this market, content providers going to where the market is. This means that Flash has been circumvented as a medium, and has, in effect, become irrelevant.

For those implementing now, application functionality should be delivered using web standards and JavaScript (as iHotelier has done with iStay, moving away from its birth as a Flash application). Flash, if it is used, should be an enhancement, meaning that the site must look and feel fantastic even without the Flash. Users with Flash can get the icing on the cake, but this shouldn’t be necessary for the success of the site or application. Video functionality should be delivered using h.264 encoded content.

Predictions for the future? Google will continue to provide content on YouTube in both formats, at least until all users have HTML5 browsers.

Recommendations? While nothing is certain, and you don’t want to be putting yourself at the mercy of Apple any more than you want to be putting yourself at the mercy of Adobe, standards such as HTML5 and h.264 have a degree of openness that makes them less of a risk.

Anthony Green – May 2010

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