Flash down the pan?

In among the details emerging about Windows 8 is the announcement that the IE10 browser in the new Metro UI won’t support plugins, which has huge significance for the long-term future of Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) for the web.

Flash down the pan?

Commentators are calling it a mortal blow for plugins in general, and for Flash in particular, so is this the death of the RIA dream?

Future of Flash

Not quite. You’ll still be able to access Flash content on Intel-based Windows 8 PCs (ARM-based devices will be Metro-only); whenever you encounter a site with Flash content while in the Metro version of IE, right-click to switch over to the desktop version. It’s nowhere near as harsh as the total ban Steve Jobs imposed for the iPhone and iPad.

It’s nowhere near as harsh as the total ban Steve Jobs imposed for the iPhone and iPad

Windows users are overwhelmingly desktop-based, and that won’t change overnight (if ever). Danny Winokur of Adobe was surprisingly relaxed at the news: “We expect Windows desktop to be extremely popular for years to come (including Windows 8 desktop), and that it will support Flash just fine.”

While the Flash player remains ubiquitous on the desktop, rumours of its death are exaggerated.

Real battle

It isn’t a mortal blow yet, but Adobe’s optimism is misplaced – or a gloss on bad news. While the desktop may remain safe for some time, the crucial battleground is for handheld devices and tablets.

If Microsoft chose to throw its weight behind Flash – alongside Google, RIM and other OSP (Open Screen Project) partners – a post-Jobs Apple would surely have had to cave in and assure Flash’s universality. Microsoft’s announcement reveals this scenario as a pipe dream.

Despite Adobe’s best efforts with its mobile-optimised Flash player, it will never become ubiquitous on the handheld as it is on the desktop, and Adobe has now halted development on mobile Flash. Losing Apple was bad, but the loss of Microsoft is far worse.

If you want to reach everybody with your content – which is what the web is all about – then Flash will no longer be able to deliver. Its greatest strength was its 99.8% browser coverage, but this has been ripped away, and will continue to fall as tablet usage rises: the only potentially universal web display technology for the future is now HTML5.

Microsoft explanation

So why did Microsoft turn against Flash and the whole idea of browser plugins? The nearest to an official explanation came in an MSDN blog by Windows chief Steven Sinofsky: the justification it offers for the decision is that “the experience that plugins provide today is not a good match with Metro Style browsing and the modern HTML5 web”, which is both vague and unconvincing, but also familiar as it’s essentially the same argument Jobs used for banning Flash 18 months ago.

In short, it’s time to “leave the past behind” as the old-fashioned “legacy plugins” are no longer needed in this brave new world of HTML5.

Regular readers will know that I’ve never bought this argument, and what’s more I know that Microsoft hasn’t either, since it spent the past five years arguing the exact opposite – that there are certain things HTML doesn’t deliver well.

Little things, such as high-quality streaming media, digital rights management, vector animations, rich interactivity, hardware control of cameras, microphones and so on.

In short, a rich web experience. It’s precisely because Microsoft recognised the limitations of HTML – which remain in HTML5 – that it spent millions reworking all its development tools around XAML (eXtensible Application Markup Language), a presentational layer for building rich user interfaces for full-blown desktop applications, written in the .NET programming languages.

And a subset of these XAML/.NET capabilities can be used to deliver lightweight RIAs via a Flash-style, cross-platform browser plugin called Silverlight…

Goodnight Silverlight?

Yes, believe it or not, Microsoft’s “no plugin” policy for Metro doesn’t apply only to Flash, but also to Silverlight! Why on earth would Microsoft kill its own RIA technology?

It’s true that Silverlight has hardly lived up to the original slogan of “light up the web”. According to RIAstats.com, more than 75% of site visitors are now capable of viewing Silverlight content, but compared to Flash the amount of Silverlight content out there is tiny.

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