Flash to run everywhere: the dream is dead
Emotions are running high in the world of professional web design and development, with words such as “shambles” and “betrayal” in common use. This anger is directed at Adobe’s controversial decision to dump its Flash plugin for mobiles. Fellow RWC columnist Kevin Partner summed up these feelings in a recent blog post:
“The irony is that it isn’t Steve Jobs’ famous hatred of Flash that has caused this turnaround – the true villain of the piece is Adobe itself. By abandoning development of Flash for mobile, it eliminates Flash as an option for most websites… Farewell Adobe. Delete.”
The widespread prejudice that Flash is an unnecessary hindrance to the smooth running of a browser-based web is wrong
The fact that Flash delivers all of this functionality via a browser plugin is actually its greatest strength. Adobe’s Allan Padgett discovered how to make Acrobat Reader render PDFs directly inside Netscape, showed this to Jim Clark and the Netscape Plugin Application Programming Interface (NPAPI) was born, enabling browsers to reserve onscreen space for content rendered by any compliant plugin.
Ironically, the biggest beneficiary of this plugin revolution wasn’t Adobe, with its ability to render PDFs in the browser, but Macromedia, which could render Shockwave Flash (SWF). The reason that isn’t widely understood: NPAPI doesn’t only support rendering chunks of static content, but can also stream content through a persistent connection.
Macromedia broke free from HTML’s static page-based handling and brought the web to life with streamed content and, better still, such content was automatically protected because it was rendered on the fly and couldn’t be saved. Flash became central to professional web design and the natural extension for HTML. Usage exploded and the Flash player became the one plugin everyone installed. With penetration approaching 100%, developers could assume its presence – almost unnoticed it became “the world’s most pervasive software platform”, with greater reach than any individual browser or operating system.
Macromedia realised that it owned the universal online runtime, and decided to bring to the web the sort of interactive computing experience you could only then get on a desktop PC. In 2002, it released a white paper by Jeremy Allaire that floated the idea of the Rich Internet Application (RIA). Flash would no longer merely extend HTML pages by embedding multimedia content: the player would become the “rich client” supporting standalone, browser-hosted applications that enabled users to do stuff, not just see stuff.
A RIA could be anything from flipping an online magazine page to a virtual shopping mall, from videoconferencing to word processing. This up-shift from add-on to rich client was a major undertaking, and extending the web into a ubiquitous computing platform would step on some important and sensitive toes. Macromedia needed far more serious backing and, after failed talks with Microsoft, in 2005 it was acquired by long-standing rival Adobe.
Adobe extended Flash’s capabilities into its Creative Suite, the open source Flex framework and Flash Builder IDE. In 2008 it launched the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR), which made it possible to run Flash-based RIAs offline on a desktop PC.
Nothing but the web
After Adobe, the company most interested in making the web into a universal computing platform was Google. The ability to work well with plugins with improved security, standardised rendering and separate execution was central to its own Chrome browser – features that Google made available to other browser developers via its Pepper Plugin API (PPAPI). It even merged the Flash player directly into the Chrome runtime. The web itself was going to become everyone’s computing platform, and current heavyweight operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS would effectively become redundant; with data and applications handled in the cloud, the OS was needed only for loading the browser and the rich client.
In late 2009, Google announced plans for Chrome OS – a stripped-down, web-only, cloud-focused operating system aimed at netbooks, desktop PCs and a new class of handheld, touchscreen devices called tablets. By the time Google finally released its promised “Chromebook” in June 2011, response was muted. The advantages were clear enough: low-cost and maintenance, fast boot-up, security, and ubiquitous access to your cloud-based content that was easy to share with collaborators and was automatically backed up. The problems were just as clear: who in their right mind would choose ugly-looking and underpowered web applications over smooth, fast native desktop apps?