Steve Jobs’ last laugh: good riddance to Flash?


Steve Jobs’ last laugh: good riddance to Flash?

Steve Jobs isn’t here to enjoy his triumph, but this week’s announcement that Adobe has stopped developing the mobile version of the Flash player would undoubtedly have delighted him. The title of yesterday’s Guardian story says it all: “Adobe kills mobile Flash, giving Steve Jobs the last laugh”. The first comment is even starker: “Flash – good riddance!”

So why has Adobe taken the decision? Is this really the end of the road for Flash? And is it really good news?

Inevitably most commentators are presenting the move as a vindication of Steve Jobs’ argument that Flash was inherently unsuited for lightweight mobile delivery.

Regular readers will know that I’ve never bought this argument,  largely because it’s untrue and ignores the fact that Flash was specifically developed to deliver the richest possible experience down narrow web pipelines and on everyday systems – and that it has kept to this strict mission throughout its life.

Retrospectively banning an established web technology – in use on an astonishing 62% of the top 97,000 sites according to Microsoft figures – was an extraordinary coup

As such, the lightweight rich Flash player and the new generation of lightweight rich handheld devices should have been the perfect match. If Apple had wanted to make Flash work on mobiles, it could have. I think that the existence and success of the Android player shows this is true (and performance would only get better) and that Jobs’ carefully crafted list of objections to Flash were entirely bogus.

My view, as I’ve argued before, is that Steve Jobs’ real motivation was entirely business driven. What is truly revolutionary about the new iOS platform is its business model, in which rich content and applications are delivered exclusively through native apps and through the App Store with its 30% commission. Seen in this light, the threat that Flash poses is clear: enabling the same rich content/apps to be delivered efficiently and securely, direct from producer to consumer, across all platforms, within the browser, and without commission.

You have to admire the man. Retrospectively banning an established web technology – in use on an astonishing 62% of the top 97,000 sites according to Microsoft figures – was an extraordinary coup. Somehow Steve Jobs pulled it off and even managed to make it seem that denying his users functionality, freedom of choice and competition was doing them a favour. Imagine what would have happened if Microsoft had tried to pull off the same trick.

Crucially Jobs’ action and success also made it possible – perhaps even inevitable – that Microsoft would follow suit. I think that the final straw for Adobe came with the recent announcement that Windows 8’s IE10 would only support the Flash player in its desktop mode and not under the new iOS-style, tablet-oriented Metro front end.


Of course that still left Android and the other Open Screen Project (OSP) partners  – who, incidentally, remain free to develop their own future mobile players (a possible USP for Google?). However, with both Apple and now Microsoft lined up against it, the writing on the wall was clear.

Flash could never become universal in the mobile space as it is on the desktop, not because it couldn’t deliver the goods and build the audience – it could – but because it wasn’t going to be allowed to. There was nothing Adobe could do about it; the mobile Flash player’s fate was entirely out of its hands. Adobe’s decision isn’t a vindication of Steve Jobs’ position, it’s just a direct consequence.

The future for Flash and HTML5 – in practice

That said, it’s the reality to be faced and, with even Adobe now turning its back on its mobile player in favour of HTML5, is this the end of the road for Flash?

It’s important not to get carried away and to stress that Adobe is only stopping development of the mobile player. The Flash player will still be developed for the desktop where it remains ubiquitous and reigns supreme and indeed unchallenged, now that Microsoft has effectively ditched Silverlight.

If Flash can no longer deliver to all users then developers and designers are going to look for a solution that can

However, to pretend that Flash on the desktop is unaffected is wishful thinking. Ultimately it comes down to the same argument: the web is all about universality. If Flash can no longer deliver to all users then developers and designers are going to look for a solution that can.

As soon as Steve Jobs banned cross-platform web extensions (Silverlight and Java as well as Flash) and established the iOS platform, then HTML5 became the only viable universal web solution for the long term. If you can do what you want to do in HTML5 then there’s little question that that’s the best way to do it. The fundamental shift from Flash to HTML5 in the browser is unavoidable, and now even Adobe is fully and clearly on board.

However while “doing Flash in HTML5” sounds simple and desirable, that doesn’t mean it is. Take the easiest example: the ubiquitous Flash-based animated vector ad. Now it’s certainly possible that this can be delivered via HTML5 rather than Flash (as the Flash blockers are now discovering). However what does this actually mean in practice?

Are you really going to code the vectors of the SVG objects by hand? And then the keyframes of the animation? And then what about the output? HTML5 browser support isn’t simple and varying HTML5 capabilities and implementations will likely need specialised handling. Again theoretically you could learn all the foibles and test against all the platforms and browsers, or then again, you might have better things to do.

The bottom line is that open coding is all very well in principle but Notepad isn’t going to cut it – to produce rich Flash-style results you’re going to need a dedicated Flash-style tool for design and output. And the most likely provider will be Adobe. No doubt the next version of Dreamweaver will add canvas tag capabilities while for more complex scenarios you will be able to use the all-new, dedicated, HTML5-native Adobe Edge.

Ironically, using Flash tools in this way will actually be the only option if you want to remain truly universal

Alternatively, Adobe has made it clear that it plans to graft HTML5 output onto its existing Flash tools whenever that’s possible, so why not stick with what you know?

Ironically, using Flash tools in this way will actually be the only option if you want to remain truly universal as it means that you will be able to cater for the HTML5-only tablet audience, including iOS and Metro, as well as the Flash-based desktop audience using pre-HTML5 browsers such as IE6, 7 and 8.

Sticking with Flash for authoring has other advantages. HTML5 has just about caught up with Flash-style banner ads circa 1995, but nowadays Flash Professional, Builder and Catalyst are powerful all-round rich internet authoring applications. Again, as I’ve written before it’s important to realise that HTML5 is not a direct and wholesale Flash replacement. There are plenty of scenarios – starting with simple and secure video streaming and stretching all the way to line-of-business applications – where HTML5/JavaScript simply isn’t up to the job.

The widespread assumption is that HTML5 will quickly close the gap, but is this realistic? For the foreseeable future all efforts will rightly be focused on getting browser support and compliance for HTML5’s existing features (with the official W3C HTML5 Recommendation not expected to be finalised for another three years). In the meantime Adobe is free to add more advanced capabilities, which is exactly what it is doing with the new 3D games engine in its new Flash player. If anything the gap is widening.

Flash goes native – and under cover

But what on earth is the point of adding such cutting-edge new features if you can’t deliver them on the future of computing, the cutting-edge new mobile devices?

Who said you can’t? Most commentators are assuming that Adobe is effectively throwing in the towel when it comes to Flash for the mobile market, but again this is a mistake. Yes the Flash player has been ruled out, but, as I discuss in my current RWC column in the January edition of PC Pro, the Flash tools remain as relevant as ever. In fact even more so.

In particular it’s important to note that Adobe’s recent announcement says:

Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores

Which makes it pretty clear that Adobe is planning to build on its existing Android and iOS native output with new support for Metro.

In other words, the mobile market isn’t a no-go area for Flash – quite the reverse. In fact if you want to produce work for all major desktop platforms – Windows, OS X, Linux and Chrome – and for all the major mobile platforms – Android, iOS, BlackBerry and Metro – Flash is the only way to go. When Adobe says that Flash/AIR is reaching more devices and more users than ever, it’s not just hype.

It turns out (again) that the rumours of the death of Flash are greatly exaggerated in both the desktop and mobile arenas. In fact the technology and platform is arguably healthier and more relevant than it has ever been, just in the new guise of AIR. Certainly the opening up of the new mobile form factor and of the new mobile app stores is an incredibly exciting opportunity for Flash developers.

In fact if Flash developers were given the choice between the app stores and the browser, I’m sure that most would choose the former. Likewise with end users. But the point is why should they have to choose? Why not have both? Or rather all three: universal HTML5, native code and Flash in between.

Web Flash: good riddance to bad rubbish?

Let’s stand back and think about what we’re losing as Flash is driven out of the browser.

Flash is a fundamentally different technology to HTML that seamlessly extends what the browser can do into new territory based upon vectors, animation, media, interactivity and advanced programmability. It’s a single, robust, actively and rapidly developed runtime running alongside and in partnership with the HTML-focused browser.

Crucially designers and developers can confidently target this single Flash runtime knowing that it will work on all supported platforms and browsers including, amazingly and uniquely, all curent versions of all browsers. Create and upload your single SWF and you can be confident that it will work as expected for all web users.

Apple and now Microsoft have conspired to drive an entirely legitimate and useful web standard with near ubiquitous support out of the mobile browser and into their app stores

Or rather you could. In its place, we have the promise of “just-do-it-in-HTML5”. As we’ve seen this is far more complicated than it sounds. To begin with it puts the onus on the HTML/SVG/CSS/JavaScript standards to deliver results way beyond their comfort zone (another assumption is that HTML5 is somehow going to be less flakey than Flash).

At the same time the shift to HTML5 is going to put the future of the rich web back in the hands of the multiple browser developers, meaning that the single Flash runtime is replaced by a mish-mash of competing capabilities. Does anyone else remember the Browser Wars?

And to top it all, how is the brave new world of HTML5 most likely to be implemented? Using the existing Adobe Flash platform and tools but outputting cut-down capabilities targeted at the multiple, less efficient HTML5 browser runtimes and with Flash fallback for the older desktop browsers!

What’s most depressing of all is the realisation that this entire mess is completely unnecessary. The obvious and overwhelmingly simpler alternative would be for Apple and Microsoft to remove their bans and to work with Adobe to make sure that the Flash player worked brilliantly on their new mobile platforms.

Instead, to further their own business interests, Apple and now Microsoft have conspired to drive an entirely legitimate and useful web standard with near ubiquitous support out of the mobile browser and into their app stores. In the process they have shattered the universal, write-once-view-anywhere rich web dream, added huge and unnecessary complexity to the process of web design and development and ensured that the future of the web for everyone on all devices and all platforms will be far poorer.

Yes Steve Jobs’ extraordinary decision to ban the Flash player has been entirely vindicated from his business-determined point of view. From the perspective of the web developer and the web user, this last laugh is anything but funny.

(Steve Jobs photo taken by Jon Snyder, c/o Creative Commons Library)

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