Posted: Sunday April 18, 2010
Tagged with: flash standards web
Most people who know me professionally know how I feel about Flash. The inescapable fact is that what has driven me so far away from it stems not from the fact that it is a useful technology which has filled the gap over the years that HTML has left. Nor is it that Flash is a closed source technology under control of one vendor, though I most certainly dislike this fact. No, what really drives me to avoid it at all costs is actually entirely Adobe's fault and is no secret: Flash sucks on a Mac.
I guess this performance problem shouldn't be surprising given other Adobe products such as Creative Suite 4 are also unbelievably shoddy. But for a company with a reputation as big as Adobe's, it still shocks me. So there has been much talk of Flash Player 10.1 really optimising performance and accelerating various elements to bring Mac users a more PC like experience. But there have also been some red herrings thrown in there to take attention off the fact that the Flash Player for Mac is actually a bad product. I know this because of the noise my fans make whenever I view a page with Flash on it; the fact that Adobe can't use the graphics card to accelerate video is beside the point because even for non-video Flash you can see the CPU usage shoot up. And Steve Jobs knows this.
Something strange has happened over the last decade, something amazing but also a bit scary. One company, or rather it would seem, one man today wields incredible influence over the industry. With the introduction of various new web-consuming products the shape of the internet of the future is being changed. Apple's Flash-less iPhone and iPad there have led to widespread efforts to build Flash-less experiences leveraging new web technologies such as HTML5. That two products, albeit ones which are hugely innovative and have captured the imagination of consumers, can push a technology aside and encourage alternatives is amazing.
Where does this leave the web though? Apple's motives seemed to be initially justified due to the performance problems experienced on mobile devices. Even still today there isn't a mobile device sold that plays Flash. However depending on whether one believes the demos coming from Adobe, this might not be a problem anymore. It would seem however that Apple has made up its mind and won't support Flash. Ever. Is this good? Well, it keeps control of the iPhone OS platform firmly under Apple's control with no chance of non-SDK apps ever being available on it. This should ultimately maintain the quality of the platform, something which ultimately Apple is very passionate about. So for users of Apple's products, it is arguably good as they should enjoy more homogenous experiences with almost certainly better performance.
The Web too stands to gain from this stance as big sites and developers accommodate a Flash-less platform by embracing web standards. The sheer hype and me-too effect compels them to stay at the cutting edge of Apple's technology. Some won't bother, but in this fast paced industry, counting yourself out of innovative products doesn't seem like a good strategy.
Flash won't go away though. It's still the best tool for media heavy sites such as those used for campaigns. It is also the only technology (though Silverlight is catching up fast) that brings features such as webcam access to the web across all browsers. It does face a battle on various fronts though, mainly from HTML5 video. But the bigger battle Adobe faces is probably an ideological one. With the momentum that web standards are gaining it is hard to argue against their value as open vendor-independent technologies. Sure they have a way to go yet and adoption needs to pick up (which it will, especially with the introduction of IE9), but I don't see them going away in the same way as HTML/AJAX didn't disappear with the introduction of Flex which was meant cement itself as king of RIAs.
I would argue that Flash right now is in decline. Perhaps not yet visibly in numbers, but certainly in the current mindset of big companies. In the mobile space especially Flash seems hapless and like a lost opportunity. Take Silverlight for example - it will have a prominent position on the new Windows Phone 7 platform and I'm pretty sure Microsoft aren't going to allow a rival technology which offers a product so close to the offering of its core development platform anywhere close. This really leaves RIM with its unimpressive Blackberry (which ultimately appeals to a different type of user) and Google with its Android platform - the only serious contender to help Adobe get out of this mess. Ultimately however, as Apple and Microsoft know, on mobile it's always going to be about the native apps with their performance benefits and (more) standard UI.
Two things will happen now: either Adobe will put on a spurt of innovation and drastically improve the quality of it's flagship product to woo consumers and ultimately put pressure on handset vendors to incorporate its technology, or it will sit still and hope that litigation and bullying alone can make it survive. I'm hoping on the former. After all, Flash Player 10.1 was a good start and it's not like companies can't pull something unexpected off that impresses (Microsoft, I'm looking at you!).
Fingers crossed, but as I have mentioned before, ideologically they're screwed.