The Future of FlashApril 22, 2010
When Apple released its new iPad tablet computer, very few (very few normal people, at least; all of us geeks were keen to it) may have noticed the omission of a web technology that’s pretty commonplace these days: Adobe’s Flash. Flash is a web browser plugin that is installed nearly everywhere; if you’ve viewed a video on Youtube, then you’ve used Flash. Many of you probably have websites that use Flash for introductory animations or to showcase product videos and demonstrations. It’s the most popular technology on the web for presenting video and interactive content.
That may soon be changing. Apple thus far has steadfastly refused to implement Flash technology on the popular iPhone, and the same goes for the new iPad: no Flash – not now, and probably not ever. Apple touts performance problems with Adobe’s Flash plugin as the main reason for this stance, but there are likely larger strategic motivations behind it – Adobe’s platform is “closed”, which means that Adobe controls how it works and what people can do with it. Technically, Apple’s iPhone/iPad operating system is closed as well, so there is more than a whiff of irony here. But Apple does have a lot of support in pushing for a world wide web that is based entirely on open standards.
What does that mean? Simply put, an open standard is something everyone can agree on; more specifically, it means a way of doing things that is not controlled by a single company or vendor, but is instead managed by a publicly accountable group. HTML, the main language of web pages, is an open standard. Anyone can use it, anyone can propose modifications to it, and no one pays royalties when they use it to build their own web sites.
Adobe’s Flash is a closed standard, in that Adobe owns the technology, controls the details of how it is licensed and implemented, and derives revenue from selling the software that enables you to create web sites, presentations and video in the Flash format. This is beneficial in the sense that no agreement is required among many parties to decide how to change or improve the software, so that advances in the technology can be made at a rapid pace. The downside is that what Adobe declares to be the standard, so the standard shall be. For Apple, that meant dependence on a possibly hostile competitor for delivery of web content. And with so much content delivered on the web now, Apple likely felt that a closed standard over which they had no control was a risky proposition. It didn’t help that Adobe treated the Macintosh version of the Flash plugin as a second-class citizen; Flash still performs poorly on the Mac compared to Windows computers.
Why would Adobe – or you, or anyone, for that matter – really care about Apple’s refusal to play nice with Flash? After all, Apple computers make up less than ten percent of the personal computer market as a whole. Enter the iPhone. You may not have one yet, but chances are a lot of folks you know are talking, surfing the web or playing a game on the iPhone right now. My parents, sister and roughly 60-70% of the people I know have one. While it may fight with various Blackberries for the title of the most popular smartphone, the iPhone possesses the overwhelming share of mobile browsing – more people browse websites from the iPhone than any other phone or smartphone in the world.
Even more important, the share of mobile browsing vs. browsing from a computer is on a steady rise. That means more and more people view websites via a mobile browser every day. When the most popular mobile browser out there – the iPhone’s Safari browser – doesn’t support Flash, that makes web site owners and content creators stand up and take notice. And over the last two years, thousands of websites have created mobile-specific versions that omit Flash components specifically for this reason. Even sites based almost entirely on Flash – like disney.com – now offer mobile versions for the iPhone with no Flash at all.
What does this mean to you, the business owner with a modest web site and scant budget for big Flash animations and videos in the first place? Many companies, even small ones, use Flash to produce very simple animations for their home pages, like scrolling product displays or quick slideshows. On an iPhone or iPad, these Flash animations show up as a blank box with a little blue “Lego” in the middle indicating that a plugin is missing. As more users access your website from the airport or a taxi or a beach chair, you need to be aware of what the web experience will be like for mobile users on sites that use Flash.
First of all, using Flash does not mean that you have to show users a blank box when they visit from a mobile device that doesn’t support the plugin. Adobe’s Flash tools include code to load alternate content when the Flash plugin isn’t available. So, if your site has an animation of multiple products on the home page, you can tell Flash (during the publishing process) to just load a single image or a frame of the animation when the Flash plugin is not present. This keeps your pages looking pretty, and the user is no wiser to the fact that they’re missing something.
If you embed Youtube videos on your site for product demonstrations, you likely won’t have to worry about that either – Youtube has a native application for the iPhone and iPad, so clicking on a Youtube video embedded in your website should bring up the Youtube player. Note that not all videos get encoded quickly to this different format, so it may take time for your video to be encoded in this format.
Finally, Adobe is working feverishly to produce alternative methods of publishing Flash content to non-Flash compatible devices – they have a very profitable franchise in Flash authoring tools, and they will happily create additional avenues for publishing interactive content provided they can sell the software behind it. Don’t count Adobe out by any means; if there is a way around Apple’s proscription of Flash, Adobe will probably find it. Apple’s goal may be to exterminate (or at least render trivial) Flash, but Adobe is a powerful company that will not go down without a fight (the fight has indeed already begun, across blogs, technology publications and any other forum where Adobe can defend its own stance).
For the weary web site owner, there is one other alternative, of course: Embrace open standards. HTML 5 (the upcoming version of HTML) promises many of the very features that have been exclusive to Flash for so long, like direct embedding of videos and animation. HTML 5 (really, all HTML) also has one keen advantage over Flash – easier search engine indexing. In a world wide web where search position is so critical, the more difficult job of preparing Flash content for indexing makes building sites with lots of Flash a pretty unattractive option. The rules I’ve mentioned here before still apply: Use Flash judiciously, sparingly, and make sure that users have an alternative. And be prepared for a long battle over the future of the web.
This article also appears in Identity Marketing Magazine. Brent Buford is the CEO of eBlox.