If you follow technology news sites (or even if you don’t), you might be well aware of The Adobe vs Apple WAR ON FLASH (as opposed to the Google vs Apple WAR ON MOBILE OSes or any of the other apparent technology ‘wars’ going on right now.)
A quick aside… Am I the only one tiring of these supposed wars? Are they even wars? Really? I suspect that these ‘wars’ are usually just the formulation of adoring users and the media rather than the companies themselves, who are most likely happy that their products are valid enough to be contenders and receive a good deal of free press.
Anyway, given the lack of Adobe Flash on iOS, I thought I’d add some of my thoughts about the debate, as it’s something that regularly comes up when discussing iPads.
Plenty more to read after the break…
To start, there needs to be some clarification in what is meant by ‘Flash’, as there are many perspectives. There are those who equate having Flash with watching video on the Internet. And there are those who equate it to running Flash applications, with a further distinction between running those apps as a dedicated piece of software on the local device, as opposed to running one via a web browser. As of today, there are web sites that offer Flash technology on their pages, and these don’t work on iOS web browsers. However, if a developer wants their Flash application to run on an iOS device, it is now possible thanks to Apple relaxing their grip on the development tools used to create submissions to the App Store – According to Adobe one month after this relaxing of the rules, over 150 apps created with Adobe’s packager had been approved by Apple and were in the App Store.
As most flash video sites have already or are already converting their offerings to non-flash alternatives (as well as the potential of the Skyfire browser taking care of the rest if/when it gets approved by Apple), and given that local flash apps can now be run on iPads, I suspect the main thrust of concern now is the lack of ability to experience Flash via a web browser, something that still is not possible on an iOS device.
I can understand that the lack of Flash on an iPad is not optimal, and even a show stopper for some right now, but it appears that Adobe has been unable to provide a lightweight version of it on a mobile platform. Steve Jobs mentioned performance and battery use in his ‘Thoughts on Flash‘ in April this year, and it’s definitely an article worth reading for some background on Apple’s stance. A percentage of mobile devices that run the latest version of Google’s Android are able to run flash now, but reports are mixed as to its reliability and battery use. Unfortunately a lot of the ‘research’ offered doesn’t seem particularly conclusive, but more about loyal soldiers on either side Fighting The War. A Google search for android flash performance will show pages of articles (and user responses) arguing this back and forth.
The pro-Flash group does have a reasonable point that despite how slow/unreliable/battery draining the experience might be at the moment, at least they have the option to run it. Is this better than not having it all? I guess it depends on the person/organisation. But, in the same way that people will lay blame on a mobile phone when the 3G network it’s connected to is inadequate, you can understand that Apple possibly doesn’t want to accept (any further) responsibility for poor user experience due to third parties. My belief is that Flash apps via the browser on iOS isn’t out of the question, but will require developers to consider the touch-screen mobile platform more than they currently do (something that will happen naturally if/when mobile devices use Flash more), and for Flash to be well-enough behaved in the first place to function well.
Forgetting Apple being the poster-child for the anti-Flash movement for a moment, consider this. ‘Smart’ mobile devices have been available for a good few years now. Nokia’s E61 used a WebKit based browser, but didn’t have flash. Palm’s Treo models didn’t either. Even if these devices may not have had the power to run Flash, Adobe must have realised that smart mobile devices were on the increase, and that they’d need to step up to offer Flash on them. In all this time that they’ve had, it seems that all they’ve done is manage to release a beta version of flash that works on only some of the devices of a single platform. Even Windows 7 Phone which was unveiled a couple of weeks ago doesn’t have Flash. Having watched Adobe’s lack of agility in other areas over the years (e.g., how long it took to provide universal binaries for intel macs, 64 bit versions of their creative suite, and their inability to provide sysadmin friendly installers release after release) I tend to believe the assertions made by Apple that Adobe has dropped the ball taking so long to provide an actual product to the market that does work on a mobile platform.
Given Adobe’s apparent lack of ability to provide a reliable option to provide Flash to mobile devices so far, I suspect that they may have missed the boat, and that arguing the iPad doesn’t do Flash might be a bit similar to arguing that the iPad doesn’t do Real Audio if the iPad were released 10 years ago. I.e., there’s a significant user base for Adobe’s technology now but will it still be relevant a year from now? Or two? Apple’s tended towards pushing people (sometimes kicking and screaming) into the next generation of technology (removing floppy drives from their computers, introducing USB and FireWire before others, announcing the death of OS9, etc). Remember Cold Fusion? Remember ZIP drives? Where are these once well-used technologies now? Perhaps if Adobe hadn’t allowed the gap where mobile computing advanced quickly before Flash was demonstrable as an option, there’d be less arguments now about the merits of HTML5 vs Flash. But, in the absence of Flash, and with millions of iOS (and other non-flash) mobile devices, the world’s moving on.
I’d like flash on the iPad for sure. I just don’t know if for those who believe it’s a show stopper, whether it will continue to be for long. People who develop content usually want as much potential market as they can, and if the iPad is indeed the fastest selling device ever, with estimates that 13.8 million will be sold in 2010, and if Google’s CEO talks about developers writing for for mobile platforms first and worry about the desktop experience second, it seems that unless something changes soon, Flash support will be needed for legacy purposes only, and not be used on the web in future as it has up till now.
I can’t imagine that any organisation that is intending to (re-)develop their website in the near future would knowingly use (just) Flash, rather than mechanisms that will also cater to the non-Flash contingent. Would you?