Flash Vindication

I come not to bury Flash, but to praise it. And then bury it.

The news that broke last about Adobe killing the mobile version of Flash for smartphones and tablets filled me with excessive schadenfreude. Adobe has beaten the drum for years that Flash was an intertwined part of the Web, and to experience the full Internet, you needed devices that would run it. I didn't entirely agree, but I saw Adobe's point.

Most Flash I interact with using a desktop browser is advertising (so I use a selective Flash blocker in my browser) or video playback. Flash is also used for interactive items, like embedded document viewing, information graphics that either run automatically or allow you to change parameters, or games. I rarely use any of those, but I understand they're in wide use. The only time I felt deprived of Flash when using an iOS device was when trying to visit restaurant sites which inexplicably rely on Flash for simple things like displaying a menu, or other other tasks that are easily done in standard HTML. (Farhad Manjoo at Slate has an explanation as to why restaurants rely on Flash.)

As the iPhone and later iPad grew in market share, Apple's lack of Flash support but large audience to serve led to single apps that function as replacements for what you would otherwise access as a Flash app on a Web page. Those apps are often far more immersive, flexible, and stylish then the equivalent Flash player version, because Apple has requirements for how apps work and, to a lesser extent, how they look. I didn't need Silverlight (Microsoft's interactive technology) for Netflix, as I did on the Web, nor Flash to use Hulu Plus, the paid flavor of Hulu.

Most video content viewed through Flash is already encoded in a format that can be played natively in Android and iOS, among other platforms, or that can use a simple viewer to access. Flash is a universal wrapper for video, but it's not per se necessary. It can also play protected content that's encrypted against casual downloading of the source files, and that's a reason Flash was used by television and other Web sites: to protect those source digital files.

On the desktop, Flash was a great supplement (which it remains to an ever-lesser extent), even if it drains laptop power, runs the processor hot, and crashes browsers. Why? Because before Flash-embedded video, which can run on every supported platform and browser, sites had to choose to encode in any of all of Windows Media, Real Video, and QuickTime formats (among others), and users had to have all those kinds of players available. For years, I mostly avoided playing video on Web sites because it invariably caused a problem.

Flash unleashed the potential of video by largely working the vast majority of the time. This led Web sites to feature more video, and made the Web a more visually interesting medium. (Netflix relied on Silverlight, which offered a similar advantage, even though it was much less used. I'd wager 95% of people who installed Silverlight on Mac or Windows did so in order to access streaming Netflix videos.)

Thus we should separate Flash's inability to deliver a consistent, battery-conserving, interactive, and fast experience on mobile devices which have less juice and less processor time available from why Flash brought the Web into a new era of multimedia. That time is aging out as native video playback support in HTML5-compliant browsers won't require plug-ins.

There's a battle still underway as to which video standard will predominate. Microsoft and Apple have backed H.264 because they have the paid licenses to allow that patent-protected format to be directly used in their browsers. Mozilla (Firefox), Google (Chrome), and Opera have other ideas, but it's unclear whether they will prevail or co-exist. We may live in a split world in which H.264 is the format of choice, but it's delivered natively into Safari and Internet Explorer, while it's packaged inside of Flash (thus avoiding the issue) for Chrome, Firefox, and Opera.

But I will take a moment to chortle—not at Flash as such, but at Flash apologists. I've spent many hours over the last few years saying that Apple won't back off on Flash because it doesn't need to. There's nothing Apple needs from Flash to make iOS better. And the objections Steve Jobs raised in April 2010 were a crystallization of many concerns technical and strategic.

One of them, and one I've raised many times since, was the fact that Adobe never demonstrated Flash working on an iOS device. The firm could have at any time. iOS developers can create apps that run on their own equipment. Adobe could have done a roadshow, which is does to show off technology on a regular basis, and given briefings to reporters and others showing Flash running perfectly well on a variety of iOS equipment. This would involve no violation of Apple's terms and no jailbreaking. It did not do so.

I'm sure Adobe had Flash ported to iOS; the performance could not have been good enough for it to want to show it off. This was staggering because when versions of mobile Flash started to appear on Android and other devices, especially version 10.2 on devices with faster or multi-core processors, it performed seemingly reasonably well. Not embarrassingly, although it was still inconsistent in playing the highest quality video, in not being choppy, and in mapping touch gestures to mouse clicks. Still, it wasn't bad.

The real reason mobile Flash was killed wasn't performance, I'd wager. The reason was that while Google allowed its handset and tablet partners to include Flash (it lacks a competing product and likes to pretend it's "open"), Apple would likely never do so and Microsoft appeared generally uninterested in its new Windows Phone OS. RIM is in free fall and HP canceled its mobile devices, and that would leave most of the market for tablets and smartphones in Apple and Microsoft's hands.

If Adobe didn't refocus its efforts on providing developers superior ways to make HTML5 work on Windows Phone and iOS, some other company or companies would eventually produce the tools needed to steal those customers away.

The failure of mobile Flash is a failure to adapt more readily to provide the tools to designers and content producers to reach the audiences they're serving, rather than a pure failure of the technology. It's possible mobile Flash could never reach a point in which it was good enough to work at a level Apple would accept, but that's theoretical. Flash isn't the right answer for mobile video and interaction, and Adobe has recognized it was misdirecting its efforts.