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Apple and the Future of Flash

Posted on May 11th, by Terry McKyton in website. Comments Off on Apple and the Future of Flash

Recently I have received many questions about the use of flash and whether a client should incoroprate it or not. This all stems from the fact that Steve Jobs is against the use of Flash and has in effect blocked the software from running on iPhones and now iPads.

If you have not heard his thoughts you can catch up on why Apple does not support flash here:

The problem is this:

Flash is currently the go to application for immersive online animation and interaction. Millions, maybe billions have been spent over the past decade on creating high-end flash animated websites. Developers don’t use flash because it is the greatest/easiest application to build in and use. Web developers use Flash because it is the best option we have. Flash is installed on over 90% of all desktop computers including macs. This means Flash is the best option we have and almost anyone on a computer will be able to view the content.

So Flash is the best option we have for animation/interaction and Apple is not going to support it. This would not matter except that iPhone use is growing faster than any other mobile device and with the resale of the iPad Apple is capturing even more market share. Apple is estimated to sell 9 million iPads in 2010 alone.

So We have a whole bunch of existing flash websites and A quickly growing market share of deveices that do not support flash.

The Problem gets worse.

As mentioned above companies have spent an enormous amount of money on flash software and high end websites. Steve Jobs has been heard telling major publishers like Wall Street Journal that flash is a dying technology and that dropping it would be an almost insignificant effort.  If major publishers follow his words the result will be a fabricated trend away from a competent software.

Steve Jobs is forcing a trend that is not good for businesses and not good for consumers.

Don’t get me wrong, Flash and Adobe company in general is no saint. Their software, business practices and pricing model are nearly as bad as Apple. But we’ll save that rant for later. This discussion is about Flash software and consumers /business use.

Why Won’t Apple support Flash on mobile devices?

Many consumers, analysts and tech gurus have all posited ideas on the obviously gaping hole left by excluding  flash on apple mobile devices. Fortunately  Steve Jobs wrote up his list of reasons for excluding the Flash platfom. You can read the full details here.

Here is bullet list of his reasons:

  • Flash is not an open technology
  • Reliability, Security, Perfomance
  • Battery Life
  • Touch interaction
  • Results in sub-standard apps

Each one of these points is valid.  However they are also completely irrelevant.

  • Flash is not an open technology – True, who cares? it works and has worked successfully for years.  Since when does Apple care about open? You can’t install OSX on any computer but an apple computer, you can’t release software for the iPhone/iPad without first paying to join their developer program and then getting approval to release the application. So Apple only cares about “Open” when it suits their needs?
  • Reliability Security and Performance – This argument doesn’t make any sense at all. They are arguing that the security, relaibility and performance of a software that does not exist is not good enough. It doesn’t exist! How would you know? If you are basing this off of the desktop software then why on earth do you support it on your desktop computers and laptops? This argument does not add up.
  • Battery Life – Agreed, Flash animation burns batteries faster than no animation. But so does video, So do touch screens, so do sliding animated home screens. The truth is, the consumer should be able to decide whether they run flash and suffer the short battery life if they choose.
  • Touch interaction – Agreed, Touch interaction just doesn’t make sense with flash. Flash accommodates mouse rollovers and mouse clicks. There is no such thing as a roll-over on a touch device just a dragging. However, let’s keep in mind… this is not a limitation of flash, this is more like a limitation of iPhone OS operating system. The truth is Flash supports something, something that has been very popular, and iPhone OS does not. Again the consumer should be able to make the choice to experience limited rollovers or not. (JavaScript drop down navigations operate off of roll-overs too, Apple didn’t exclude javascript)

  • Software built on third party cross platform IDE result in sub-standard apps – This is nonsense. First, there is already a ton of subpar apps on itunes – there are a dozen iFart apps out there built on the iPhone SDK. You can’t get more substandard than that. More interestingly, Steve jobs recommends that Adobe focus their efforts creating software that produces cross platform HTML5 apps. Kind of a contradiction of this very argument.

The real reasons Apple is excluding Flash from iPhone OS

  1. Money$ – In part, Apple is operating in the old fashion manner of maximizing shareholder wealth. If they keep flash off of  the iphone, they keep an entire world of free Flash games off your mobile device. Steve Jobs recommends that you simply download games from itunes instead. Of which, Apple will receive a percentage of the sale.
  2. Touch interaction – Apple simply has not figured out how to accommodate roll over effects versus the drag effect.. The fact that JavaScript drop down navigations do not work properly is living proof of this short coming.
  3. Vendetta – Apple and Adobe have a number of products that directly compete (Lightroom vs. Apertures, Premier vs. Final Cut, etc…). It is rumored that Steve Jobs has always resented that so many people that use Apple computers rely on Adobe software to get their job done… OK this is rumor but it certainly makes the story more interesting

Why is this bad?

  • Apple is flagrantly limiting competition, they are likely going to go down the same road as Microsoft fighting antitrust lawsuit after antitrust lawsuit until some one finally decides to make an example of them. It took about a decade before the courts finally made an example out of Microsoft, so Apple probably has some time.
  • The consumer suffers – We as consumers suffer because we can not load a flash website on our $500 phones. We get a limited experience. For example, if I want to purchase tickets to a local movie theater on my iPad, i can’t, because the movie theater has an excellent flash powered checkout and seat reservation system
  • Companies will have to spend a fortune converting to HTML5,… and they really won’t get much out of it.
  • Developers have yet another challenge to try to overcome – There are already tons of “standards” inconsistencies between different browsers, this just makes it worse

What should Apple do?

  • Plain and Simple, Apple should give users the choice to turn Flash on and off. I am thinking of something similar to the way a user can turn on and off the “Airplane Mode”. If a consumer wants limited battery life in return for more utility of the device, so be it. This would at least get us over the hump of flash being phased out…if Flash gets phased out.
  • Offer a viable alternative – Apple says to use H.264 and HTML5 for embedding video and this makes great sense. However they did not say what to do when you want to create an animated experience that integrates video and animated interaction . HTML5 can do some of this well, but if we tried to convert a flash website for lets’s say a car manufacturer like Honda to HTML5, the majority of internet users would not be able to render it with out crashing their browser.

What should we, as website owners do?

Unfortunately there is no right or wrong answer right now. All We can do is wait and see and evaluate each web project on a case by case basis. It seems that apple is going to continue to take the majority of the mobile market and if that is the way of the future we will need to stop including flash. Unfortunately it will take years before this shakes out.

A couple guesses about the future.

I really don’t think flash is going anywhere for a long while. Eventually HTML5 may take over as the preferred solution but that is years away. It will take developers a couple years to see the benefits and adopt HTML5 on a large scale and many years after for existing sites to be rebuilt with up to date standards.

In the meantime Apple is leaving a BIG hole in it’s competitive armor. Google is really close to having a phone that is equally powerful and they are eager to include flash.

I beleive that Apple will eventually be pressured to include flash either through legal obligation or competitive necessity. In the meantime I’ll be spending my time surfing iTunes for a new app.

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