iPad, Flash and the Mobile Web

Posted in Flash, iPad by Protopop on January 28, 2010

The lack of Flash support on the iPad is a serious blow to the identity of Flash.

I became a Flash designer because of 2 things – its unrestrained creative freedom to deliver almost anything i could think of making, and its cross platform and deep penetration across the internet.  Now I could create beautiful things and share them with the world.  Well, that world has become increasingly mobile in mind and market share. And it’s a world from which Flash is being largely excluded.

First, kudos.  I love Flash, I do.  And if you didn’t love it too it wouldn’t inflame such passion and give rise to so many blog posts.  Flash isn’t under attack because of it’s a poor product. On the contrary, it’s like an athlete at the Olympics going for gold.  Flash is so great at so many things that we just want it to be even better – perfect perhaps.  But Flash has been denied perfection because of 2 fatal flaws in its DNA.

First, it’s proprietary technology, and this is an ugly truth that I try to forget every time I use it.  It’s owned and operated by ‘Big Design’ (you know who you are) and although their intentions and efforts are noble, it still remains a closed platform and cannot achieve the adoption rates and democratic zeitgeist of open source standards like HTML.

Second is performance which, backroom deals aside, has been a large deterrent to its adoption on mobile devices.  Yes, apparently Flash and Flash lite players are available on millions of mobile devices.  Well I’ve been developing flash apps for years and honestly I wouldn’t know it.  Flash has a history of poor performance on Macs so I can understand why the Mac faithful haven’t been rushing to defend a platform that’s forsaken their interests for a long time. Performance anxiety is not only the result of the Flash player itself either, which is a beautiful and compact piece of software engineering (if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be having this discussion).  Flash developers are an industrious creative lot who love nothing more than to create something they said couldn’t be created.  As such you have a huge ecosystem of flash media on the web pushing the boundaries of even new PC performance.  How could this ever be restrained to the emerging mobile ecosystem that thrives on prudent power consumption?

Enter the iPad.

The wild success of the iPhone and iPod Touch had Flash developers scurrying into Apple App development, and with good reason.

Beyond the ability to browse in the bathroom (you do it too), they offered a relatively open ecosystem and a ‘for-dummies’ ecommerce infrastructure that let small developers make more than a few dollars while expressing themselves creatively.

Now the iPad offers people a sexy new way to experience the internet, and at 499 and up, it’s going to sell millions. Apple’s share of the mobile market space is already huge and the iPad will just see this share grow.  And guess what? Flash will not be invited to the party.  So it’s decided to crash it in the form of Flash CS5’s admittedly nifty Mac App export tool.

The problem with Adobe’s answer to Flash on the iPhone is this: By restricting it (not by their choice) to the app store ecosystem they are erasing many things that make Flash Flash, the most important being delivery by web browser, perhaps THE defining quality of Flash, erased like it never existed.  No longer the clever way to circumvent Big Media and deliver content straight to The People without big budgets, it becomes a ‘me too’ entry into Apple’s App Store ecosystem. It becomes subject to the developer fees and approval process of the App Store queue, which, while hardly exorbitant or stifling, represents quite a change in pipeline for developers accustomed to few restraints on creative freedom.

It also positions Flash as an application development platform rather than a web browsing experience.  This is a well deserved position since Adobe has made great strides to develop Actionscript 3 as a robust and powerful language in its own right.  Just be aware it comes with it’s own identity crisis for Flash.  Is it the best way to reach millions via the web, in which case it should be available on the exponentially growing mobile market, or is it an application development tool, in which case we should see performance boosts equal to other app development frameworks like c++ and Cocoa.

Hello Standards

So then, what’s the sexy new way to circumvent authority?

Well it turns out that it’s something that wasn’t so sexy in the first place.  Standards, in the form of HTML 5, CSS and a renaissance in Javascripting that sees it compared to early versions of  actionscript.  Because standards are open source and accessible to all, they are used by literally everyone. Compare the number of people who have created a web page or read one to the number of people who have created a App or used one and the difference becomes apparent.  Like politicians swayed by populist chants, big companies like Apple, Google and (even though they seem to resist it tooth and nail) Microsoft embrace and adopt standards like HTML or face the consequences. Imagine a web browser that didn’t run javascript.  Now THAT would be a deal breaker.

Standards become the new-meets-old way to again reach the masses, unrestrained by corporate interests or approval. Look at Google’s latest version of Google Voice.  When Apple said NO! to the App Store version, Google went ahead and created a web browser version that sidesteps the App Store and proves to be almost just as functional.  What’s Apple going to do? Restrict people from visiting certain web pages that break their terms of service or compete with their app store infrastructure?  Web developers are finding out that their javascript transitions and database signups work just as seamlessly on the iPhone as on the PC. Standards are getting a lot of love.

So we’re left with the big quandary.  Flash does so many things right.  It’s increasingly open source. Performance has increased. 3D in flash is really coming on strong. All’s right on the left side of the brain.  But on the other side, the concept of Flash as a technology that can reach anyone anywhere (in other words, via the web browser) is eroding.  And the thing about standards is that they are great when it comes to accessibility, but unless you’re a creative genius they just aren’t up to snuff (yet) when it comes to delivering the rich media (ugg…) experience that proprietary plugins like Flash and Unity can deliver. I waited YEARS for 3d to come to browser via software based Flash and hardware accelerated Unity 3D.  Now I’m told i can’t have it if i want unfettered reach to the mobile market, and I have to run back to standards.

Where do we go from here?

Here’s what I’m going to do for the time being.  I’m going to continue to use Flash with the queasy, back-of-my-mind understanding that it’s a proprietary technology with performance issues, and both will need to be addressed eventually with the mobile market.  I’m going to adopt HTML 5/CSS/Javascript everywhere possible whenever it can replace flash. This means cookies/databases instead of shared objects.  jQuery instead of Flash transitions.  Open video instead of swf players. I’m going to enjoy the power of plugins like Unity and Flash as a way to deliver a powerful creative experience while hoping against hope that they too will become so essential that companies like Apple will be forced to adopt them in the browser.  All the while knowing that if people want platforms like the iPad to adopt Flash without question there is only one surefire way to do it.

Turn it into an open standard.  I mean an open standard like HTML, not corporate initiatives with the word OPEN attached to them.  Actionscript that everyone can contribute to.  Free players for all.  Open source the entire thing and make money Adobe by selling the best IDE’s to harness the power of a newly open sourced phenomenon.

Let’s face it.  There’s an opening for an open source, non-proprietary, performance savvy method of delivering rich media experiences on the mobile and non-mobile web.  Who ever fills it is going to have the future in their hands.


One Response

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  1. lorcan said, on March 6, 2013 at 4:57 pm

    you can download the free version of puffin flash browser for ipad and get it for a max of 1 year free if you refer it to friends. please use my code for the referring portion. thank you!

    my code dhdkmgfjzeama

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