Latest Dispatches from the Flash Wars

Normally, I’m fairly agnostic on the politics of the technology field. One of the great things about a free market in general, and technology in particular is that the political issues have a way of sorting themselves out without bystanders needing to become partisans fighting for one side or the other. On everything from “network neutrality” to the age-old “Macs vs. PCs” battle, we can all pretty much just vote with our wallets (and our coding efforts). Shouting about such issues or writing strong forum posts never seems to matter as much as the underlying business cases. The tech world largely goes on its way whether we bother to fight the political battles directly or not.

All that said, there are some very interesting developments happening as regards Flash, and it is definitely making me rethink, if not our platform development efforts, at least how we might want to prepare for our own efforts in the future.

It started with Apple’s seemingly inexplicable lack of support for Flash on the iPhone (and later the iPad). In practical terms, this meant that our web sites (which use Flash in a minor way) would display blank “Plug-in not available” icons where such Flash content should have gone. It was nothing critical, though, and we simply coded around it for the iPhone and hoped that Apple would resolve whatever issues they had with Adobe in time for the iPad.

Now, however, it seems that the bad blood between Adobe and Apple has turned into a full-on conflict. Starting with some snarky blog posts between the evangelists of both camps, Steve Jobs at Apple kicked the conflict into high gear this week with his “Thoughts on Flash” open letter in which he took several pages to lay out six reasons why Apple and Flash have parted company, seemingly for good.

This in turn came on the heels of Apple’s announcement that apps made with cross-compilers (like the one in Adobe’s new CS5 suite) would not be accepted in the iPhone/iPad App Store. This effectively killed Adobe’s promising effort to to easily allow Flash developers to package their applications into iPhone apps the day it was born.

Adobe fired back in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and later with a kind of retaliation by immediately ceasing development of their Mac Flash products, making Flash on Mac OS X an also-ran to Windows in the desktop world.

Interestingly, Microsoft also piled on Adobe, albeit subtly, in stating not so much their antipathy for Adobe as their belief that “open standards” (HTML5) are the future of the web, and that Internet Explorer 9 will only have built-in video support for H.264 video. Although it seems unlikely that a release of IE9 will appear without Flash video support in some manner, it can’t have been a great week over at Adobe.

Android, for its part, gleefully embraces both technologies.

Regardless of the technical merits of the discussion, what it really means is that Flash isn’t coming to products like the iPhone or iPad ever unless something very dramatic changes in the business of either Apple or Adobe.

While I don’t really have a dog in this race, I–like most web developers–want be able to make sure the stuff we create can be viewed well on as many devices as possible. Despite Apple’s claims to the contrary, HTML5 isn’t an easy replacement for many of the sort of interfaces we’ve seen in Flash. At a minimum, they’d need to be completely rethought and re-coded. More likely, completely alternative designs–often less…well, “flashy” ones–would have to be developed in their place.

So yes, although we don’t use a lot of Flash in our daily life, it’s looking like we’ll be spending some efforts in the days ahead to see what the alternatives might be for the sort of work we currently use Flash for. It looks like this is one argument the squabbling kids aren’t going to be sorting out any time soon. They’re effectively taking their toys and moving to separate playgrounds. Those of us who used to play with these guys will either have to pick a side, or spend a lot of extra work to make sure that we can operate well in both camps.

Welcome to the Flash Wars.



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2 responses to “Latest Dispatches from the Flash Wars

  1. I am usually an Apple apologist, but not in this case. It seems clear that the goal of this policy is developer lock-in on the iPhone or iPad. By restricting flash, you make it much harder to create portable apps for both (say) Android and iPhone/iPad, and Apple is hoping to exploit this to ensure a paucity of apps for other platforms.

    This is perhaps smart in the short term; however, developers have long memories and I think that ultimately this will backfire. I think a long-term successful platform must attract developers to create apps specifically for that platform through compelling APIs, rather than through roadblocks to cross-platform tools.

  2. I just got rid of my iPad which was unthinkable a month ago when I first got it. As great as a portable device as it is, is was frustrating to be not have access to many everyday websites. It comes so near to perfection that’s it pained me to part with it, but this is yet another unfortunately political stand (reminiscent of not licensing the Mac OS) that may hurt Apple from dominating a new market.

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