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Adobe Flash vs Apple iPad: RIA in the balance

Adobe evangelist Lee Brimelow has posted some images of well-known sites that break if Adobe Flash is not enabled. His point: if Apple’s iPad does not support Flash, none of these sites will work correctly.

While true in the short term, I do not think this is an effective line of argument. 

Let’s presume that you run one of these Flash-dependent sites. Now along comes a popular computing device that no longer displays Flash content. It’s already happened with the iPhone; but iPad is more serious because it has a full-size web browser, and many of us tolerate strange behaviour in a mobile web browser because we are used to it. Further, I’m guessing that some of these sites already adapt their content for iPhone.

What happens now? One of two things. Either Apple is persuaded to add support for the plugin; or the site owners fix their sites, detecting iPad/iPhone and substituting Quicktime or HTML5 content in place of Flash. In the case of the major sites such as those Brimelow lists, I doubt that second process would take long.

Result: people complain less, the pressure is off Apple and on Adobe.

I do not take the success of iPad for granted; but it is plausible; and if the device does become popular it is going to make Flash-centric web developers re-think their strategy. Further, if it fails, I doubt it will be for lack of Flash. Users do not care about Flash, they care about content, and the iPad will provide plenty of that.

The problem for Adobe is that much of its strategy is now built on the Flash runtime and its presumed ubiquity. If you compare Creative Suite 4 to Creative Suite 3 you can see how Flash is more pervasive, in several different roles ranging from rendering capabilities to code execution. It will be even more so in Creative Suite 5.

Applications built with Flex are equally affected. And note: if Flash is struggling to get over the wall into Apple’s orchard, Oracle Java will struggle more, and Microsoft Silverlight more still. It is not just Flash, but much of what we think of as RIA (Rich Internet Applications) that is at stake.

It is not over yet. If Apple is primarily concerned about browser stability, rather than controlling the platform, then Adobe may yet satisfy its requirements. Second, the iPad might fail – not completely, but enough to make it an unimportant niche. iPad is expensive and most users don’t get the tablet concept; it is not a sure-fire winner.

If neither get-out comes to pass, what can Adobe do? There are a couple of mitigating factors. One is that Adobe has already been thinking about how to deal with Apple devices. At the Adobe Max conference last year we saw its Flash to native code compiler, which will be in Creative Suite 5. It only targets iPhone; but no doubt iPad can be added. It raises the possibility of more Flash applets becoming native applications in the App Store. Money and control for Apple; but at least your code will run.

We also saw, in the Max sneak peeks, how Flash can be rendered server-side, and served to the browser as video. It’s an interesting thought if you simply must get your Flash content working on the iPad.

Another point is that Adobe is at a design tools company, and it can adapt its tools to be less focused on Flash. Another feature we saw at Max was an Illustrator to SVG converter. It is now in Adobe’s interests to work more intensely to advance HTML standards, to make them better clients for rich content.

Still, Apple has come up with what may be a significant roadblock to Adobe’s ambitions for what it calls the Flash Platform.

Web standards people may cheer this, on the grounds that a Flash-free web is less broken. I am not cheering though. Vendors locking down their devices is not a healthy way to advance web standards. Further, Flash is an amazing runtime. Flash enabled YouTube to succeed. The BBC iPlayer project did not deliver on its promise until it converted to Flash. Flash provides web developers with a consistent runtime that has value in entertainment, in education, and in general applications. One of the first things I install on Windows, Mac or Linux is Adobe AIR, which lets me run a desktop Twitter client.

Here’s my vote for Flash on iPad – and Silverlight and Java too, if the user wants their capabilities.

4 thoughts on “Adobe Flash vs Apple iPad: RIA in the balance”

  1. Tim, great analysis!
    It will be interesting to see Google’s response to the iPad, once Adobe releases the Android Flash Player

  2. … I meant “It will be interesting to see this post updated after Google’s response to the iPad, once Adobe releases the Android Flash Player”

  3. I’d agree with your sentiments about ipad success is irrelevant of flash support, it has hardly diminsihed the demand for the iphone. I think with the advent of html 5 flash will have less impact and anyway I thought sites like youtube were actually delivered without using flash? In terms of delivering RIA this is becoming more popular *without* flash, look at the number of Javascript frameworks with very rich UI control support, moo, yui, extjs etc etc.

    Personally its no big issue for me, flash or no flash the ipad will still be a great device.

    Gary

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