Flash has been dying a long, slow and painful death. Ever since it developed a reputation for being a battery killer, something which is abhorrent in today’s mobile centric world, consumers have begun avoiding it at every opportunity they can. This has been aided tremendously by the adoption of web standards by numerous large companies, ensuring that no one is beholden to Adobe’s proprietary software. However the incredibly large investment in Flash simply wouldn’t disappear overnight, especially since Adobe’s tooling around it is still one of its biggest money makers. It seems Adobe is ready to start digging Flash’s grave however with the announcement that Flash Professional will become Adobe Animate CC.
The change honestly shouldn’t come as much of a surprise as the writing has been on the wall for sometime. Adobe first flirted with the idea of Flash being a HTML5 tool way back in 2011 with their Wallaby framework and had continued to develop it as time went on. Of course it was still primarily a Flash development tool, and the majority of people using it are still developing Flash applications, however it was clear that the market wanted to move away from Flash and onto standards based alternatives. That being said the rebranding of the product away from being a Flash tool signals that Adobe is ready to let it start to fade in the background and let the standards based web take over.
Interestingly the change is likely not revenue driven as the total income that Adobe derives from it directly is around 6% or so. More it would seem to be about bolstering their authoring tools as the standard for all rich web content, broadening the potential user base for the Animate CC application. From that perspective there’s some potential for the rebranding to work, especially since standards based development is now one of their key marketing plays. Whether that will be enough to pull people away from the alternatives that cropped up in the interim though is less clear but Adobe does have a good reputation when it comes to making creative tools.
Flash will likely still hang around in the background for quite some time now though as much of the infrastructure that’s built up around that ecosystem is still lumbering to change. A good example of this, YouTube, dumped Flash as default for Chrome some time ago but that still left around 80% of their visitors defaulting to Flash. Similarly other sites still rely on Flash for ads and other rich content with standards based solutions really only being the norm for newly developed websites and products. How long Flash will hang around is an open ended question but I don’t see it disappearing within the next few years.
We’re rapidly approaching a post-Flash world and we will all be much better because of it. Flash is a relic of a different time on the Internet, one where proprietary standards were the norm and everyone was battling for platform dominance. Adobe is now shifting to the larger market of being the tool of choice for content creators on a standards based web, a battle they’re much more likely to win than fighting to keep Flash alive. I, like many others, won’t be sad to see Flash go as the time has come for it to make way for the new blood of the Internet.
I’ve been working in public sector IT for the better part of 7 years now, starting off as a lowly help desk operator and working my way up through the ranks to the senior technical consultant position I find myself in today. I’m not telling you this to brag (indeed I don’t believe I’m completely unique in this regard) rather I want to impress upon you the level of familiarity I have when it comes to government IT systems. I’ve worked in departments ranging from mere hundreds of employees to the biggest public service organisation that exists within Australia. So when I say Tony Abbott’s office isn’t giving us the full story on this whole Peter Slipper incident and the subsequent time zone argument they used to defend their position you’ll know that I’m not just making stuff up.
For reference his whole argument has been thoroughly debunked by Sortius in his brilliant 10 hours of bullshit where he shows that the document has had its date modified to show a 10 hour discrepancy. Back when it was first published he was just going off public information but recent updates to the post have seen him get his hands on the original press release with an unmodified date on them, showing that the press release was indeed drafted the night before. You’d think that’d be the last of it (and indeed if it was I would’ve simply tweeted it again) however the Department of Parliamentary Services (DPS) has gone on record saying that they have identified a problem with the time stamps on the files in question and have backed up Abbott’s side of the story.
Reporters have since been granted access to the PC and shown similar files which seem to suffer the same Zulu time zone problem that apparently plagues the press release in question. What wasn’t investigated was whether or not files created in the way that Sortius has shown suffer from the same issue, I.E. is there an on-going technical issue with that particular computer or are those files the result of the same kind of tampering that the press release appears to have undergone. That would go some way to explaining what’s going on here but it doesn’t explain why the time stamp shows a Zulu time zone which Microsoft word isn’t capable of producing.
Indeed doing a little research for myself shows that PDFs created from Microsoft Word’s PDF creator plugin will always show created/modified dates that are more or less identical and reflect the current time it was created (not the time when the original word document was created). If we’re to believe that there was some problem with the PC that caused the Z to appear it follows that it should have been the same for both the created date and the modified date. The fact that there’s a discrepancy gives credence to the idea that the PDF was first created using the Word PDF exporter and then modified afterwards using another program. The original document, the one shown in the final update from Sortius, shows some differences in created/modified times however it appears that was created using the PDFMaker Plugin for Word and then later modified in Adobe Distiller (not the same way as the metadata in the modified press release indicates).
Now this doesn’t necessarily mean that Abbott was aware of this information but it does implicate that someone working for him did. In attempting to track down just who it was who created the PDF I came across 2 probable people (one person who I think works at DPS and a Brisbane based ghost writer) but I wasn’t able to verify it was actually one or the other. Whoever did write it would be able to provide some insights into this whole thing but it’s unlikely that they’ll ever come forward, especially considering the fact that they would’ve been working for Abbott at the time (and may still be).
All of this points in the direction that something is going on over there and that further investigation is definitely warranted. I know there’s several other things I could do to either verify or debunk this theory completely should I have more open access to said system but I doubt we’ll get anything more than the guided tour that was given to the ABC journalists already. If I still had people I knew working at DPS you can be assured that I’d get the full story from them but alas, I came up dry on this one. Sortius is still on the case though and I’m very interested to see what DPS has to say about the current discrepancies and will keep you posted on the progress.
Google is one of the biggest proponents of an Internet that’s unencumbered by proprietary standards, patents and non-neutral traffic routes. That’s been a great boon to us Internet users as their advocacy on our behalf means that as long as they stay in business we’re likely to continue to have an Internet that stays true to those ideals. Of course like any company they’re not entirely perfect, at times attempting to forward their own agenda under the guise of openness, but overall their contribution to keeping the Internet free and open has been positive. It seems rather odd then that Google has an obsession with Adobe’s Flash product, to the point where I wonder if there’s something going on that I don’t know about.
Back in March last year Google announced that they were integrating the Flash plugin directly into their Chrome browser. This was at the height of the web standards war that was raging between Apple and Adobe so it was easy to construe Google’s support of Flash as them taking Adobe’s side in the matter. That notion was further reinforced by the fact that Google’s Android platform fully supported Flash as well. This level of support for a proprietary plug-in for a company that prides itself on being a big supporter of open standards seems rather hypocritical, but there are some reasons as to why they’re doing it.
Recently though it appears that Google’s support of Flash was actually leading up to a much more ambitious goal, transitioning the web from Flash to a HTML5 future:
Google is enabling developers who use the Adobe Flash Professional developer tool to convert their animations to HTML5 via an extension based on Google’s Swiffy conversion technology.
“One of our main aims for Swiffy is to let you continue to use Flash as a development environment, even when you’re developing animations for environments that don’t support Flash,” said Esteban de la Canal, Google software engineer, in a blog post. “To speed up the development process, we’ve built the Swiffy Extension for Flash Professional. The extension enables you to convert your animation to HTML5 with one click (or keyboard shortcut).”
Now it’s interesting that Google would go ahead and do something like this when Adobe had already made their play in this field with their Wallaby product. The big difference here is that Wallaby was specifically targeted at Flash Ads only and didn’t support many of the features that made Flash so versatile, like ActionScript. Swiffy on the other hand does support ActionScript and several other features that weren’t present in Wallaby. It would seem then that Google thinks they can do better than Adobe at their own game which they very well could especially when Adobe just recently announced that they weren’t working on mobile Flash any more.
Of course the transition from native Flash to Flash rendered through HTML5 doesn’t necessarily mean we’re looking at a future web that performs better. The main problem with Flash wasn’t so much the platform it was the developers on that platform. The Flash ads were the biggest culprit, often laden with gobs of unnecessary and bloated code that were the source of the performance problems people encountered. Transitioning such ads to HTML5 won’t make that code go away (there is a chance to optimize, but automated tools can only go so far) and the result will more than likely be just as bad as the original Flash it came from. It’s a step in the right direction yes, but it’s not going to be an all roses future like some would have you believe.
It’s quite interesting to see the kind of games that Google plays in order to make the web better for everyone. At times they may seem to be on the wrong side but it’s becoming clear that they’re playing the long game for a better web for everyone. It will be interesting to see how common Swiffy converted Flash files become and whether they’re still the performance hogs that their predecessors are but knowing Google they won’t let it lie until they’ve optimized it to the nth degree. Adobe’s reaction to Swiffy will be telling as well considering they’re now competing directly with Google on their home turf. The end result will be a better, more open Internet for us all something I think we can all agree is a good thing.
Adobe had also been quite stalwart in their support for Flash too, refusing to back down on their stance that they were “the way” to do rich content on the Internet. Word came recently however that they were stopping development on the mobile version of Flash:
Graphics software giant Adobe announced plans for layoffs yesterday ahead of a major restructuring. The company intends to cut approximately 750 members of its workforce and said that it would refocus its digital media business. It wasn’t immediately obvious how this streamlining effort would impact Adobe’s product line, but a report that was published late last night indicates that the company will gut its mobile Flash player strategy.
Adobe is reportedly going to stop developing new mobile ports of its Flash player browser plugin. Instead, the company’s mobile Flash development efforts will focus on AIR and tools for deploying Flash content as native applications. The move marks a significant change in direction for Adobe, which previously sought to deliver uniform support for Flash across desktop and mobile browsers.
Now the mobile version of Flash had always been something of a bastard child, originally featuring a much more cut down feature set than its fully fledged cousin. More recent versions brought them closer together but the experience was never quite as good especially with the lack of PC level grunt on mobile devices. Adobe’s mobile strategy now is focused on making Adobe AIR applications run natively on all major smart phone platforms, giving Flash developers a future when it comes to building mobile applications. It’s an interesting gamble, one that signals a fundamental shift in the way Adobe views the web.
Arguably the writing has been on the wall for this decision for quite some time. Back at the start of this year Adobe released Wallaby, a framework that allows advertisement developers the capability to convert Flash ads into HTML5. Indeed even back then I said that Wallaby was the first signal that Adobe thought HTML5 was the way of the future and were going to start transitioning towards it as their platform of the future. I made the point then that whilst Flash might eventually disappear Adobe wouldn’t as they have a history for developing some of the best tools for non-technical users to create content for the web. Indeed there are already prototypes of such tools already available so it’s clear that Adobe is looking towards a HTML5 future.
The one place that Flash still dominates, without any clear competitors, is in online video. Their share of the market is somewhere around 75% (that’s from back in February so I’d hazard a guess that its lower now) with the decline being driven from mobile devices that lack support for Flash video. HTML5’s alternative is unfortunately still up in the air as the standards body struggles to find an implementation that can be open, unencumbered by patents and yet still be able to support things like Digital Rights Management. It’s this lack of standardization that will see Flash around for a good while yet as until there’s an agreed upon standard that meets all those criteria Flash will remain as the default choice for online video.
So it looks like the war that I initially believed that Adobe would win has instead seen Adobe pursuing a HTML5 future. Its probably for the best as they will then be providing some of the best tools in the market whilst still supporting open standards, something that’s to the benefit of all users of the Internet. Hopefully that will also mean better performing web sites as well as Flash had a nasty reputation for bringing even some of the most powerful PCs to their knees with poorly coded Flash ads. The next few years will be crucial to Adobe’s long term prospects but I’m sure they have the ability to make it through to the other end.
Adobe and Apple haven’t been the best of friends for a while now. Whilst many of their products are still considered some of the most top of the line applications available on the OS X platform Apple couldn’t be more hostile to their most popular product: Flash. Now this isn’t without good reason as Flash has a terrible tendency to be abused by sloppy developers (most of the time ad networks) who can even bring a full blown desktop PC to its knees. Keeping Flash out of their handhelds meant fewer headaches for them and forced the hand of many companies to rethink their use of Flash, lest they draw the ire of the iOS browsing crowd.
Whilst there was a good few months of to and fro between these two companies last year it all subsided once Apple capitulated to the developer community that raised concerns over Apple’s wide reaching policy on cross platform libraries. This seemingly opened up the door that Apple had shut in Adobe’s face, enabling them to create a product that could convert Flash files into a more iOS friendly format. A couple days ago they announced the first iteration of the product, called Wallaby:
Welcome to the Wallaby Technology Preview. Wallaby is an application to convert Adobe Flash Professional CS5 files (.FLA) to HTML5. Wallaby has a very simple UI which accepts as input a FLA file and exports HTML and support files to a user-selected folder. There is also an option to launch the default application assigned for the .html extension.
The announcement has, of course, caused quite a stir in the tech community. Most of them focus on the fact that Wallaby was designed with only one purpose in mind: to get Flash banner ads working on iOS devices. As such Wallaby is pretty limited in the functionality it provides, being unable to convert things like ActionScript which enable things like Flash based games. Of course this also raises the issue that Flash is most often abused by advertising agencies with poorly coded banner ads being one of the main culprits. Whether or not badly coded ads in Flash translate into bad (or worse) ads in HTML5 remains to be seen, but I can’t see how they could get any better.
Realistically the issues that many people associated with Flash aren’t really caused by it. More it is those who use the platform that are to blame for the troubles that many people encounter with it. This is why I didn’t understand Apple’s position on Flash in the first place. Sure there are many banner ads out there that can make your web experience a browsing hell but banning one technology simply drives those same people to look for other platforms, it won’t magically make them better developers overnight. Wallaby is a great example of this as those same people that created poor performing Flash ads can now do the same in HTML5. In the end Apple is merely delaying the time in which it takes for the same problems that plagued Flash to come to their iOS platform. Google I feel has is on the right track to solving this problem, tightly integrating Flash into their products so they can tune it properly.
It does show that Adobe doesn’t believe the future is still with their Flash platform and the gears are in motion to transition to the new world of HTML5. There’s a reason why Flash has been such an integral part of the web for so long and it’s simply because Flash gave the best tools for non-technical users to create rich content for the web. Whilst they’ve come rather late to the mobile boat they are one of the few companies that has the momentum and devoted user base to make the switch successfully. I’m sure many people will see this as them “capitulating” to Apple’s demands but in reality its anything but and I’m sure they’ll eventually dominate the HTML5 space just as they’ve done in the past with Flash.
Apple’s policies for the App Store have always been a bit vague and uneven, leading to quite a few good headlines over what apps got rejected and which ones got in. I put it down to the human element in the review process as one reviewer’s biases need not line up with another. Still though the developers worked out the inputs and outputs of the application review process and if your app was useful, family friendly and didn’t go rampaging through private APIs you were golden. Apple, not content with the amount of control it was already exerting over its developers, then decided to up the ante by banning all cross platform frameworks putting a big question mark over some of their most successful applications and developers.
The whole thing can be traced back to Apple’s public flamewar with Adobe. I’m not really sure what triggered this decision in the first place (although it smacks of Jobs’ idealism) but they did it with precise timing, just a few days before Adobe was to announce their Flash to iPhone app packager for CS5. Perhaps the idea of a torrent of applications hastily converted from flash onto the iPhone was a bit too much for them to bear but in casting their net so wide they caused many people to become hesitant about developing on the platform, especially those who found great success using such 3rd party frameworks.
Apple began doing some damage control in order to ensure that they wouldn’t lose some of their biggest money earners. They gave unofficial word that frameworks such as Unity3D were safe since they generated an actual iPhone application and didn’t require use of an intermediate interpreter. Still since coding in Unity3D is done in C# this ran up against yet another draconian rule that all iPhone applications must be written in one of the sanctioned C based languages. With Android starting to pick up at a phenomenal pace there’s no doubt that Apple began to rethink their stance on many of these matters with hopes of winning back the developers they had once scorned.
Last week saw Apple release what amounts to their set of principles and guidelines that are applied when reviewing apps that will make it onto their app store. You can get the full pdf of all the guidelines here and it makes for some interesting reading. Most of them are just formalisation of the rules that most developers knew about but couldn’t get solid verification from Apple that it was a hard and fast rule. Probably the biggest coup in this whole document is they abandoned their previous stance on not allowing any cross platform libraries, allowing such applications through as long as they didn’t download any code:
The black box that is the Applereview process is creaking open. In a very brief release, Apple has essentially relaxed the requirement that developers use Apple’s own development tools “as long as the resulting apps do not download any code.” They’ve also published some review guidelines, allowing programmers to understand just what will go on behind the curtains in Cupertino.What does this mean? Well, in the updated SDK license, circa April of this year, a number of paragraphs essentially bannedoutside development tools including systems that ported Flash, Silverlight, Java, and other platforms to the iPhone. Now, presumably, any app that runs on the iPhone, regardless of source, will be considered. The language is so mushy that it’s still unclear what this means.
On the surface it would appear that Apple has backpeddled on their previous stance. Indeed the news was enough for Adobe to state that they were going to restart developing their Flash to iPhone packager which had been shelved after Apple hamstrung it earlier this year. The not downloading any code exclusion is quite understandable as this could easily be exploited as an attack vector by a malicious third party. Still most attackers wouldn’t bother with an app (that leaves a paper trail) since the browser on the phone will happily download code and run it. But I’m sure Apple knows that already.
For what its worth it seems like Apple is finally caving into the developers who helped them make their products so successful and rightly so. Developing something for an Apple product has always been about the end user, much to the detriment of those creating for those users. This is in stark contrast to Google who’s always been about the developers, favouring their freedom to develop however they want with almost no thought to the user experience. Both approaches have their pluses and pitfalls but in the end if you don’t have developers you’re going to have a hard time attracting users to your platform.
Will this lead to a flood of low quality applications on the app store and the fiery death of the user experience on the iPhone? Most likely not as there’s already enough crap on the app store to make sure that any poorly ported Flash app will be lost amongst the noise. Realistically anyone looking to publish on the iOS platform knows what they’re getting into and will redesign the app as such, lest they get bad reviews that ultimately bury their app completely. In the end I think it’s just Apple realising that the road they were going down wasn’t going to do them any favours and the rising star of Android is beginning to look attractive enough for some to make the switch.
The question now is though, will they keep their hard line on Flash? Time will tell.
It really should come as no surprise that anything a large corporation does is usually done in their best interests. By definition their existence is centered around increasing profit for their respective shareholders within the bounds of the law and operating outside that definition will in turn make your company not long for this world. Still we manage to suspend disbelief for certain companies which have qualities we aspire to but make no mistake they are in the end driven primarily by motives of profit. Nearly all other secondary activities are conducted to further their primary directive, even if on the surface they don’t appear that way.
Take for instance the current web standards warthat’s brewing between Apple and Adobe. Whilst both companies would have you believe that their stance is the only answer to the problem the fundamental issue that they face is not one of ubiquitous web standards, more it is about control over the future of the Internet and who will be the dominant player. I’m on record as stating that Adobe will win out thanks to its current market penetration and support from many big players. It’s no secret that Google is more on Adobe’s side in this war than Apples, as a recent post from one of their (well their subsidiary) employee states:
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about whether or not the HTML5 <video> tag is going to replace Flash Player for video distribution on the web. We’ve been excited about the HTML5 effort and <video> tag for quite a while now, and most YouTube videos can now be played via our HTML5 player. This work has shown us that, while the <video> tag is a big step forward for open standards, the Adobe Flash Platform will continue to play a critical role in video distribution.It’s important to understand what a site like YouTube needs from the browser in order to provide a good experience for viewers as well as content creators. We need to do more than just point the browser at a video file like the image tag does – there’s a lot more to it than just retrieving and displaying a video. The <video> tag certainly addresses the basic requirements and is making good progress on meeting others, but the <video> tag does not currently meet all the needs of a site like YouTube:
Before I get this tirade underway let me preface it with this, I’m not a fanboy of either of these companies. Apple, in recent times, has grown from the hipster chic underdog to Microsoft 2.0 in its attempts to create a massive walled garden and Adobe has been doing similar things for the past decade. I respect both of their prowess in their respective fields and have used products from both companies for quite some time. It was only a couple weeks ago when I posted my thoughts on the current PR war waging between them on the whole Flash thing which quickly turned into a full blown geek fight over web standards, but even after writing that I still feel like there’s a lot more to be said on this topic. It seems even more relevant since they just released yet another device that will defy the current norms of the Internet.
Apple’s, well Jobs’, position on Flash is no secret and in his statements there are some points that deserved to be talked about. However whilst the apparent motivation appears to be solely focused on user experience it’s something far more obvious than that. I am of course talking about Apple’s bottom line. You see for all the belly aching going on it all boils down to Jobs’ walled garden in which he reigns supreme and reaps all the benefits. From a capitalist point of view I wholly support this motivation as realistically most of Apple’s direct competitors are doing the exact same thing. It makes even more sense when you realise that at its heart Apple is actually a hardware company, with every other endeavour they’ve undertaken done to drive sales of their iProducts. Whilst the App Store might be an extremely lucrative side business its main focus was to drive sales of the iPhone and subsequently provide a massive install base of applications for the iPad.
Flash in this case would undermine their current efforts to drive additional hardware and software revenue through other channels. Whilst I’m sure there wouldn’t be a mass boycott of the App Store there it would definitely see a drop in sales for some channels, particularly games. Additionally once one of these platforms is allowed on you’ll have all the others screaming for their own native implementation on Apple devices, further undermining their revenue streams and increasing their support overhead. It then comes as no surprise as to why Jobs’ has been so outspoken on this since realistically the support he’d gain by implementing Flash would end up costing him quite a lot in real terms. Whilst they’ve managed to generate some decent good will in the past (non DRMed songs anyone?) they’ve only done so when there was a positive impact to their bottom line (that upgrade fee was a bit rough ey?), and Flash really doesn’t have a monetization stream that Apple can realise.
You see the HTML5 specification is still in draft and will be for quite some time. This means that whilst a lot of browsers support a good chunk of the specification it’s still subject to change and review, meaning things could be added or removed in future versions. Additionally there are many aspects of it that would class as still being in submission status, I.E. they’re not even part of the draft specification yet. Most of these are vendor specific augmentations, some of which have come from Apple. The tech demos they have put out rely on vendor extensions specific to the WebKit framework they have developed, meaning that only Safari and Chrome are capable of rendering them accurately. Many of the demos do work under FireFox (you can trick Apple’s site into thinking you’re a Safari user using this) however the current proprietary extensions based demos will fail in some way.
For Apple HTML5 offers them a comparable level of functionality that Flash provides with the added benefit of being partially under their control. Apple is well known for its iron fist like rule over its App Store and allowing Flash onto their devices would mean relinquishing much of it. With HTML5 they can at least mould parts of it in ways that support their strategic plans, letting them chip away at the functionality that Flash provides with submissions to the new web standard. Additionally it then lets them leverage their current captive audience of developers to put pressure on others to develop HTML5 based sites for their iDevice line, further widening the walls of their garden and swelling their bottom line.
You see many of the aspects that Jobs mentioned in his thoughts on Flash will unfortunately apply to not only Flash apps transcribed into HTML5 but also native HTML5 applications. Since it’s currently in its infancy HTML5 is not much of a threat to Jobs’ current direction and that, in addition to my previous points, is why his support is behind it. Whilst it might look like Adobe is bending over backwards to satisfy Apple’s restrictions its more likely that whilst Apple will win the battle of getting people to transition to HTML5 they’ll lose the war of keeping their garden walled. With the increased capability of HTML5 comes the potential for all the problems that Flash has to infect the iDevice platform, thereby rendering his current stance completely moot. Just to prove my point go and run some of those HTML5 demos and watch the CPU usage on your computer (the text one is great for this), that alone proves that HTML5 is capable of destroying a mobile device in many of the same ways as Flash.
In the end it all comes down the bottom line of both Adobe and Apple and how willing they are to go to further it. Apple will more than likely continue its stance of no Flash for as long as they have devices capable of browsing the web. Adobe on the other hand seems poised to innovate their way out of this, with the additional help of many skilled programmers who see Flash on the iDevices as a simple programming challenge. I’ll be very suprised if Apple wins out in this one as they’re already laying the ground work for this to blow up in their faces, with Adobe priming the explosives.
Maybe we’ll have Jobs writing a Thoughts on HTML5 post in the future when he bans it from the iPhone.
I talk a lot about the Internet on this blog but I’d hardly call myself an expert when it comes to actually building something on it. Back when I was first learning to develop applications I was never actually introduced to the world of web programming and the small bits I learnt on networking were no where near sufficient to prepare me for developing any kind of web service. Still after being out of university for 2 years I found myself administering many web sites and then took it upon myself to learn the ins and outs of developing for the web. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride since then having to switch my mindset from designing and building applications that will only run on a client to making something for the world wide web. This is when I was introduced to the lovely world of web standards.
You see for a long time Internet Explorer was the king of the web browser world. Thanks to Microsoft’s mentality of embrace, extend, extinguish they initially focused on becoming the dominant force in the web browser market. They had stiff competition from the people at Netscape for quite a long time and were forced to be innovators to compete. It worked quite well with them debuting Internet Explorer 6 back in late 2001 which, at the time, was quite a revolutionary piece of software. Granted most of the market adoption was driven by the browser being install by default with any Windows installation but with such strong competition they were forced to develop something better in order to become the de facto standard of the web.
With the war won in 2003 with AOL shutting down Netscape Microsoft was free to rest on its laurels, and boy did it ever. The next 7 years saw little innovation from Microsoft and with IE6 having widespread adoption most web sites were designed to support them first and alternative browsers later. Whilst at its initial release IE6 was considered somewhat of a technical marvel it was, for the most part, not compliant with most web standards. With Mozilla rising from the ashes of the Netscape fire the need to comply with a widely agreed standard became a talking point amongst web developers, although it was largely ignored by the Internet community at large. Fast forward to 2008 and we have the search giant Google weighing in to the browser marketing, trumpeting standards compliance coupled with a well known and trusted brand name. Such was the beginning of the end of Internet’s Explorer’s dominance over the web browser market, and the rise of widely accepted web standards.
Unfortunately though web standards are a slow moving beast. IE6 was revolutionary because it provided functionality that you didn’t find within the web standards and it enabled many developers to create things that they would have otherwise not been able to. This gave rise to many of the browser plugins that we’re familiar with such as Flash, Java and more recently things like Silverlight and WebUnity. Such additions to web browsers allows them to unlock functionality typically reserved for desktop applications and grants them the portability of the world wide web. Such plugins have been the focus of intense debate recently, and none more so than Adobe’s flash.
I blogged last year about the apparent curiosity of the iPhone’s immunity to flash. Back then the control over the platform was easily justified by the commentary and speculation that was common knowledge amongst the tech crowd. Most understood that enabling Flash on Apple’s devices had the potential to both corrupt the user experience (a sin Apple would never commit) and strike a devastating blow to the cash cow that is the App store. Still whenever an Apple device is advertised as lacking the capability it’s probably the first thing the critics will trot out and it’s a valid criticism as much of the web makes use of this technology (this blog included). Still the argument for using web standards rather than propeitary plugins make sense to, although with Android getting full Flash support in 2010 it would seem like Apple is in a minority here.
That’s not to say Adobe hasn’t tried to play ball with Apple. Their current flagship product, Adobe Creative Suite 5, was touted to have the ability to generate an iPhone application from any Flash program that you created with it. Honestly I thought that was a pretty sweet deal for both Adobe and Apple. Adobe got to get its content on another platform (thereby caving into Apple) and Apple would see a flood of applications on the App store and with it a whole swath of revenue. Sure many applications would need to be rewritten for the touch interface but for all intents and purposes you could have Flash on the iPhone.
Apple, not willing to give any ground on this matter, fired the first salvo in what’s turned into a very public debate. Just over a month ago they changed their developer license agreement to rule out the use of any cross-platform frameworks. Whilst this initially looked like it would kill off a good chunk of the developers (especially those who used WebUnity to do games on the iPhone) it turns out that it was directly aimed at disabling CS5’s ability to export Flash to an iPhone app. This has then sparked comments from both sides with fingers being pointed at all sorts of things, but the main one is web standards.
Both Apple and Adobe claim that they’re supporting the open web with varying levels of truth to them. Flash is somewhat open and Apple has developed a widely adopted browser framework called WebKit which powers both their Safari browser and even Google’s Chrome. However these are small parts of much larger companies where everything else is completely proprietary, so this is really a case of the pot calling the kettle black so to speak.
So why is this such a big issue? Well as it turns out you don’t really have to dig too deep to find the answer: money and power. Just like the hay days of IE6 and Microsoft’s market domination of the web Adobe and Apple are fighting over what the next dominate technology of the web will be. Adobe is well placed to become that standard as Google has backed them on both their Android and Chrome platforms (Flash is now native in Chrome) and over 90% of Internet capable devices can display Flash to their users. Apple on the other hand has dominated the mobile market and is seeking to push the boundaries further with products like the iPad. Their reluctance to play nice has resulted in a fist fight of epic proportions, and it’s one that’s going to play out over the next few years.
Personally though I think Apple’s pick the wrong bear to poke with their anti-Flash stick. Whilst Adobe is a bit of a light weight when compared to Apple (they have about a quarter of the employees, to give you an idea) they’ve got the support of a large install base plus many large players who use their technology exclusively. Whilst many of the functions provided by Flash are usurped by HTML5 they’ve made a point that if they can’t get Flash on the iPhone, they’ll just make the best damned tools for HTML5 and dominate there again. That might sound like chest beating from them but when your flagship product is the de facto standard for artists to create in a technical field you know they’ve got some market pull behind them. If they were to port the artist friendly interface they developed for flash to HTML5 I’m sure Apple would have to rethink it’s whole position with Adobe very quickly, lest they alienate those who’ve been dedicated to the Mac name for a long time.
Apple’s idea of using their Cocoa framework as the new standard for the open web is a noble but flawed notion. Whilst the focus on the end user experience means that any application written on this framework will be at least usable and mildly intelligible it’s application to the wider Internet doesn’t seem feasible. Sure Cocoa has helped bring the mobile Internet experience out of the dark ages but its application past that is limited, especially when Android provides a similar experience that just so happens to include Flash. In the end Apple merely seeks to draw developers and users into their walled garden and will spite anyone who questions them on it. Whilst I can appreciate that it has been working for them I’m not so sure it will continue like that for long into the future, even when HTML5 gains critical mass.
It may seem like a small thing in the grand scope of the Internet but it’s always interesting to see what happens when two giants go at each other. We’re by no means at the end of this battle of the standards and I expect to see them publicly duking it out for at least a few more months to come. Still I’ll be putting my money on Adobe winning out in one way or another, with either Apple relenting or the iPhone losing its crown to the burgeoning Android market. I’m no market analyst though so there’s a good chance I’ll be completely wrong about this, but that won’t stop me from using the fallout as blog fodder 😉