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.