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That Bright Light You Saw was the End of Flash

HTML5 © by Josef Dunne


It’s finally official – at least for those who are aware of how the web works. Yesterday Adobe announced that they will be discontinuing flash support for mobile devices.

A couple of brief quotes from their blog post follow:

“However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms. …”

“Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations…”

To be sure they did plenty of backpedaling about renewed focus and new features for the desktop, but make no mistake, they see the light at the end of the tunnel, and they finally figured out it’s a train. Hello HTML5 Express!

As I’ve said before this is a fine thing. The truth is that many years ago Adobe was the only way to do animation, video, and interactivity at all. And after that, it was just the best way. And after that, the most common way.

Today the need for Flash has greatly diminished. HTML5 has already delivered on the promise in the area of video, and AJAX works very well for interactive web applications.

Three things really killed them. I’ll take them in reverse order, since the third was just a symptom, but most think it was the cause. Namely, Steve Jobs. At Apple, Jobs figured out that Flash not only doesn’t work well for mobile, but it probably wasn’t every going to, at least not before HTML5 would catch on. But Jobs didn’t kill Flash, he was just more vocal about it’s shortcomings.

Number one was that the need for Flash simply isn’t there the way it once was. Web pages used to be really static. In the beginning there were almost completely text. Then people started adding more images. Then came databases and data-driven apps. Then video, sound, and fully interactive applications.

But before the last, there was a gap, people wanted video and apps, but it just wasn’t easy. Most applications consisted of some special code that had to be downloaded on your machine, and were essentially client-server programs that used the web simply as a transport mechanism. Flash is pretty much the same as the others, with the exception that it was pretty easy to use, and it managed to catch on. With critical mass, it started to be supported by most browsers, and off it went.

Today we can get streaming video quite easily without Flash. Any web site that doesn’t provide video feeds in HTML5 simply cuts of millions of potential users, which is generally a poor business decision.

As for apps, the simple web applications that are in Flash will continue to live on, but the great desire for them has changed. Now users can download free and inexpensive games all day long on their mobile devices, which is where they normally play the little time wasters. (I’m not judging, I do it myself.) So why do you need Flash?

That leaves us with advertisers – and they have a problem there. People without Flash simply don’t get their message. From the producer side it’s a problem anyway, as a consumer, I’m happy to turn Flash of in my browser, and only click when I know it’s something I need. AJAX is where advertising will end up, and actually it’s very well suited to the task, seeing as the first A in AJAX stands for asynchronous, which is perfect for advertising.

So reason number one is that the need for Flash has melted away. I was tempted to say evaporated, but it wasn’t that quick. It’s been a slow steady change in how the web works, from proprietary thick browser plug-ins to open dynamic lightweight AJAX. And that’s a good thing, both for consumers and for the people who run the pipes that the internet is carried over.

I’ve always said that the value Adobe brings to the table isn’t so much Flash itself as the amazing tools they provide for web development. The designer shouldn’t have to care so much about whether the application is Flash or HTML5, they should be able to just code. Adobe should be able to quickly get in front of this by providing everything Flash does in HTML5. And to do that, they had to finally admit that HTML5 is killing Flash. Mobile is just the first step.

As for reason number 2 (for those who’ve been keeping track… 3,1,2) it explains why mobile is the first step. And that reason is that Flash is ill-suited for mobile for various reasons. One is performance. It’s easy to see that Flash is a hog no matter what the platform.

Try a simple test – fully charge the battery on your laptop. Fully disable Flash and spend a couple of hours surfing the web. Then charge the batter again, turn Flash back on, and repeat. You’ll be shocked at the results. Bear in mind, I’m not talking about playing Flash games and video even, just surf the web. Not only do you avoid advertising, but you’re battery lasts longer and everything runs faster. Who would have that that dumping Flash was a way of going green? But it is. Now imaging trying the same thing on a device with a tiny battery, slower processor and a lot less memory. Painful.

The other part of the equation is the usage paradigm. Early in the iPhone era people started writing articles about how to program an iPhone. Many articles described handling the touch interface exactly the way you would a mouse. This is of course ridiculous, especially now with multi-touch and gesture.

Even without that, a finger simply doesn’t behave the way a mouse does. For instance, you can pick a finger up and put it down somewhere and the cursor moves with it. If you pick up a mouse and set it down the cursor is either where you started or in some random place – not the most useful feature.

The touch interface is just one aspect of mobile programming that makes Flash painful on a mobile device. Silly things like x controls that let you close a Flash animation are frequently too small to be used. Add that all up and you find that the basic concept of Flash is flawed, namely to be a “write-once run-anywhere” works fine on the desktop, but doesn’t translate well to the mobile touch-enabled world. Which leads us back to Steve Jobs, 1-2-3.

And a funny footnote. RIM has announced that unlike Adobe, they will continue to support Flash development for the Blackberry Playbook. They just don’t know when to give up, do they? It’s not surprising coming from the people who thought that no one would want mp3 files on their phones. As ZDnet
put it:

But to continue to support an already dead platform on a dying tablet is like throwing salt in the wound of an already squashed slug.

So when HTML5 gets better and your mobile device gets stronger, you can thank Adobe for finally recognizing the inevitable – Flash is dead.

That Bright Light You Saw was the End of Flash originally appeared on The Code Curmudgeon on November 10, 2011.

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Categories: Applications, Consumer, Developers, Trends
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