Tiffany B. Brown

On Apple’s iPad, HTML5, and the future of Flash

So Apple announced the iPad, and it won’t support Flash.

That shouldn’t be a surprise. Neither the iPhone nor iPod Touch support Flash. Indeed most mobile platforms don’t (yet) support Flash. Even the smartest of smart phones have limited processing power and storage space compared to laptops and desktops.

According to Steve Jobs, Apple doesn’t support Flash on its mobile devices because “it’s buggy.” But I’d guess their decision has as much to do with Flash’s capabilities. Many of the products in that cash cow known as the Apple App Store could be developed using Flash instead.1 Supporting Flash would undermine that billion-dollar revenue stream, piss off iPhone / iPad developers, and also put Apple at Adobe’s mercy.

Besides, everyone’s moving towards HTML5, right? Well yes they are, but not so quickly. I wouldn’t rule Flash out for another 3 to 5 years.

Why do I say this? Four reasons:

  1. Flash has inertia on its side. Major content sites such as Disney and Hulu still use Flash to deliver video, animation, and interactive experiences. According to Adobe’s statistics, Flash has over 90% penetration in mature markets. Developers already know how to use Flash and ActionScript to create these experiences. In short: there are a lot of folks invested in Flash as a platform.

  2. HTML 5 isn’t quite ready for prime time. It’s a shifting standard, a work-in-progress. Though even Internet Explorer 8 supports some significant HTML5 features, Internet Explorers 6 and 7 do not. And both browser versions are still used widely enough that dropping support is not an option for most developers.2

  3. Flash is still the best cross-browser, cross-platform way to serve audio and video. Safari / WebKit, Firefox / Mozilla and Opera all support the HTML5 video element. They do not, however support the same codec.

    Apple is squarely in the H.264 camp. Google paid a licensing fee so that it could include an H.264 decoder in Chrome. H.264 is a patented codec. Any browser that wants to enable H.264 video will need to pay a licensing fee.

    Licensing fees and patent concerns are why Opera and Mozilla are backing Ogg Theora. Ogg Theora is an open sourced codec with no known patents. I should add here that Chrome also supports Ogg Theora. Google, perhaps wisely, chose to include both.

    The big monkey wrench in video element adoption, however, is Internet Explorer. Internet Explorer is waiting for them other fools to work out that default codec business before it implements support for the element.

    And all of this is before we get into the differences in how browser vendors will execute the specification. That’s a whole ‘nother headache.

    We will be using Flash until clients are willing to pay for separate Safari, Firefox and Internet Explorer video integration or until the HTML5 working group agrees on a default codec.

  4. Adobe is working to bring Flash to other mobile platforms. As Adobe’s Chief Technology Officer Kevin Lynch explained, We are now on the verge of delivering Flash Player 10.1 for smartphones with all but one of the top manufacturers. This includes Google’s Android, RIM’s Blackberry, Nokia, Palm Pre and many others across form factors including not only smartphones but also tablets, netbooks, and internet-connected TVs. Could the iPhone and iPad’s lack of Flash support be a deciding factor in consumers’ decisions not to buy an Apple device?

My Prediction for Flash

I suspect that as HTML5 gains prominence, Flash will — eff that, it should — shift from an authoring environment for its proprietary SWF format to one that generates HTML, CSS, JS and SVG code for the browser. I think the building blocks for such software are in place. Flash Builder (formerly Flex Builder) for example, eliminates (most of) the need for FLA files. Perhaps developers will one day use a mix of ActionScript and JavaScript in the Flash Builder authoring environment to create web-ready assets and animation that don’t require a browser plug-in.

Mobile-friendly Web Development Right Now

Despite the fact that Flash is supposed to come to every other mobile platform, Apple’s decision to keep Flash off of the iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch is not without impact. Apple still runs the smart phone market; in some ways they drive the mobile web. That means the prudent path is (still) progressive enhancement, and ensuring that your critical content and navigation are built using HTML.

So will I buy an iPad?

Nope. I have a laptop, a smart phone (a T-Mobile G1), a desktop and an iPod Touch. To me, the iPad is that weird spot between my smart phone or iPod Touch and a laptop with the convenience of neither. It doesn’t have the pocket-sized portability of my iPod Touch or my phone. And it doesn’t (yet) have the robust features of a laptop — USB ports, optical media drives, and the ability to install any app. I can’t justify the value for the price.

Besides, I still much prefer books to e-readers. I can sell books, trade books, leave books, loan books, and get books wet. I am not about to soak in the tub with a $300 device, but I would with an $11 book.

What do you think about the iPad, Apple’s decision, or the future of Flash and HTML5?

1 Many of these apps could also be built using HTML, CSS and JavaScript, but there’s no money in that either.

2 There are scripts available to make IE act right, of course. ExCanvas, for example, mimics support for the canvas element in IE. Simple HTML5 isn’t much different from HTML 4.01. You can actually forge ahead with HTML5 now if you don’t need advanced features like DOM Storage.

6 Responses to “On Apple’s iPad, HTML5, and the future of Flash”

  1. Jason T. says:

    I don't think Apple or the iPad is hurt by the decision not to include Flash. With 8.7 million iPhone's sold last year, it's not a gate for their market and I don't think it will be a gate for a souped up eReader style device that's only competition is the impressive but not that impressive Kindle. As I referenced on my tumblr earlier today, I (and others) think it will gather pretty quick adoption in schools/with students. With Office applications, I would find it a pretty useful tool in my day to day activities of meetings, note taking, and presentations (that said, for it to win over my current netbook lust, it could use at least one usb port and an external display port).

    I do agree with you about Flash as a dominant web authoring language. There's a growing frustration with Flash but the adoption rates suggest that it's a creator's frustration rather than a user's one.

  2. AG says:

    I generally loathe flash as it is a severe memory glut, and not very well suited for a free and open desktop environment. However, it seems to be rather ubiquitous at the moment. Nonetheless, the HTML5 adopters are onto something that is much more powerful than Silverlight/Moonlight.
    iPad is a humongous iPod touch, but you probably knew that already. I never have very much good to say about those rather large freedom hating companies in Cupertino or Redmond, so I'll reserve the rest of my comments ;-) Learn more about why iPad

  3. brianbierbaum says:

    Excluding Flash among other plug-ins is clearly going to be a short-term issue for the iPad and good news to competitors and vendors like Brightcove. However, I personally think an open standard (HTML5) is better than proprietary technology in the long run. Go Apple.

    The real success of the iPad lies with the content (apps). I recently wrote a post on this for marketers. Let me know what you think.

  4. tiffanybbrown says:

    I agree. The change is coming. The only question is how soon and will clients pay for it. At this point, HTML5 video is still affected by patent and closed-source issues. It's 6 on one hand, half dozen on the other.

  5. tiffanybbrown says:

    I guess this depends on what you want from a computing device. I like the web. It works fine. Why do I need an app to consume web content? And why are you making an app instead of making your content a web site/page. I don't get it.

    HTML is pretty powerful as it is. Add HTML5's canvas ability and local storage and it makes me wonder why you'd need to install an app. We have a cloud. But app development is clearly lucrative for those involved. I guess that's why people are into them.

  6. henry says:

    Flash will be available on ipads. Beacuse soon other mobile providers will run flash via andriod, mobile technology will develop where memory, battery and storage aren’t an issue and any player like flash player will esily run and user will have UNRESTRICTED access to the net, not the Apple application type ONLY they are currently trying to sell. This will cause users to start thinking for themselves again and opt for players that will allow the whole interent experience..Result Apple will loose sales –> leading to them letting flash on their Ipads. ps. Apple is selling a concept NOt a revolution and their concept is based on MARKETING their apps. As a computer geek of 30 years I am saddened to see the major step back in Internet availablity Apple as taking us for the sake of their profit..What saddens me more is the number of people suckered in by it.