The Truth About Flash – Apple Vs Adobe

By Curtis Priest

Every emerging technology generation seems to result in a battle of platforms and ideologies – a war between companies for the hearts, minds, dollars and loyalty of consumers for their system of choice. Memories of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer finally landing the fatal blow to Netscape, or Google’s meteoric rise to power over Yahoo (and the world), are now but footnotes in the history of humanities technological revolution. But no sooner are they forgotten are we plunked into the middle of another war – perhaps the most vicious yet, and the one that may just have the most impact on our daily lives. It’s the battle of Apple vs. Adobe and the future of mobile interactivity.

So what’s the problem? As with all war, selfish interests, propaganda, misinformation and the unwavering entrenchment of ideologies make it difficult to dissect the real conflict. Being an innovator and leader in new media technologies, especially with the use of rich media, we have a stake in the outcome of this war. Therefore it is important for us, and you, to understand exactly what is happening and why.

So when did this all start? Well, the battlefield was set when the first smartphones were released using rudimentary web browsers. They were basic, featureless and supported very few plugins – probably the most obvious missing plugin was the very popular and desktop standard Flash player. Adobe had not yet developed a mobile version and was keeping “mum” on its progress (eventually a “Lite” version was released, but it was so weak it doesn’t deserve much more mention than this one sentence).

Then came the release of Apple’s much anticipated iPhone and iPod Touch. Devices that were expected to literally transform the way human beings interact with mobile devices. In addition to their new Touch interface they boasted a proper web browser, HTML5 support (sort of) and actually viewed most websites properly. Considering most mainstream desktop web browsers only supported HTML4, this was a significant leap forward.

But Apple’s devices were not without their flaws. The initial releases were buggy, limited in even basic features such as cut and paste, had only moderate HTML5/CSS3 support, and sported archaic single-tasking operating systems. Many of these features were added over time or are planned for future releases, but one of the biggest problems revealed itself in the web browser – people realized that using a website designed for a large monitor just wasn’t functional on a small phone. Quickly the concept of “pinch and zoom” became fodder for mockery and using websites became more of a chore than a convenience.

But the potential was there. Enterprising companies started using the powerful web browser engine within these devices to build sites designed specifically to fit the smaller screen. It was certainly a lot better, but it was not perfect. One could not help but notice that the “mobile” websites still lacked that fluid and engagingly interactive experience people were becoming used to on both desktop computers with Flash based websites, and on mobile devices with apps from Apple’s App Store. The HTML5 in the mobile devices just lacked that organic motion and user experience – and Adobe was about to step up.

With much anticipation, Adobe announced the release of Flash Player 10.1, bringing support to mobile devices and including hardware video acceleration for increased performance and battery life. They also announced that the release of their next Creative Suite (5) would support Apple App development, allowing developers currently designing applications in Flash, Flex or AIR to compile for Apple devices.

Well everything sounded fantastic and the future was looking very positive indeed. Suddenly the very restrictive model of Apple’s App development was about to get blown wide open – both in that now developers would be able to build more powerful mobile websites, and also in that it would be easier for developers to build applications in one language and compile for multiple devices – significantly reducing costs, increasing productivity and setting the stage for major innovation.

So what happened? Well, as many knowledgeable industry experts are aware, Apple has a long and sorted history with proprietary thinking. Although topic for another article completely, the critical mistakes they made during the evolution of the personal computer and their refusal to share or play nice with others resulted in their near-demise a number of times.

One would have thought Apple would have learned from their mistakes in the past, but in Steve Job’s now infamous letter posted on Apple.com recently it appears as if they have returned to their old ways – only this time they have enough market share and influence that it actually matters.

Essentially Apple is banning the Flash player from running in their mobile web browser. And what’s more, days before Adobe announced the release date of CS5, Apple rewrote a section of their developer agreement to ban anyone from using any development platform other than Apple’s for building apps. A direct attack on not only Adobe, but also every other cross-platform development tool such as Unity, etc.

The reasons for this are unclear, other than a number of inaccurate and misleading points in Steve Job’s letter. What’s even more confusing is that the Apple devices tout themselves as supporting the “full web experience”. Since Flash is used on more than 85% of all websites, that claim is preposterous. What is obvious is that Apple is trying to protect its proprietary App store and control content and its delivery on their mobile devices. It would be unfortunate if Apple was willing to destroy the entire future of mobile computing over their selfish interests, but one could make that case from their actions. Apple has proven themselves to be anti-competition, anti-developer, and anti-consumer.

Apple’s arguments seem to mainly focus on Flash’s video use (YouTube, Facebook, etc. use Flash video), which they believe can be easily replaced by another video format of their choosing (codec H.264, which ironically is also the video format standard within Flash). The problem is that Apple is neglecting the thousands of websites built entirely in Flash using Adobe’s very powerful ActionScript3 development language. Long gone are the days when Flash was simply an animators tool creating annoying flashy buttons and “skip intro” pages. Flash has grown into a robust, open and powerful tool for building highly engaging and immersive online experiences – it is here to stay as a very powerful rich-media application development platform. Apple’s arguments that the currently unfinished HTML5/CSS3 spec will replace Flash are not only absurd, but surprisingly misinformed and dangerous.

Even if HTML5/CSS3 were completely finished and implemented into all browsers today, and even if it supported the full depth of Flash’s AS3 language (which is doesn’t come even close) it would take it years to roll out across the Internet to the majority of web users. Neither of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer versions 7 or 8 support it at all, which are still the standard for web browsing on desktop computers. Firefox, Chrome and Safari support an unfinished version of the HTML5 spec, but none of them support it in the same way and therefore it is impossible to develop websites in it that are universally compatible. Considering it has taken Internet Explorer 6 over 4 years to become obsolete (and astonishingly people are STILL using it), one could even surmise that HTML5 will not be a universally supported standard on desktop computers for another 5 years or more.

Flash meanwhile is supported by over 98% of all computers on the Internet, and runs exactly the same way in every browser, and will continue to run exactly the same way in every browser. Even arguments about Flash’s lack of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) are fallacy now, with HTML sublayers and new tools available to bring Flash sites on par with HTML. Flash will also be supported by every other major smartphone maker, from Blackberry to Google’s Android.

So what’s going to happen? Well, Adobe has responded in kind. They have launched their own campaign to dispel the myths being propagated about Flash by Apple, and the founders of Adobe have written their own letter in response to Steve Jobs. Once close friends and business allies, the companies have for all intents and purposes declared war on each other.

Why? There really is no good reason. Who will win? It’s unlikely there will be a victor anytime soon, but the losers will most definitely be the developers and consumers.

People have asked if I am biased because my company develops in Flash, and the simple answer is yes. But our decision to use Flash as our platform of choice wasn’t made in a vacuum. It was a conscious business decision we made due to the demand by our clients to provide a more innovative, beautiful and rich online experience. The case is also made by every single award winning website on the http://thefwa.com/, which shows the true power and influence of this platform, and there is simply no alternative.

The US Department of Justice & Federal Trade Commission have also taken notice and are now investigating Apple for antitrust violations. It is our hope that in the interests of mobile innovation Apple releases their firm grip and decides to play nice with the rest of the industry.

Curtis Priest
Partner / President & CEO
Pixelcarve Inc.

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2 Comments

  1. Alex says:

    If ever the quote “follow the money” held true, it is in this case.
    So let’s talk money.
    With Flash, one has easy access to thousands of FREE games and other FREE apps.
    For Apple, this fact is a potential lost of revenues. They would prefer to use their online store to sell games and other apps. So, in a way, one cannot blame Apple for wanted to make an additional profit in this arena. I just despise the pretense that it has to do with some fault with Flash.
    I, for one, will not buy an iPhone nor iPad until it can do Flash but yet there are apps that can be downloaded to run Flash on the iPhone and iPad.
    So, in the end, I don’t see this issue affecting Flash too much.
    Let’s hope for the competitors of iPhone and iPad will wise up and see a marketing potential.

    • Chad Troftgruben says:

      It may go a little beyond just Flash too. It almost seems like Apple wants nothing to do with any Adobe products. The CS5 suite was built for being able to export and create apps for the iPhone and Apple blocked it. I also hear that the new CS5 suite runs better on PCs than Macs. So it’s an interesting scenario.

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