Flash has been one of my favorite tools for over a decade so I was concerned when Adobe announced it will no longer continue to develop its Flash Player plug-in for mobile browsers. Flash developers are up in arms. Adobe’s stock price has fallen. ZDNet says Flash is dead. But while the Wall Street journal calls the move a posthumous victory for Steve Jobs, Adobe has been clear and positive about their direction. Adobe’s abandonment of the mobile Flash Player actually leverages them onto Apple’s mobile platform. New eBook formats like ePub3 and KF8 suggest a new world of possibilities for publishers and book designers. Flash and other innovative tools will play an important role in defining the future of content creation. Flash is alive and well.
Flash has always done things a web browser could only dream of doing on its own. To accommodate the rich visuals and sophisticated interactivity Flash delivers, Adobe created an add-on—a plug-in—for web browsers. When the browser is asked to display flash content, it passes the job over to the Adobe Flash Player. Though 99% of desktop computers have Flash Player installed, there are liabilities to plug-in based technologies. Apple’s iOS mobile operating system refuses to display Flash in the browser. Some people on secure corporate networks can’t install the latest plug-in until their IT departments get around to deploying the update. Some people are simply afraid to install anything on their computers at all. The plug-in architecture allowed Adobe to sidestep the limitations of the browser. It came with costs but these were outweighed by many benefits until mobile technologies—especially Apple’s mobile technology—refused to play along.
Adobe’s announcement didn’t say it was dumping Flash and going home; Adobe isn’t stupid and they didn’t become a $14 billion-dollar company by giving up. They’re not about to walk out on their own party just because the iPhone operating system opted out of supporting their plug-in. Apple has been whining about web standards for a long time; Adobe listened. They went to the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium is the Internet standards body) to lobby for new specifications. Adobe’s announcement goes on to say:
…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. We are excited about this, and will continue our work with key players in the HTML community, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM, to drive HTML5 innovation they can use to advance their mobile browsers…
…We will continue to leverage our experience with Flash to accelerate our work with the W3C and WebKit to bring similar capabilities to HTML5 as quickly as possible, just as we have done with CSS Shaders. And, we will design new features in Flash for a smooth transition to HTML5 as the standards evolve so developers can confidently invest knowing their skills will continue to be leveraged.
What does this mean in English? Take a look at http://theexpressiveweb.com. The site showcases a number of things that are already possible with HTML5, CSS3 and related standards-based technology. The CSS Shaders link was also put in Adobe’s press release for a reason; it hints at impressive things to come. Adobe is not only redeveloping their own technology so it can display in any browser without a plug-in, they’re working directly with the W3C to improve what web browsers are capable of displaying. Flash content is not going to disappear from mobile browsers at all.
What does FlasHTML5 mean for Web Developers?
The open SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) format, with roots in Adobe and Microsoft technology has been around and under development by the W3C since 1999. Though it was eclipsed by Flash and never got the attention it deserved, it will now provide another bridge for Adobe to deliver vector graphics without a plug-in. All contemporary web browsers already offer native support for the SVG format.
Adobe has acknowledged that their future lies in making sure content developed with Flash can be displayed anywhere. By developing innovative tools for developers while contributing directly to the development of Webkit (the open source browser engine that powers Apple’s Safari web browser) and working with the W3C, Adobe is strolling right in through Apple’s unguarded back door.
Here’s a 4-minute video from the Adobe MAX 2011 Conference that describes Adobe’s plans for Flash and HTML5.
What does FlasHTML5 mean for Publishers?
New ePub3 standards describe an eBook as “a website in a box.” Amazon’s new KF8 standards are likewise based on (you guessed it) HTML5 and CSS3. If Adobe is positioning content developed with Flash to be displayed in HTML5-capable browsers, we can assume by reference that Flash’s rich text formatting capabilities and sophisticated interactivity will soon be integrated into eBooks. It seems only logical to envision layout tools like Adobe InDesign being enhanced to export ePub3 and KF8 files that incorporate beautiful typography, video, animation, game logic and touchscreen interactivity. With eReader device makers scrambling to support new standards, the possibilities for eBook design will be limitless. Sound far-fetched? Watch this short video from Adobe MAX 2011 and see the future of eBook publishing with HTML5.
What’s in it for Adobe?
Unlike Apple, Google, Amazon etc, Adobe doesn’t make money by selling content. They make their profit by selling tools that make content. If content, whether it’s delivered through a browser or an eBook is all based on the same technology, Adobe’s job just got a lot easier; they’ll have fewer formats to develop for. Millions of designers and developers will update their software tools. They have a lot of development work to do, but this is an absolute windfall for Adobe—hardly the crushing loss the media is painting it as. Moreover, Adobe is shifting to a more stable and flexible business model. Instead of upgrading to a new set of tools every two years, designers and developers will get their tools from the Creative Cloud, a subscription-based service that delivers the full suite of Adobe tools to content creators with updates that aren’t tied to a major revision release schedule. The subscription model delivers always-up-to-date tools and frees Adobe from its dependency on a fresh cash infusion every two years.
Flash and HTML5: Why Does Apple Care?
Though Apple argues that Flash is unstable and requires too much processor power, skeptics counter that Apple wants to keep animation and rich interactivity confined to Apps sold exclusively through their own App store. Why? Flash empowers content developers to deliver all the graphic splendor and technical sophistication of a mobile application inside the browser. That provides a conduit through which competing alternatives to Apple’s own software offerings (like iTunes) can be deployed, and it offers developers a means of distribution that bypasses Apple’s 30% commission and the requirement to have Apple officially approve their content. It makes the free browser side of the iOS platform potentially as engaging as the App side. Apple has enjoyed an exclusive “gated community” in an otherwise open Internet. Now the gates are being pushed in by the very standards they accuse Adobe of failing to support.
Flash Without a Plug-in: Too Good to Be True?
The enhancement of HTML5 to deliver the full gamut of Flash capabilities will likely take time. Adobe’s dropping of only mobile Flash Player development suggests we’ll see a good subset of Flash’s capabilities available to mobile platforms but there will likely be limitations. For desktop browsers, Adobe is continuing to bank on the Flash plug-in to create rich web experiences. But FlasHTML5 may offer enough features to satisfy many content developers. If that’s the case, Adobe will have to push hard to keep any version of Flash Player relevant. I suspect they know that and are relying on technologies they already have in their innovation pipeline to stay ahead of developers as they switch their focus to standards-based delivery technologies.
Here’s one more video that includes previews of Flash CS6 and InDesign CS6 along with a pretty clear statement of the role Adobe envisions for Flash Player going forward.
Dead is Dead
I get annoyed whenever someone says Flash or some other technology is “dead.” Even Microsoft’s Silverlight still has a pulse. MySpace isn’t “dead,” either (though it admittedly smells funny). Nothing happened when high-priced consultants warned of global system failures because of Y2K. I still don’t have a paperless office. Hypochondria and hysteria make poor tools for predicting the future. Though the media have been planning Flash’s funeral for years, it’s premature to start ringing bells and sending flowers to Adobe. Flash isn’t dead—it is just getting ready to leave its body. Soon it will be everywhere at once—on your eBook reader, on your desktop and even on your iPhone.