The HTML 5 vs Adobe Flash debate has been raging since Steve Jobs announced that Apple would not permit Flash code to run on iOS, the operating system that powers the Apple TV, iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. Jobs insisted that Flash would cause performance problems and create potential security holes; he also criticised the technology as a streaming video platform as it, at the time, decoded in software rather than hardware, causing a sharp decrease in battery life. He also pointed out that a touch screen device has no functional equivalent for the ‘mouse hover’ that so much Flash content of the web is reliant on.
Many believed that Jobs’ reluctance to allow Flash on iOS stemmed more from a concern that Flash could result in lost revenue for Apple, which might have contributed to his vitriol in part, but it turns out Jobs was right about a lot of his claims – Adobe steamed ahead and continued to develop a version of Flash player for Android devices, but as most Flash content on the web was built with desktop CPU speeds and mouse control in mind, the experience of running that content on mobile devices, even high end ones, was slow, frustrating, and often simply unusable. As a result, in late 2011 Adobe announced they would cease production of the mobile version of Flash player to instead focus on Adobe Air – a slightly different version of the Flash runtime launched in 2008. Air compiles standalone Apps for a wide range of devices, including, crucially, the iPhone and iPad, with greatly improved performance over the mobile Flashplayer that failed so miserably on Android.
This group of technologies, often referred to as ‘The Open Web’, is advancing very quickly though – so quickly that the slowcoaches of the browser world (namely Microsoft) are being forced to pick up their pace for fear of being left behind.
A highly active and enthusiastic community of programmers are contributing new features and improvements to Gecko and WebKit every week. Started by Apple in 1998 and open-sourced in 2005, WebKit is the leading rendering engine powering both the iOS and Android browsers, Apple Safari, and Google Chrome. The Mozilla foundation also have a great many contributors to their open-source rendering engine Gecko, that powers their hugely popular browser Firefox.
The odd-one-out here is Microsoft. Traditionally they’ve only offered updates to their browser Internet Explorer once a year, and those updates have been very slow to propagate – today there are still several million users on IE7, which was replaced by IE8 in 2009. The ’surprisingly good’ IE10 is now on its way, bringing support for most new open web technologies as a direct result of criticism from the web development community, but how long this will take take to propagate is anyone’s guess. Microsoft have hinted recently that IE10 will auto-update (as Firefox, Safari and Chrome currently do) but the time it will take for the majority of Internet Explorer users to get to that version in the first place could be as long as 5 years.
For the most part though, the role of Flash in the browser as we know it is coming to an end; it’s no longer necessary to use Flashplayer for video and audio players, sliding widgets, interactive image galleries or simple apps. For Adobe this means their role on the web now will be to concentrate on making new tools such as Edge – allowing designers and non-programmers to export vector animations and banner ads – a role previously filled only by the Flash Pro IDE – only this time targeting the browser itself instead of Flashplayer.
Adobe’s other main interest in the wake of Flash’s de-throning, Air, is steadily improving, making it a viable (and free) tool for making iOS apps, but in the world of phones and tablets it now competes with a whole host of other mobile cross-platform tools and frameworks such as Cocos2D, Corona, and Unity.
Adobe now finds itself in a completely different landscape to the browser plugin field it so fully dominated previously.