Without mobile, Adobe Flash is irrelevant

Summary:Adobe Flash falls into a black hole.

Back in May, I wrote an article called "One year after iPad, is Adobe Flash Still Relevant?"

The post attracted a great deal of comments from both sides of the argument and even a very reasoned Op-Ed response from one of the platform's most respected 3rd-party evangelists, Joseph Labrecque.

What a difference five months makes.

Yesterday, I was tipped off by one of Adobe's partners that the company was going to cease development of the mobile browser implementation of the platform. It was a significant risk for me to post that bombshell based on the supposed veracity of the information, but the following morning, it proved to be correct.

Adobe has now ceased development on the Flash mobile browser plugin. In other words, within a certain period of time, future versions of the Android and BlackBerry Playbook browsers may not be able to render Flash content.

So in that sense, they will become just like the iPhone and iPad.

Needless to say, my Op-Ed columnist, Mr. Labrecque, wasn't particularly happy about it. The industry as a whole has now spoken quite a bit about it and the majority opinion seems to have gone along the lines of "Good Riddance" or even "Steve Jobs was right."

I'm sure the Flash evangelists could very well argue that although mobile browser Flash's development lifecycle has now come to an end, the platform as a whole is still alive.

The Flash plugin and the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) are still being actively developed for desktop OSes, and AIR is going to continue to be developed for mobile devices. Flash is still used on all sorts of custom interfaces, not just in the browser.

At least, for now.

With Flash ending its life on the mobile browser, something is going to have to fill the void. Immediately I can see virtually all web video moved to HTML5 players in order to accomodate the widest range of devices including desktop browsers.

The biggest issue will be fixing web pages with embedded video content that use SWF-based players to now use HTML5 player code snippets, but for the most part that's a lot of older legacy junk. New pages going forward are almost certainly going to use HTML5-based players.

For example, I use the "Use old embed code" on WordPress to enable the SWF-based player on ZDNet so I can embed YouTube and Vimeo videos in my posts. I'm pretty sure that's going to get fixed pretty darned quickly.

The second issue and one which which will take longer to transition from is other forms of embedded Flash content, and the most important type that I can think of right away that will need to be addressed is Flash advertisements, which many web sites including ZDNet uses.

On mobile devices, advertisements on sites such as ZDNet and the New York Times are served up as static JPG or PNG files. It's possible through HTML to have several images in a series that can be used in transition-type ads with multiple slides, but that's going to be a bit of a bear and it will feel like going backwards if it ends up having to be implemented that way.

Most likely, we'll see static JPG/PNG files used in Flash's place, or HTML5 advertisement mini-videos and banners created using new tools like Adobe Edge are going to become more commonplace in order to fill the void.

I'm bringing this up because all of this represents a significant level of effort that any large content site is going to have to deal with, and if they are going to deal with it on mobile devices, which are becoming increasingly important in terms of overall traffic, they are going to want to kill two birds with one stone to include the desktop and other large format displays.

By virtue of having to completely re-approach how to deal with dynamic content on mobile, they are going to think of how to deal with all of their content.

Once that happens, Flash on the desktop browser is going to become endangered as well.

Now, there's other Flash content that browsers render besides embedded video and ads, such as games, widgets, photo essays, custom UIs, et cetera. All of these types of Flash content are eventually going to have to migrate to HTML5.

Depending on the types of content and the maturity of HTML5 toolsets, certain things are going to move over quicker than others. But I can also see sites such as the New York Times doing more with less and abandoning complex Flash projects and doodads as a result and simplifying their code in straight HTML/DHTML until the richer HTML5 stuff is ready and the skill sets are in place to produce it.

It might not look as fancy, but it will still work and get the job done.

The browser-based games -- like Zynga's cash cow, Farmville -- may indeed be a problem, and may have to be addressed with platforms like AIR on the desktop.

Game analytics platform developer Ben Lowry has a good grasp of how developers are going to have to face challenges of attracting players to their Flash games on mobile and potentially the desktop if they have to be packaged in AIR as opposed to being embedded in pages.

Still, if Flash becomes a less desirable platform to develop games for as a result of the mobile version being discontinued, it's much more likely that the developers that were writing Flash games that were targeted for the desktop and for Android and Playbook are going to be much more incentivized to write native Android, Windows Phone and even PlayBook games instead.

In the case of the PlayBook, assuming RIM's tablet and future smartphone platform survives -- AIR, which was the first development environment to be introduced on the product is likely to become the least desirable of the APIs to use for QNX development.

It's far more likely we're going to see Android-based games and native C++ as well as their HTML5-based WebWorks API to be prioritized by the company in terms of what they want developers to use. It wouldn't surprise me to see RIM drop AIR support for the PlayBook entirely, depending on who drops the hammer first.

So if AIR's biggest mobile advocate dies out, the Internet game platform of choice for mobile devices and desktops is almost certainly going to default to native C++, since that's the easiest to use to port between iOS/Mac, Android NDK and Windows.

In other words, on mobile devices and the desktops, there will be an App for That.

So while Flash may still sound like a viable platform on the desktop browser today, in my opinion, without mobile, it's irrelevant.

Adobe Flash might as well have fallen into a black hole. It's certainly very close to the event horizon from where I'm sitting.

Is Flash on the desktop and AIR threatened by its discontinuation on mobile browsers? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Google, iPad, Mobility, Tablets

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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