Flash Fried?

The biggest problem with the Adobe/Apple Flash spat is that it’s being fought on the wrong ground.Flash isn’t just about video on web pages, or animated adverts, or even about plugins versus HTML 5.

The biggest problem with the Adobe/Apple Flash spat is that it’s being fought on the wrong ground.

Flash isn’t just about video on web pages, or animated adverts, or even about plugins versus HTML 5. As soon as you get into talking about those things, Adobe is bound to come off worst. After all, we all love open standards, and above all, we all love the open web. We don’t want to load extra applications to watch video, and we don’t want to have garish adverts thrust at us while we trying to read the news.

If you look at it in those terms, then Apple’s right to not put Flash on the iPhone and the iPad. Why burden users with code they don’t need? Web standards do everything the iPhone’s users want, and if they don’t, well, there’s an app for that.

The trouble is: that’s Flash nearly five years ago.

The FLV video format (and all the codecs it wraps) were what turned things around for Flash, dragging it out of a morass of skip-intro site-branding animations. It made Flash the platform of choice for web video – and gave birth to services like the BBC iPlayer and Hulu.

Yes, you can deliver video browsers that support HTML 5's new <VIDEO> tag, but there’s enough confusion over which codecs are supported to make it almost impossible to handle successfully. Even web standards proponents like Daring Fireball’s John Gruber have problems. The philosophical wrangle between open source browsers and their commercial competitors over the patent-encumbered H.264 implemention leaves sites that want to deliver video directly to the browser needing to encode video twice – and also unsure over just how target browsers handle image buffering.

The real strength of Flash is as a rich internet application platform. You can build complex JavaScript collaboration applications like Google’s Wave (if you take advantage of features like Gears’ worker threads). But not every browser supports Gears. And not everyone wants to download megabytes of obfuscated JavaScript.

Adobe’s Flex changed Flash completely. It turned a timeline driven animation platform into an enterprise-ready development environment. If you want a nice, stateful user interface for an application, you can quickly build it in Flex using Eclipse-based development tools, alongside any Java or .NET back end, before exporting it as either Flash or as a standalone application using Adobe’s cross-platform AIR runtime.

Flex is a powerful tool, with all the features you’d expect for a platform that requires enterprise connectivity. Adobe’s Flash Data Services (also available as the open-source Blaze DS) give you binary connectivity from Flash front-ends to application servers, line of business applications, and databases.

Frankly I can't really see an HTML 5 application delivering something like Morgan Stanley's Matrix trading platform. Designed to help partner companies execute foreign exchange trades, Matrix simplifies a business process that requires a lot of information. Brokerage traders use Matrix to get access to both historical and real time data, along with notes and video blogs from Morgan Stanley's own foreign exchange team. There's even a set of collaboration tools that allow traders to directly contact Morgan Stanley staff.

And that's where the real battlefield lies. Video (and <VIDEO>) is just a distraction (and Adobe's already moved to open most of its video player platform). The real issue is the apps. Adobe has unveiled its own in-Flash app store, allowing developers to monetise both Flash and AIR applications. With Flash in the browser offering developers an end-run around the Apple app-store and giving Adobe a revenue stream rather than Apple, it's unsurprising that Apple's not letting Flash applications run on the iPhone - while letting cross-compiled native applications written in Flash sell in its App Store...

I've got an iPhone, and I've spent quite a bit of money on casual games through the App Store. They're games I've been playing for free on my PC, thanks to sites like PopCap. That's money Microsoft and Apple don't see - so is it any wonder that Apple is so down on Flash? Cash is king, and the iPhone (and the iPad) App Store is a definite money maker. Interpreted code like Flash would skip around the Apple paywall, and that's not what Cupertino wants. That 30% of every transaction has turned into a very attractive revenue stream, and it's not something that Apple intends to hand over to anyone.

That's before we go into any of the other issues, like the stability or not of Flash (I've not had it crash my Mac, ever, though I do use Chrome rather than Safari), or it's suitability for mobile (I'll be looking forward to seeing what Adobe has to say about that in a fortnight at the Mobile World Congress).


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