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Why Adobe Flash on mobile isn't dead - despite what Apple's Steve Jobs says

Flash vs HTML5 for mobile video content - another case of the Apple reality distortion field?
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Written by Natasha Lomas on

Flash vs HTML5 for mobile video content - another case of the Apple reality distortion field?

When Apple's CEO speaks, the tech world listens. So when Steve Jobs pens an open letter about an industry standard - Flash - links fly around the blogosphere faster than you can fire up a PDF.

Last week Jobs published his Thoughts on Flash - an open letter in which he set out some of the reasons why Apple is not supporting Flash, Adobe's widely used web plug-in which enables video playback and animated content to be displayed via a web browser, on its iPhone or iPad devices.

Jobs claims the reasons for the decision boil down to "technology issues" - including Flash being in his words "100 per cent proprietary"; its patchy performance on mobile devices to date; and Apple's desire to avoid a layer of middleware coming between it and its developers - bad for them and bad for the platform, in Jobs' view.

"Flash was created during the PC era - for PCs and mice," he wrote. "Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards - all areas where Flash falls short."

Another technology offers a better solution, according to Jobs: HTML5 - the next specification for HTML, the software code used to create web pages.

"New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too)," he wrote. "HTML5, the new web standard that has been adopted by Apple, Google and many others, lets web developers create advanced graphics, typography, animations and transitions without relying on third party browser plug-ins (like Flash). HTML5 is completely open and controlled by a standards committee, of which Apple is a member."

"Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticising Apple for leaving the past behind," he added.

Steve Jobs Apple Adobe Flash row

Apple CEO Steve Jobs: Not a fan of Flash
(Photo credit: Stephen Shankland/CNET)

The Apple CEO is making the not so subtle point that Flash is the "past" - at least as far as Apple is concerned - and HTML5 the "future". But behind the letter lies a complicated tangle of issues - both around technology, Apple's business model, and the future of the mobile web.

"This is not about technology," Gartner research vice president Ray Valdes told silicon.com. "The criticisms from Apple about Flash can also be applied to many other systems that Apple has not directly opposed. Therefore Apple's stance appears driven by their business need to protect the iPhone platform against the threat of a cross-platform competitor."

An example of Jobs' double standards in opposing Flash for being a "closed" technology is evident in Apple's support for H.264 - a video codec championed by the CEO several times in the letter which is proprietary and protected by patents, rather than the open alternative Theora Ogg, backed by Mozilla and others but not, crucially, by Apple.

The letter is conspicuously silent on Apple's lack of support for Theora Ogg - something that has been specifically attacked by the Free Software Foundation as "inconsistent with the free web".

Jobs does spend a lot of words on concerns about Flash's mobile performance. Yet smartphones and other mobile devices are becoming increasingly powerful - something CCS Insight analyst Robert Caunt suspects may work in Adobe's favour.

"There is a trend in the mobile industry towards devices with much more powerful processors - processor speeds have become the topline on the spec sheet these days," he notes. "1Ghz has almost become standard... with that increased horsepower, it's unlikely that Adobe will need to optimise [Flash] performance."

The forthcoming Flash Player 10.1 - due in the first half of this year - will also allow Flash content developed for desktop and mobile to be displayed consistently across both device types, "which means that if you continue to develop for Flash, by the end of this year, it will work on almost any platform apart from iPhones," said Caunt, adding: "Given that potential market, it's unlikely that Adobe will throw in the towel [because of the Apple veto]."

Where Jobs' letter expends most of its energy is in...

...detailing the apparently detrimental impact to Apple's business that Flash would have if unleashed upon the iPhone OS ecosystem. This scenario is described by Jobs as "the most important reason" he is against it.

"We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform," writes Jobs.

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Apple's CEO Steve Jobs doesn't want Flash to come between the platform and the developer
(Photo credit: Apple)

"If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features... The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms.

"Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features... We cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor's platforms."

Adam Leach, principal analyst at Ovum, described it as Apple wanting to "own the developers" on its platform. Adobe's Flash would drive an unwelcome wedge between platform-maker and app-maker - and, claimed Leach, "[Steve Jobs] wants to control those developers."

Owning and controlling an ecosystem is how Apple has built its iPhone-plus-apps business so it's clearly not about to stop now. While that might have some benefits for developers - though not to Flash developers who'd like to create content for Apple hardware - it's clearly a lot more beneficial to Apple's business model.

App Store pricing is another area Apple has obvious business interests in safeguarding. "[Apple is] very, very keen to keep control of the end-to-end experience and therefore having a separate runtime in the form of Adobe is a problem," said Ben Wood, director at CCS Insight. "One could argue it could be detrimental to Apple's business model because there's a lot of Adobe games - or games that are delivered in Flash - which are free and therefore that would detract from people downloading [paid gaming content] from the App Store."

But what about Jobs' technology claims? Is it fair to say HTML5 is the future and Flash is the past?

"It is clear that HTML5 represents the future of the web but that future could take a very long time to arrive," according to Gartner's Valdes - specifically the committee tasked with defining the specification has said the work won't be completed until 2022.

That said, the draft specification of HTML5 is in use today - something Apple is keen to point out in its letter. But a draft specification cannot match the fully featured maturity of Flash, as Valdes noted: "There are portions of HTML5 that can be used today, in advance of the complete process. These portions are fragmented and immature and together do not match the capabilities of Flash."

"Businesses should evaluate their use of Flash, and the interaction requirements of their website. If the interaction requirements are simple, these can be met with HTML and the working subset of HTML5.

"If the interaction requirements are complex, with highly interactive graphics and multimedia, these can best be done with Flash. In those situations, businesses should continue with their current course while waiting for HTML5 to mature," he added.

CCS Insight's Caunt says Flash's two big advantages are that it's...

...currently the de facto standard for presenting video on the web, and that it's good at overlaying material onto other content - such as ads or subtitles displayed over video content. But such features are being built into HTML5's specification, and once support is widespread there's no advantage to the proprietary route.

"There's little reason to believe that future standards can't do away with the stranglehold that Adobe currently exerts over certain aspects of web content," he added. "There's nothing that Adobe currently offers that couldn't be done through other means."

Caunt predicted smaller web businesses will be first on the uptake with HTML5 - those that don't necessarily have to migrate huge amounts of pre-existing Flash video content. Google's YouTube stands out as a massive business that has bitten the bullet and made a lot of its content available in the H.264 video codec already and, of course, companies can encode content in more than one codec but there's a time - and cost - overhead in doing so.

The rise of smartphones in recent years has meant many companies that have been relying on Flash video will already have had to re-encode content to ensure it's viewable on mobile devices. Ovum's Leach says website and mobile developers should have HTML5 on their radar already: "Any website developer or mobile developer is going to have to start to look at HTML5 - they should have been doing that anyway."

"Any site offering video is probably offering it in multiple formats anyway," he added. "If they want it viewed on a mobile device they've got to be re-encoding it for different codecs anyway - they've got to look to what make sense for them, H.264 if that makes sense for the usage of that website then there's no reason not to migrate towards it."

The recent launch of the iPad has opened up a whole new category of device where Flash isn't welcome.

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Apple's iPad: A new front in the Flash war
(Photo credit: James Martin/CNET)

With more than one million iPads sold in the US in the first month since launch the tablet has a lot of momentum already. Apple's letter does therefore have serious implications for some online content providers, according to CCS Insight's Wood.

"If you're someone providing a lot of video content - so a news company, a media company doing films or music or those sorts of things [Apple's anti-Flash stance is] a major challenge for you and you are going to have to make some serious decisions about whether you re-encode your content for the H.264 video standard."

"[The iPad] is going to rapidly emerge - albeit in a niche - but is going to rapidly emerge as probably one of the richest content delivery devices available today in the consumer electronic space and of course if you want to have a flagship for your content, the iPad is going to be the device to do that on if you have rich video content.

"We've already seen companies like the BBC and in the States ABC and others have created dedicated apps to deliver that kind of rich experience so it's a real headache. If your strategy historically has been Flash I think that it puts you in a difficult position."

But even if Steve Jobs has landed a few telling blows in this particular fight, Ovum's Leach believes Apple's opposition to Flash could result in...

...some unexpected competition down the line in the soon-to-be-very-competitive tablet market: Google.

"Flash support is quite variable amongst phones anyway and people aren't necessarily used to having Flash on phones, though some will support it. But with tablets I think it's different - especially when it's being driven by the use case of full internet browsing. Then Apple are exposing themselves to a big [Flash-friendly] competitor to come in," he says.

"I think we're going to see a lot of copycat devices, and [Apple is] leaving the door open to Google with Chrome OS to enable Flash on the device and to say we offer you a complete browsing experience - the full internet on the Google tablet which is not offered to you by Apple's iPad."

That said, Leach conceded that lack of Flash clearly has not impacted iPhone sales thus far.

"People will buy - and have bought - iPhones and iPads regardless of the availability of Flash," added CCS Insight's Caunt. "The App Store has had four billion downloads so Apple couldn't appear to care less whether it's supported by Abode or not. It seems to be doing perfectly well on its own and I think it's influence in the PC and the mobile market is far out of proportion to its actual sales."

One thing's for sure: Apple's letter made clear the company won't - willingly at least - be opening the door to Flash in future so any Flash-centric web business hoping to break into Apple's ecosystem should stop expecting Jobs to make a U-turn on the topic, and start rethinking how it offers rich media content.

Even though Jobs clearly wants developers and businesses to think they have to either ditch Flash or become an overnight dinosaur that's an over-simplification of a complex reality and probably more than a little wishful thinking on Jobs' part to boot.

"I think ultimately it's not a question of either [Flash] or [HTML5]," said CCS Insight's Caunt. "Just as if you think about static images on the web there are a number of ways of presenting them there - GIFs, JPEGs, PNGs - and all of them co-exist, they all have different uses, they're all supported equally.

"PNGs weren't supported by Microsoft for many years and competitors forced them to and I can see a similar situation happening in terms of video and animated content on the web - that a spirited competition will mean that a number of different formats will co-exist, just as they do in other areas on the web."

"HTML5 will over a long period become the new standard but it's not as if you can't put Flash content in HTML5 - it's just it offers you a different way of presenting moving images and animated content," he added. "So it's not either or."

Google's position of having a foot in both 'closed' and 'open' camps offers a third way for businesses not wanting to exclusively hitch their fortunes to either. "Google is working towards HTML5 but in the meantime they are enabling the experiences their customers want in supporting Flash," said Ovum's Leach. "There's a lot of websites that support Flash, there's a lot of developers out there for Flash so the device manufacturers can benefit from using it, platform vendors can benefit, app vendors can benefit as well."

And when all's said and done - in business and politics - won't somebody think of the users?

Or as Caunt puts it: "Nobody goes to YouTube and says 'oh, it's Flash content' - they go there for the dancing cats or whatever."

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