Let’s Hope the iPad Kills Flash

One of the biggest reasons I’ve owned an iPhone for a few years now is how it handles the web. An amazing web browser on my phone means that I can do a lot of important work from wherever I happen to be sitting — laptop or not. And for business purposes, the iPhone does this perfectly.

There’s just one thing: No Flash. That means that all-Flash web sites simply don’t work at all, and it means that Flash-based video on the web doesn’t work outside of Youtube.

It’s annoying that the iPhone misses this one part of the web experience, but maybe in the end it’s a good thing.

Flash is the only ubiquitous proprietary technology that has survived on the web. The fundamental technology behind the web, the HTTP protocal, is an open standard. HTML, CSS and XHTML are built on open standards, even if the browsers often try to add stuff. And even JavaScript, once a proprietary technology, became open in order to become more consistently supported by browsers. All that’s left is Flash.

There’s a lot of noise on the Net about Flash, and in particular how even the newly introduced iPad doesn’t support it. People speak of Flash as though it were a fundamental right of the Netizen. It isn’t: it’s a proprietary technology owned by one company, Adobe. And as much as I support a company’s right to make money off it’s own work and innovation, I also think that the fundamental technologies of the web must remain open. Wouldn’t it be deliciously ironic if a notoriously closed, proprietary system like Apple’s iPhone/iPod/iPad line could finally free us from Flash?

It could happen. With HTML 5.0 supporting an open web video standard, all Apple has to do is drag its feet a little longer with the whole Flash thing and it could be the end. As soon as Apple’s mobile Safari supports HTML 5 video on the iPhone, iPad, ad infinitum, web sites will globally start supporting it, too. And that could all but kill Flash. Not overnight. But within the time of a few minor browser releases we could see Flash being replaced across the web.

But do I really hate Flash so much? No. In fact, as a technology, when used correctly (eg. for video game-style interactivity, and not as a replacement for a web site), Flash makes a major contribution to the web experience. So really, what I’m asking for isn’t the complete death of Flash, but an end to our universal reliance on a single company’s web technology. There are two outcomes we should hope for:

  1. Open web video, Flash survives in games. Video is too important on the web to be an afterthought or an add-on. That’s precisely the realization that is supposed to bring video (finally) to HTML. And many of the other functions that Flash provides can be done just as easily with AJAX, meaning technologies like JavaScript that are built into the open web. The one place where Flash truly excels is in online gaming, and there’s no reason why we need to kill this off.
  2. Open Flash. The other option is even more exciting: creating an open standard for Flash. Adobe has already released the specifications for Flash’ SWF format, which is a step in the right direction, but what would be needed here is a fully open standard, in the way that proprietary JavaScript gave way to the open standard ECMAScript. It’s doubtful that Adobe will go that route unless it’s absolutely necessary – but more success with Apple’s mobile products could make that happen. Of course, there’s still the question of whether major browser makers would have enough of an incentive to actually implement Flash independently rather than relying on Adobe’s plugins. But there’s a subtle difference between a proprietary implementation of an open standard, and a fully proprietary technology.