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.

5 comments for “Let’s Hope the iPad Kills Flash

  1. Bryan Larsen
    January 31, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    This is a very ironic post. Apple is a far greater threat to open standards than Flash is.

    It’s especially ironic because Apple could have killed Flash quite easily if it wanted to. Apple’s refusal to endorse Ogg Theora was the only reason that Theora did not become a mandated codec for HTML5 video.

    But of course, that’s a minor evil compared to Apple’s refusal to allow third party applications on the iPad and the iPhone. The phone is the next generation of computing platform. We’re all familiar with the harm that Microsoft inflicted on the good of mankind through their monopolistic control of the microcomputer platform. Apple has proven themselves to be much more heavy-handed and greedy in their control of the smartphone platform.

    Yet Apple is praised by geeks, not condemned. One knew that one was selling ones soul when one went to work for Microsoft or indirectly supporting the Microsoft platform. Supporting the Apple platform should be viewed in the same respect.

    I hate Flash, perhaps much more than you do. I use Linux, so Flash regularly impacts my web experience. But in this case, the enemy or my enemy is my friend, and I hope it’s Flash that impacts Apple.

  2. Bryan Larsen
    January 31, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    P.S. There’s something wrong with your RSS feed. I was able to subscribe, but browsers do not recognize it as a feed when it’s clicked on.

  3. February 1, 2010 at 6:07 pm

    Great comment. I’ve been a Linux user since early Slackware, and now my Ubuntu desktop sits beside my MacBook.

    The real story of Apple and Open Source is that Open Source is about enabling anyone to control the technology that’s available to them, whereas Apple is about turning computers into appliances–that is, closed devices intended to be used “as is” rather than programmed and customized. My first MP3 player was a Linux box; Apple turned the “music player” category into something completely different.

    The reason I have a MacBook is that on the one hand, a lot of the user experience is superior to anything Windows or Linux have come up with. On the days when I don’t have time to geek out, and I just need things to work, Apple is good for that. But at the same time, I can compile unix software from source, and the modified BSD operating system is a lot friendlier to me than Windows. Apple has learned how to seduce geeks by offering the best of both worlds–commercial and Open Source–rather than a bad compromise.

    Right now, I’m not as bothered by the App store restrictions as many people. I figure that when you buy an iPhone, you have two choices: you either decide to go commercial, and treat the iPhone as an appliance, or you go geek and “jailbreak” it.

    But I must admit that the iPad could make things a little scarier: IF these things catch on, we could be going from a world where your phone is an appliance–which it always was–to a world where your *computer* is an appliance. I would agree that this is NOT a good thing.

    However, at the moment Apple’s share of computers is still relatively small, and if anything, the iPad’s success will do the same as the iPhone’s did: just create momentum for an existing category of devices, ie. tablets and netbooks. We’ll see a lot more netbooks becoming tablets, and they’ll be much cheaper than the iPad.

    So for now I’m just hoping that the fight between Adobe and Apple could benefit the consumer, as many corporate fights do.

  4. February 1, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Two more comments: the big difference right now between Flash’s dominance and Apple’s is that Flash is virtually ubiquitous, whereas Apple is just popular. Blackberries are still more common than iPhones, and most laptops sold aren’t MacBooks.

  5. Bryan Larsen
    February 1, 2010 at 11:31 pm

    No, the iPhone is much scarier than the iPad. The iPad is just a microcomputer. The iPhone (and competitors) is something much more important — the next big thing. The 4th generation of computers. The nano-computer, if you will.

    And Apple sells 99.5% of all mobile applications. Sounds like the makings of a monopoly to me. Why does everybody buy Windows? Because that’s where the apps are. They gained this monopoly through skill and the incompetence of their competitors.

    Which is part of the problem. They earned their current position. We can admire that, and yet at the same time acknowledge and fight their evil.

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