So where does Flash go from here?
I’ve been thinking a good bit about the predicament for Flash and it isn’t pretty.
I’ve been building Flash websites and applications for 10 years now. I started right at the time when Flash 5 was arriving (I never really used TellTarget much, thank goodness). When I really got going building Flash stuff, I would say it felt “hot”. There was no end of inquiries and the ability to make stuff move around on screen made people pretty giddy.
But what turned my Flash skills into a career was the fact that there was an overload of terrible Flash hitting the web. The fact that Flash was so “easy” to produce, made every web shop around think they should use it, just because they could. For this reason, Flash got a pretty bad name in a lot of circles. But as I’ve always said, it isn’t the tool’s fault, its the untrained artists who were using it. In any case… it created a nice landscape for me to stand out, so that worked well for a good long time. It was exciting.
Cut to today. JLOOP produces web applications of all shapes and sizes. And Flash has become only one component of what we do. We still produce full-Flash websites, and Flash is used to some degree in almost every project we work on. The main difference here is that we never ever utilize Flash without providing an alternative. With tools like SWFObject, it is so easy to provide a non-flash alternative in a seamless way… there really is no excuse not to. Of course it gets more complicated when you are doing full-Flash websites, but the onus is still on us to provide a reasonable experience for users across the many platforms there are in use now.
Which brings me to the real point of this post. Without getting on a soapbox about how things have changed… its safe to say that we are seeing more “fracturing” of the internet landscape than ever before. And that trend will only continue. Here are a few facts that point at this trend:
- We used to test on IE on a PC (back in the day). Now we test on IE, Firefox, Safari, and Chrome on both PC and Mac (at bare minimum).
- We never used to test on mobile devices unless we were specifically working on a mobile application. Now we always do some sort of testing on the iPhone browser.
- Video online blossomed via the Flash Player. Today you can watch online video through applications on mobile devices, xboxes, silverlight, and HTML5 just to name a few.
We expect this trend to continue. New browsers are entering the market. IE6 is dying (finally!). And new standards are emerging.
A new playing field
I believe that Apple has forever changed the game. (I do not believe it is a game that will be “won”, however.) Apple lovers & haters aside, the iPhone was the most significant change to the online landscape (beyond just mobile devices and phones) in the last few years. And the exclusion of Flash on the iPhone cannot be ignored as a major turning point for Flash.
First let me say that I LOVE the iPhone. I love the phone itself. And I love developing for it. I feel that same excitement I felt about Flash 10 years ago. Apple has done so many things right and the platform delivers on a new set of promises that Flash is not ready to embrace.
It is not a random occurrence that Apple succeeded where Microsoft failed in the “smartphone” market. Apple has created a closed and controlled platform – and it is because they understand users better than anyone else. We don’t care WHY our phone crashes… we just find it completely unacceptable when it does, and we will blame the phone. Apple has vigorously protected the phone in every way – from their SDK, to their control of distribution, to their (oft maligned) approval process. I am one who believes that they are more RIGHT than they are wrong. And they are winning because of it.
And I hate to say it, but having learned what I know about how the phone works and the rigors of developing for iPhone… I don’t see how Flash can meet the standard. Not without a major shift in the platform.
If I put the Flash Player on my iPhone, I could then write a Flash file in about 10 minutes that would crash the phone – guaranteed. That, to Apple and to me, is unacceptable in this environment.
But Adobe has a conundrum. I believe that they have slowly been developing the Flash platform to a point where it is much more rigorous and standards based. It is much more rigorous to write ActionScript3 than it is to write AS2 – and that is the trend they have been been pushing. But Adobe’s biggest coup is also their biggest problem – every version of the Flash Player is completely 100% backwards compatible. That means that Flash code I wrote in 2001, using simple ActionScript 1, will still run in Flash Player 10. If they ever break that backwards compatibility, the platform would be in major trouble.
But the reality is they may not have a choice. To me, the signs point to the fact that Adobe will be forced to deliver a new standard – more likely closer aligned to AIR than to SWF that will enable some sort of Flash capability on the Apple platform. And its the iPad that clinches it for Apple. IF the iPad is successful, and I believe it will be, Adobe will be forced to bifurcate the platform. They have probably already lost the war in terms of video. All video platforms are already working on HTML5 alternatives and I don’t think Adobe can counter with a Flash Player that works better and has less overhead.
I can see a path where a new Flash Player is introduced for mobile and “intermediate” platforms like the iPad. One that no longer supports legacy Flash – but requires ActionScript 4 (hee hee) and a more rigorous standard of code development. One that has more built-in control for runaway processes and crash-inducing code. (the old “this flash movie is looping uncontrollably” pop-up has got to go.)
So where does this go?
Short Term: I think Adobe must be working on a path forward and an announcement may come soon. But the true short term test will be the success of the iPad. If it really takes off, Adobe’s hands will be tied to providing some sort of Flash Player that passes muster.
Long Term: I am very confident Flash will continue to exist. It just works too well for the simple experiential design element, interactive piece, presentation, etc for it to go away entirely. But all signs point to complication for developers such as myself. JLOOP is taking strides to make sure we can deliver solutions for all platforms that have traction… now and in the future. This will mean we need to be able to develop for the mobile world as well as the traditional browser-based web. The app culture is here to stay. But its not the only game in town. For better or for worse, we have to be ready for anything.