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Inside Apple's iPad: Adobe Flash

Is Flash critical to the web?

Adobe would like to pretend that HTML5 is "a decade" away because this offers some window of opportunity for Flash to remain relevant. Apple has proven over the last three years that the iPhone and iPod touch could be wildly successful without Flash. That indicates no real problem for the iPad lacking support for Flash either.

Again, while Adobe claims vast licensing agreements and developer support for Flash, the only relevant content related to Flash is targeted to desktop users. Flash Lite doesn't even play that modern content. One side effect to Flash's desktop focus is that most Flash animations are not at all designed to scale down to mobile devices. Flash content is largely targeted toward a interface that assumes the use of a mouse pointer rather than a multitouch display, and the runtime is optimized for desktop-class computing resources, not the limited capacity of mobile devices that must remain idle as much as possible to preserve battery life.

Anyone who knows how to run Activity Monitor can observe that even the most trivial use of Flash within in a webpage eats up extraordinary resources. If Greenpeace were a legitimate environmental watchdog, it would target Flash as a bigger threat than PVC and BFRs combined, just by the composite amount of energy it consumes to do absolutely nothing of value.

Flash on the wane in video delivery

Flash is also losing its primary uses on the web. Most web videos used to be delivered encoded via On2 proprietary codecs within an FLV file (the proprietary native media container of Flash). Most future development is moving toward the open H.264 codec specification inside the MPEG-4 container (based on Apple's QuickTime container format).

Even Adobe has moved Flash to support H.264 video within its version of an MPEG-4 container, which it calls F4V. With that transition in progress, there's very little reason for anyone to need Flash just to deliver video, as Google is proving in its migration from Flash to H.264 in YouTube.

Flash and Rich Internet Applications

Adobe is also pushing Flash as a way to deliver interactive versions of traditional print content, the related Flex and AIR as a way to deliver Rich Internet Applications.

With the iPad, Apple is promoting to print developers and content companies the idea of using HTML5 instead, and simply avoiding paying a runtime tax to Adobe just to add interactivity to their content. Apple itself has been a big proponent of HTML5 and using JavaScript frameworks to create rich Internet apps, such as the MobileMe web apps it built using SproutCore and the interactive iTunes LP and iTunes Extras content it has launched in partnership with music labels and movie studios.

Google is also leading the development of rich web apps using HTML5, a strategy that is woven into its Chrome OS. Google employees have described Android's Java-like platform as a stop gap measure that will eventually be replaced by HTML5 web apps, rather than a long term platform in the sense that Apple describes its own Cocoa Touch iPhone OS platform.

Apple's preference for open over Adobe Flash

By not putting Flash on the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, Apple is creating a significant installed base of affluent users who simply can't be reached via proprietary binaries like Flash and Silverlight. That has successfully shifted attention both to Apple's own App Store platform for mobile apps and to the open web, encouraging developers to embrace standards-based rich web apps and multimedia delivery based on open specifications.

In contrast, while Google is also staunchly supporting open standards on the web, it's also trying to support Flash playback as a feature of Android, something that can only make developing native Android apps less attractive. Microsoft is similarly trying to promote Flash and Silverlight while also supporting legacy Windows Mobile apps dependent upon a stylus. Nokia's Symbian and Linux platforms also embrace Flash at the expense of their own native development.

Apple appears to recognize that the more platforms its competitors support, the better it is positioned in its lead as the top App Store for mobile devices. All of which should leave users with zero hope for ever seeing a Flash runtime on the company's iPhone OS devices.

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