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Friday, May 14, 2010, 12:00 pm PT (03:00 pm ET)

Adobe-Apple war on Flash reminiscent of PostScript struggle


Flash takes over the web

Originally launched as an animation tool, Flash quickly became an easy way to add interactivity to multimedia projects (such as CD-ROMS), and eventually web pages. Its popularity on the web blossomed after Microsoft began bundling it with Internet Explorer 5 in 1999, spreading over the web just as PostScript had spread across laser printers in the 80s. Adobe's rival effort to promote open standards for web animation (including SVG) failed to gain traction in the face of IE's wide propagation of Flash.

Apple subsequently incorporated Flash 4 content as a track type in QuickTime 5, enabling developers to create movies with a layer of interactivity to control playback or perform other functions. QuickTime 6 upgraded its support to Flash 5 in 2002, but the idea of delivering complex multimedia movies in QuickTime began to fade in the mid-2000s as Apple began to focus on more on mobile playback and hardware-based decoding.

Flash itself also began to find value as a video playback tool, but unlike QuickTime's focus as a desktop and mobile device player, Flash was targeted directly at the web. While web video could be presented via JavaScript, the various browsers were at the time all implementing web standards slightly differently, making it difficult to create one bit of code that could reliably embed video that most users could play. Flash solved that problem because it standardized the codec and the playback code; Flash became the platform for presenting video, in place of HTML and JavaScript.

The compatibility and standards-compliance issues between browsers was bridged by the Flash Player plugin, which served as an alternative mechanism for presenting content. Because the Flash Player plugins for each platform and browser came from Macromedia (and later Adobe), there were far fewer problems with interoperability, making Flash development easier for coders (and particularly designers) compared to using W3C web standards, which had seen little forward progress in the years since Microsoft had virtually ended competition in the browser market around 2000.

In late 2007, Apple removed support for Flash in QuickTime 7.3 because in most cases, it made more sense to play Flash content via Adobe's own more modern player version installed as a browser plugin. Few developers were still using Flash as a layer within QuickTime movies, and Apple found the incorporation of Flash within QuickTime to be difficult to keep pace with Adobe's latest developments in its own platform. There were also lots of security issues involved, and Flash simply complicated the architecture of QuickTime while offering little benefit.

That didn't stop the tech media from presenting the removal of Flash from QuickTime to be a conspiracy plot against Adobe. However, while Apple wasn't enthused about Macromedia and then Adobe's stewardship of Flash on the Mac, it wasn't immediately looking to remove Flash from the web or even its mobile devices.

Apple's changing stance on Flash

When the iPhone debuted, it was depicted without any support for web plugins. Asked whether it would support Flash or Java, Jobs gave a "maybe" for Flash but said no for Java. Apple was clearly investigating the possibility of Flash playing on the iPhone. The problem, Apple noted at the time, was that "Flash Lite," Adobe's strategy for getting its software on mobile devices, wouldn't deliver what customers expected of Flash. On the other hand, the full version of Flash wasn't at all optimized to work on mobile devices and was not yet available for the ARM processor used in most mobile devices.

The ball was in Adobe's court. Apple needed a way to deliver interactivity on mobile devices, but Adobe refused to serve that need, just as it had refused to serve Apple's need for a lower cost version of PostScript to enable it to create entry-level Macs twenty years earlier. And so Apple began to seek a market-based solution to Adobe's ineptitude: it began to investigate alternatives.

Apple had been working with the W3C and WHATWG for years on what would become HTML5, primarily a mechanism for adding rich interactivity to web pages by simply upgrading what HTML, JavaScript and CSS can do within the browser. One of the key features of HTML5 is direct multimedia playback, a feature that erases the main reason why consumers would want Flash on a mobile device. HTML5 presents a standard way to embed audio and video, just as previous versions of HTML presented a standard mechanism to present embedded graphics.

HTML history


On page 3 of 3: Flash fails to take over mobile web.