Slow, Unstable, Unsafe?
The iPhone’s lack of Flash has been controversial since its introduction in 2007. Asked about its absence in 2008, Jobs said that the desktop Flash program was too demanding for the smartphone, but that the Flash Lite mobile version wasn’t good enough. At the time, Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen admitted that putting Flash on the iPhone was “a hard technical challenge.” It was a legal challenge, too: Apple’s iPhone SDK agreement specifically prohibits developers from using interpreted code other than what’s already in iPhone OS—and that means no Flash.
Flash’s problems aren’t isolated to the iPhone. Mac users commonly blame Flash for browser crashes and system slowdowns. Apple won’t corroborate those accusations. But at last year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, Bertrand Serlet, did say that browser plug-ins are the number one cause of crashes in OS X. He didn’t have to add that the Adobe Flash player is one of the most commonly used plug-ins.
Flash has also been called a security threat. Last year, McAfee issued a report saying that Flash and Acrobat Reader could become preferred targets for criminal hackers, surpassing even Microsoft Office applications. If so, Adobe is at least partly to blame: The company recently apologized for a still-unpatched bug that crashes all versions of Flash and was first reported in 2008; the bug won’t be fixed until later this year.
The HTML5 Alternative
While Apple and others have been complaining about Flash, Internet developers have been working on an alternative, a new Web specification — HTML5 — that could replace Flash as a way to display video online.
HTML5 would allow browser vendors to build video playback support into their apps, instead of relying on third-party plug-ins. Such built-in support could mean more reliable video playback.
Although HTML5 is still very much in development, two of the biggest video sites on the Web are already trying it out. YouTube has a test site (www.youtube.com/html5) where you can watch clips without Flash. Your browser must support the HTML5 video tag and be able to play H.264-encoded video; Safari and Google Chrome both qualify. Meanwhile, video-sharing site Vimeo (vimeo.com) announced an HTML5-enabled version of its site, too. If you use a compatible browser, you can click on a link in a video’s window to see the HTML5 version. That link appears on roughly 65 percent of Vimeo’s videos.
HTML5 can’t replace Flash yet. One big reason: The HTML5 working group can’t force browser vendors to support a single, common video standard. (H.264? Theora? Other?) Each vendor will decide for itself. But without a single standard, Webmasters won’t know what kind of video to post on their sites. Flash doesn’t have that problem: Adobe licensed H.264 for Flash on all platforms.
Meanwhile, back at Adobe
Adobe isn’t taking these slights and threats without response.
The company includes a development tool called Packager for iPhone in Adobe Flash Professional CS5. Packager will enable developers to convert Flash content into iPad apps. (Remember that Flash is for games and other multimedia content, not just for video.) Packager includes support for the iPad’s higher screen resolution.
As for security, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch has acknowledged the problem — “We have absolutely seen an increase in the number of attacks” — but insists, “We’re working to decrease the amount of time between when we know about a problem and when we release a fix.”
The company is also fighting the Flash-bashing in the court of public opinion. John Nack is one of the company’s fiercest Flash defenders. “I find the Flash-bashing tedious and hollow,” he recently wrote on his Adobe blog (blogs.adobe.com). While admitting that “Flash is flawed,” he also thinks people need to remember that “it has moved the world forward.” (Adobe says that 75 percent of Web video streams use Flash now.)
As for the new standards and competition, Nack says that Adobe is open to change. “[Flash] is… just one possible means to an end.” While Adobe will keep investing in Flash, it will also “[build] authoring tools that produce what customers demand, and that includes HTML5-based work.”
In addition, other smart phones are adapting Flash which will further increase the pressure on Apple. Which is to say that no matter what Steve Jobs and users may think of Flash, and no matter what alternatives pop up, Adobe won’t relinquish its leading role in online multimedia without a fight.
Originally written on December 31, 2010.