Strong opinions, weakly held

The future of Flash as a platform

WebMonkey’s Scott Gilbertson posts on the future of Flash:

As browser support for HTML5 grows and the video codec situation improves, the new lingua franca of the web will become more evenly distributed and we’ll stop using Flash to display videos, animations and fancy text. The lure of the iPad’s audience will force developers to push HTML5 designs to mobile visitors instead of Flash. But as long as people keep finding new ways to use Flash that HTML5 doesn’t cover, then Flash will likely continue to be part of the web for some time.

I think that gets close to the crux of it. The other day, Facebook developer Joe Hewitt complained that innovation in the Web client withered as Web developers bullied browser makers into giving up the browser wars and focusing on implementing standards written by the W3C, and that Flash as we know it today was the result. The power of Flash was that it works the same in all supported browsers, and that Adobe was providing new features that browser makers weren’t.

The crisis Flash now faces is that Apple has made it clear that Flash will no longer be ubiquitous, as it won’t exist on the iPhone platform, thus turning “runs everywhere” into “runs almost everywhere.” As Web developers know, “runs almost everywhere” is a recipe for doing everything at least twice.

So if I were making a prediction, it would be that Flash will become more a specialty tool for creating certain kinds of applications, and less a tool for delivering content of all kinds on the Web. Now that Flash doesn’t run everywhere, using Flash to skirt around cross-browser Web development and add a bit of extra sizzle to Web sites just doesn’t make as much sense.


  1. Crisis? The iPhone share of the web is a rounding error. I don’t think Flash is going away soon. HTML5 is still not even close to competitive to Flash with the possible exception of video delivery.


  2. Agreed, with a caveat. Flash didn’t “run everywhere”, it only ran “everywhere that mattered”. Flash developers didn’t give a damn that their app ran poorly on Macs and not at all on Linux OR mobile phones (for the most part). If you cared about those categories you did special coding or profiling to target them (“Flash Lite, more like Flash Shite … amirite?”)

    While BL and compatriots can keep pretending there is no crisis, the fact is that the iPhone share of the web is gigantic and it matters. Adobe Flash has 0% of that share. It looks like they might need to sue their way into the iPhone, that is how much it matters.

    Flash is wounded and will go the way of other former ubiquitous cross-platform technologies, the land of small niche and big money.

    Case in point, client Java, which doesn’t work on iPhones either. Few if any care, because money in Java is now really in server areas. Flash will face the same fate in a few years and even BL won’t care.

  3. “the fact is that the iPhone share of the web is gigantic and it matters” should have read “the fact is that the iPhone share of the web is gigantic because it matters” … sigh, need more coffee.

  4. Flash will become more a specialty tool for creating certain kinds of applications, and less a tool for delivering content of all kinds on the Web

    I kinda thought that’s what it was already.

  5. The iPhone OS share of the web may be small, but it’s a sign of things to come.

    Video delivery has been Flash’s killer application. When I started doing web development professionally about five years ago, Flash was being regarded as a bad choice of technology. At that time Flash wasn’t really ubiquitous (at least not among our customers). Then youtube and flash video became mainstream, and it all changed.

    Face it: all that other stuff (banner ads, flash sites) don’t really get people to install Flash. Video does. If video delivery without flash becomes a viable option the future looks kind of grim for the Flash platform.

  6. I’ve been working on a project for several months that uses a Flash (Flex) front end and Ruby back end as an alternative to a Java implementation. Flash is great at building attractive and functional user interfaces that run in the browser. I think the Flash platform has more of a future in the RIA realm, and the ads / toys / here-look-at-a-video stuff is going to fall to the browser itself.

  7. Flash is a great technology, but only if it’s used appropriately. Video in Flash is basically one giant hack that should never have happened. Flash is great at vector-based animation and if your web site requires that, then awesome. But if your web site is content-centric, with lots of text and pictures, then Flash is certainly not the right technology.

    I know that Adobe is just showing off what Flash can do, but why on earth would you put a text-centric blog entirely inside of Flash? And why would you require an SSL cert for it? Weird and inappropriate.

  8. I disagree that video in Flash should never have happened. Ideally browser makers would have come up with some better solution before video in Flash became popular, but I am very grateful that Adobe added video support to Flash.

  9. Flash was and is a giant hack, because there was no reliable plug-in or built-in mechanism for video formats on the web. It’s useful as long as it’s useful and there’s no alternative.

    Joe Hewitt’s statements are rather bizarre to my eye. SVG was out in 1998 and usable in 2000, but when did Internet Explorer get it? And he claims developers bullied Microsoft into doing only w3c work and not innovative work in that time? I don’t begrudge him his opinions but I think he has the history just /wrong/. Developers have been begging since 1998 for browser makers to support w3c standards, but developers never said they must do so at the expense of innovations.

    There must be a timeline of html tags and technologies along with timelines of support for those in browsers. I think the actual history would undermine Hewitt’s claims.

  10. Hewitt has his timeline messed up. The browser wars went away because Netscape surrendered and Microsoft won. Microsoft then shut down IE development because it didn’t want web apps to kill off Windows apps.

    W3C standards have little to do with it. Validation became a mainstream practice much later. Microsoft didn’t give a crap about W3C at the time.

  11. I’d just also like to toss out there that it doesn’t take a whole lot of playing about with the Canvas element on the iPhone or iPad, even relative to Safari on its various platforms, to realize that there’s a heck of a lot missing from those two devices. HTML5 will not be the cross-browser cross-platform panacea that some see it is.

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