Flash is (mostly) dead
November and December are traditionally interesting months for Adobe, as they straddle the end of Adobe's fiscal year. In December 2005 my team at Adobe was cut, and I was out of work for the first time in over fifteen years. Last week Adobe let go around 700 employees, including reportedly half of the Adobe Ottawa staff -- many of them former co-workers from my JetForm days.
The acquisition of Macromedia by Adobe occurred in December 2005, motivated by a desire to acquire Macromedia's highly web-centric DNA and products. Adobe also clearly wanted Flash and Flash Player as a complement to its own ubiquitous PDF and Acrobat/Reader. Back in 2005, there was an effort underway to integrate either PDF or Flash into just about every device and context you could imagine. Televisions, digital cameras (not kidding), e-book readers, and mobile phones.
Years later, Flash was integrated into PDF. A major "jump the shark" moment for PDF. What a spectacularly terrible thing to inflict upon the PDF format. Though, I know some people consider the earlier incorporation of XFA forms into PDF as an equally horrible stain on the format, and an over-complication compared to the earlier PDF forms capabilities. Given that XFA was my baby from 1997 until 2003, and I fought to get XFA included in PDF 1.5, I'll accept my share of the blame. But I digress.
Flash as a Platform
It was understandable why Adobe considered Flash strategic in 2005.
Companies look for opportunities to build or buy platforms. Successful platforms beget ecosystems. This translates into sales of software tools and platform licenses. PDF was already a platform, with its own ecosystem of products and services. But, PDF pre-dates the web, and still doesn't easily integrate into web pages. It is possible to place PDF content within a web-page, but not common. PDF isn't where the "cool kids" are.
Flash was an integral part of the web in 2005, and was a technology relevant to both creatives and developers within a large vibrant community. Any device connected to the web, or any device that needed interactive content, would surely need Flash.
Of course, that all went sideways when Apple created the iPhone and the iPad, and made it clear that Flash would have no place on Apple's newest platform.
The Apple and Flash Drama
In 2004 I switched from a PC to a Mac, taking advantage of the choice offered to Adobe employees, at the time, of choosing either a ThinkPad or PowerBook laptop. In that year, my love of the Mac platform began, and so did my dislike for Flash.
Countless jokes have been made by Mac users of how Flash is a great way of turning your Mac into a space-heater and giving your fans a workout. Flash on the Mac has always sucked, and Adobe pledged to improve the situation in 2010. Apple took matters into its own hands and stopped shipping Flash Player on new Mac hardware in 2010. I removed Flash from my own Mac laptop in December 2010, using the Gruber method.
The drama caused by Apple's refusal to support Flash on iOS devices is now thankfully over with Adobe's announcement to abandon Flash on mobile devices. I won't miss the snide comments from Android toting friends about how their devices support the "whole web"; attempts by marginal players in the tablet market (RIM Playbook) to differentiate on the basis of supporting Flash; nor will I miss Adobe evangelists losing their shit, blogging pithy nuggets like "Go screw yourself Apple". Even though I sided with Apple, as a former Adobe employee I was ashamed of Adobe's whiny, passive-aggressive, and sometimes disingenuous tactics. Adobe acted the underdog, and played for sympathy, while Apple kicked sand in their faces. It was so embarrassing.
Regardless of whether Apple ever did genuinely consider supporting Flash content on iOS devices before deciding that its impact on limited device resources would be too great; regardless of whether Adobe believed its own spin as the company representing "freedom" and "choice" in the face of Apple's closed system approach; ultimately this was just a battle over platform control.
In the past few days some of what we've learned about Adobe's plans for Flash include (bluntly summarized in my own words):
- Flash for mobile is dead.
- Flex, the business-focused toolkit based on Flash, is in sunset mode and will be open-sourced.
- AIR, for mobile, remains mostly targeted to game developers.
Flex was never viable for developing mobile applications, but was somewhat successful as a tool for developing internal corporate applications. Prior to establishing Angry Pumpkin and focusing on mobile, I spent a few years building Flex applications. Flex made it easy to develop and deploy rich browser-based applications within corporate IT environments where IE 6 often remained the standard browser. Even when I disliked Flash for consumer-facing websites, I recognized how valuable Flash/Flex was for building employee-facing applications. HTML5 is not (yet) a suitable replacement for the kinds of applications commonly developed with Flex.
Despite claims that AIR on mobile will benefit from Adobe's reduced investment in Flash, I don't foresee it gaining traction outside of game development. Developers hoping to build cross-platform non-game mobile apps with AIR really need a lightweight mobile variant of Flex, not a general-purpose ActionScript 3 mobile runtime environment. For non-game mobile app developers looking for an Adobe toolset, the Adobe acquisition of PhoneGap represents the future. I hope PhoneGap improves, as I haven't been very impressed with the quality of PhoneGap based apps on the iPhone.
Now that Adobe has moved beyond Flash, and embraced HTML5, the choices for mobile development are clear. Apple, Google, and Microsoft, each support app development via their own SDKs, and are all committed to strong support of HTML5 web technologies.
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