So. Farewell Then Flash Player Mobile…

(Apologies to E J Thribb)

Adobe’s announcement that it will be dropping Flash Player for mobile devices from its future plans has been widely interpreted as a victory for Apple, and in particular their late Chief Executive Steve Jobs. Perhaps because of his essay Thoughts on Flash, the absence of Flash technology from Apple mobile devices has seemed to be a personal decision of Jobs. In that essay Jobs made a group of points about exactly why he saw Flash as a detrimental technology, certainly for Apple mobile devices, and to some extent for Apple computers in general (“We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash.”) Competing phone and tablet makers pointed to their devices’ ability to run Flash, although not always that well. Apple’s refusal to engage with Flash on mobile led Adobe to declare that Apple mobile devices could not access the ‘full web’, particularly the video content that at that time was most frequently packaged as a Flash object.

In fact, Flash became so synonymous with web video packaging that it is easy to forget that it started life (as FutureSplash Animator back in the dark days of dial-up) as primarily a vector graphics animation package. It provided the possibility of small files containing large images and enhanced interactivity (this was before Javascript was well supported or unified). Gradually Javascript and broadband made these selling points more moot, and Flash then made the leap into bundling video codecs and providing a unified way for browsers to display video. Now, partly as a result of Apple’s stand against it, native video decoding in the browser combined with HTML 5’s <video> tag have once again made Flash less relevant. Now, it could be argued, the chief use of Flash is in rapid prototyping and dissemination of simple web games, many of which go on to spawn native titles on the bigger gaming platforms. Even that function is likely to be somewhat supplanted by HTML 5 apps in the future.

So has Flash as a whole been doomed by Apple’s tactics. It’s worth looking at that Steve Jobs essay again to find out. Among the many legitimate criticisms he levels (instability, insecurity, poor efficiency) Jobs also attacked the fact that Flash provided a path to developing mobile apps (both in the browser and compiled to native code) that was out of the control of the platform owner:

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

This becomes even worse if the third party is supplying a cross platform development tool. The third party may not adopt enhancements from one platform unless they are available on all of their supported platforms. Hence developers only have access to the lowest common denominator set of features. Again, we cannot accept an outcome where developers are blocked from using our innovations and enhancements because they are not available on our competitor’s platforms.

Flash is a cross platform development tool. It is not Adobe’s goal to help developers write the best iPhone, iPod and iPad apps. It is their goal to help developers write cross platform apps. And Adobe has been painfully slow to adopt enhancements to Apple’s platforms. For example, although Mac OS X has been shipping for almost 10 years now, Adobe just adopted it fully (Cocoa) two weeks ago when they shipped CS5. Adobe was the last major third party developer to fully adopt Mac OS X.
Our motivation is simple – we want to provide the most advanced and innovative platform to our developers, and we want them to stand directly on the shoulders of this platform and create the best apps the world has ever seen. We want to continually enhance the platform so developers can create even more amazing, powerful, fun and useful applications. Everyone wins – we sell more devices because we have the best apps, developers reach a wider and wider audience and customer base, and users are continually delighted by the best and broadest selection of apps on any platform.

In other words: Apple did not want development tools for their mobile devices to exist which were not under their control. Jobs cited this as ‘the most important reason’ that he rejected Adobe’s technology. Yet only months after that essay Apple backtracked on the restriction and permitted Flash tools to compile Adobe Flash Actionscript applications for submission to the App Store. Indeed, if you don’t own a Mac, using Flash to generate iOS apps is one of the very few alternatives available to you. In fact, Flash Builder, the tool which does the actual compiling of Actionscript programs into iOS applications, is really the open source development environment Eclipse distributed with a proprietary Adobe plugin. Potentially the concession won by Adobe could lead to entirely open source tool chains for the development of iOS apps.

So while Jobs’ tauntings over the possibility of a robust and useful Flash Player Mobile (“We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it”) have proved prescient, in fact Adobe won a crucial concession from Apple almost a year ago. That concession widened the potential role of open source tools in developing iOS apps (it’s always been possible for Android). Adobe have also announced that they intend to ‘aggressively contribute’ to HTML5, perhaps indicating that they will be extending their development tools to allow Actionscript programs to be emitted as HTML5 web apps.

What really emerges from the struggles over mobile Flash is a strong sense of the entropy of the mobile device space at the moment. Rhetoric is deployed and attitudes struck, only for the originators to back away in a matter of months. App Store policies change monthly and with them the possibility of using open source code on the devices they serve. Competitive head-butting between closed source behemoths (like Adobe and Apple) can result in the opening up of data standards (as the pressure from iOS users has resulted in more HTML5 compliant video on the web – although let’s not get into the patents around those). For open source authors and proponents, the mobile space remains a changing and challenging environment. What the skirmishes around Flash demonstrate, though, is that the struggle of closed source vendors for competitive advantage can provide opportunities for free and open source code.