The era of Flash on mobile devices has come to an end. Rounding up on version 11.1, Adobe has pulled the plug on support for mobile Flash. This revelation comes after years of heated debate between major technology companies as to whether or not the aging platform is truly a viable platform for mobile content.
Personally, my experiences with Flash in either mobile or desktop capacities have always resulted in a love-hate relationship with the platform. On one hand, Flash has proven to be a remarkably sound platform for video and audio players, which can be easily embedded in a page. On the other, Flash is an often overused technology that turns otherwise helpful sites into confusing and buggy hassles that are rarely worth the trouble it takes to navigate. You start off on one page, and then five pages in you instinctively hit the back button on your browser only to discover that the entire site is based within a single Flash app. Before you know it, you’re starting all over again.
Don’t get me wrong: Flash has its place and purpose in the world of Web browsing. It’s still the most popular platform for gaming online. While HTML5 has certainly had some big successes in recent years, I still enjoy taking a moment out of my day from time to time and playing a Flash game. Not only that, but I have many fond memories of Flash animation. Some of the best cartoons made for the Web (in my opinion) came from the boon of Flash animation. This is one reason I’m personally a little glad that Adobe isn’t killing Flash support for desktops. The only people who will be impacted by this change are the users of future mobile devices. Vendors can still opt to build on existing Flash technology for future iterations of mobile platforms, but I’m actually hoping they don’t.
The Apple Factor
One of the most notable of the companies condemning Flash has been Apple, which made the decision not to support Flash on iOS, the popular mobile operating system powering the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch. Apple’s decision not to support Flash was explained in greater detail through an open letter posted by Steve Jobs on Apple.com:
I wanted to jot down some of our thoughts on Adobe’s Flash products so that customers and critics may better understand why we do not allow Flash on iPhones, iPods and iPads. Adobe has characterized our decision as being primarily business driven – they say we want to protect our App Store – but in reality it is based on technology issues. Adobe claims that we are a closed system, and that Flash is open, but in fact the opposite is true. Let me explain.
In this open letter, Jobs cited Flash being a closed, battery-draining, and unreliable platform that had been (for the most part) replaced before the iPhone even launched. YouTube, the largest provider of video on the Web, has been hosting alternative video formats for years. H.264 (Apple’s preferred end-user video format) has grown to a significantly large market share since the introduction of HTML5.
The Rise of HTML5
This isn’t to say that mobile Flash died because of the words and/or actions of Apple, Inc. It could be argued that iOS has become such a dominant force in the market due in part to the optimized experience made possible by avoiding subjecting its users to what really boils down to a poorly optimized and inefficient platform in order to give them access to a select few sites that rely on Flash.
For several years now, Web developers have been creating sites that allow for Flash to exist alongside other Web technologies in a way that automatically detect and switch between the alternatives depending on what the browser is capable of handling. For example, if you access YouTube using a browser that doesn’t support Flash, you’ll see WebM, H.264, and other alternatives. HTML5 has enabled Web developers to embed more non-Flash video on their sites, giving them more flexibility and compatibility with a growing mobile audience.
As of May 2011, 99% of all browsers supported Flash. Only 40% supported the newer HTML5, and 1% were actually based in iOS. By these numbers, it would make perfect sense that Flash would continue to dominate the audio and video realm. After all, 99% is a hard number to argue with, right?
With this in mind, it’s important to consider that HTML5 is a culmination of pre-existing and newer technologies. As a new standard, it’s only natural that some delay between introduction and widespread adoption take place. One area where HTML5 certainly has widespread acceptance is the world of mobile. Windows Phone 7, Android, and iOS all have at least some degree of HTML5 support. To say that living without Flash on a mobile platform is difficult is hard when over 100 million iPhone users are getting by just fine.
Even Adobe is speaking toward the future of mobile browsing being closely tied to the HTML5 standard. In a statement released on Adobe’s website by Danny Winokur, Vice President and General Manager of Interactive Development:
However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms. We are excited about this, and will continue our work with key players in the HTML community, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM, to drive HTML5 innovation they can use to advance their mobile browsers.
Bottom line: the decision made to cease support of Flash for mobile devices will likely have very little to no actual impact on your mobile browsing experience. Desktop systems will continue to have support, and most major sites today have some form of mobile version or alternative programming in place for users who don’t have native Flash support. Chances are, the only sites that pose a real problem to current mobile Flash users are either going to quickly adopt alternative technologies or become outdated and forgotten about very quickly. Flash still works in its current form, and it isn’t going to vanish from your phone any time soon.