After years of recriminations and conspiracy theories, a lengthy saga has finally come to an end—and I’m not talking about Lost or One Life to Live. Adobe on Wednesday announced that it would no longer develop Flash for mobile platforms.
“Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores,” wrote Danny Winokur, Adobe’s vice president and general manager of interactive development in a blog post. “We will no longer continue to develop Flash Player in the browser to work with new mobile device configurations (chipset, browser, OS version, etc.) following the upcoming release of Flash Player 11.1 for Android and BlackBerry PlayBook.”
Instead of working on Flash for mobile platforms, Winokur says that Adobe will focus on improving its HTML5 tools and letting developers write native apps for mobile platforms using the company’s AIR technology. And, of course, Adobe plans to continue developing Flash on the desktop, where it will work hand-in-hand with HTML5, the next generation of underlying technology for creating websites.
But it’s impossible not to see this as a loss for Adobe, especially when it comes alongside layoffs and a restructuring plan. With Flash’s departure from the mobile platform, it’s impossible not to ask what this means for the future of the technology as a whole.
Over in a flash
Flash and mobile platforms—iOS in particular—have had a rocky history. The lack of Flash was a criticism leveled by many of the iPhone’s early detractors, who seemed flabbergasted that anybody would buy a device that could only see “part” of the Web. Apple, for its part, said that Adobe had yet to deliver a product that was right for the iPhone as a platform; Adobe, on the other hand, was perpetually on the verge of bringing Flash to the platform—a development that never quite seemed to happen, though at whose feet the blame should be laid was a matter of some contention.
The critical voices only got louder when Apple announced the iPad in January 2010: How could Apple tout its tablet as a computer when it couldn't display Flash content? In February, Adobe’s chief technical officer said that the company was ready to bring Flash to the iPad but Apple was being uncooperative; two months later, after Apple had changed some terms of its developer program license, an Adobe exec dinged the company’s approach as “closed,” leading Apple to point out that this was the pot calling the kettle proprietary.
It’s clear, though that Apple saw the omission as a positive, especially after Steve Jobs took to Apple’s website in April 2010 to write a lengthy condemnation of Flash. Jobs noted that the technology was a closed system, vulnerable to security exploits, crash-prone, with poor performance. One has the feeling that if the late Apple CEO could have gotten away with calling Flash “ugly” and “smelly,” then he would have had no hesitation in doing so. That was more or less the final word from Apple on the subject.
Meanwhile, Adobe ran into repeated trouble whipping Flash into shape on any mobile platform, encountering performance problems that did little to convince many users that they were missing anything significant. Rival tablets powered by Android and RIM’s BlackBerry OS touted Flash as a selling point over the Flash-less iPad, but they made little headway, suggesting that perhaps consumers just didn’t care as much about Flash support as companies thought.
When it came right down to it, though, consumers voted with their pocketbooks, and the lack of Flash wasn’t enough to keep millions upon millions of customers from buying iOS devices—and being satisfied with their purchases.
Of late, Adobe has apparently realized that Flash Player isn’t exactly catching on in the mobile arena, so it’s made attempts to bolster support in other ways. For example, it built support for iOS device development into its flagship product, Creative Suite, and released an iOS-compatible solution for delivering streaming video.
And it redoubled its efforts to make Flash palatable on mobile devices. Amazon’s new Kindle Fire tablet, for example, lists the technology as a feature, but Amazon is clearly focusing on delivering its own services alongside native apps and games, so the inclusion of Flash comes across more as a checked box than an actual differentiator.
But Adobe waving the white flag on mobile Flash raises another, more important question: If Flash is never going to run on mobile platforms, is the writing on the wall for Flash on the PC as well? The mobile arena is undeniably the most rapidly growing—and innovating—area of technology at present, so why would developers—or users, for that matter—want to hitch themselves to a wagon that won’t work with all of their devices?
And despite the recent introduction of Flash Player 11 and Adobe’s promise that Flash Player 12 is already in development, Flash’s days may be numbered. Apple has already stopped including the plug-in on shipping systems; users who want it have to download it for themselves. Microsoft has decreed that the Metro version of its Internet Explorer 10 browser won’t support plugins, including Flash, either, though a second version of IE10 that runs under the traditional Windows interface will.
While Flash is likely here to stay for a while longer, none of this bodes well for the technology. And that's little surprise: Plenty of technologies have come and gone, even in the relatively short history of the Web; Flash has had a long run, but is approaching the end of the road. If one were to weigh the importance of Flash to mobile platforms against the importance of mobile platforms to Flash, the balance has shifted decidedly towards the latter: The mobile Web no longer needs Flash nearly as much as Flash needs the mobile Web.