The biggest Apple-related announcement at the 2011 National Association of Broadcasters trade show was the company’s revealing of Final Cut Pro X. But the second biggest Apple announcement at the event didn’t even come from Apple. Rather, it was Adobe’s declaration that it will add support for HTTP Live Streaming to its Flash Media Server.
HTTP Live Streaming (HLS) is an Apple-developed technology for sending live or pre-recorded video (and audio) to iOS devices and Macs alike, using a traditional Web server; the company has also submitted it for consideration as an Internet standard. Adobe’s announcement means that publishers who already create Flash video as part of their workflow (as in, the majority of online video publishers) will be able to stream that video to iPads, iPod touches, and iPhones without first needing to re-encode it. In other words, in the not too distant future, you should be able to watch a lot more Web video on your iOS device or Flash-free Mac.
About a year ago, Steve Jobs famously shared his thoughts on Flash, in which he defended Apple’s choice not to support the technology on iOS devices. Flash, Jobs wrote, was a battery drain, and a poor mobile performer to boot: “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.”
Unsurprisingly, Adobe didn't share that assessment. Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen responded to Jobs's letter, calling it “patently false” and adding that “for every one of these accusations made, there is proprietary lock-in” preventing Adobe from addressing any issues.
Adobe’s embracing of HLS, then, marks a significant shift in the landscape for both companies. Adobe, for its part, has publicly and loudly bemoaned iOS’s lack of Flash support since before it was even called iOS. By announcing support for HLS, Adobe seems to invalidate some of its own past complaints—chiefly, that Adobe needed further support from Apple to make Flash video work better on its devices.
It’s worth noting that Adobe already implements a server-side streaming technology of its own creation, HTTP Dynamic Streaming (HDS). HDS, however, works only with devices that—you guessed it—run Flash. HLS seems to have more buy-in than HDS to date: for example, Microsoft has served Silverlight-encoded video to iOS devices using HLS since 2009.
While Adobe surely benefits a bit—its customers will no doubt cheer the easier access to iOS devices—it’s clear that Apple’s the big winner here. Apple has of course remained steadfast in its refusal to support Flash on iOS, and once maintained a page on its site devoted to celebrating top-tier sites with iPad-friendly HTML5 video. The list included sites like YouTube, CNN, and ESPN, which indeed serve up iOS-friendly Flash video alternatives via HTML5.
There are still plenty of Web video providers that rely exclusively on Flash, though. Adobe's announcement means that iOS devices will soon be able to stream such videos without any updates on Apple's end, taking the wind out of some critics’ sails. And Flash-supporting tablets (heavily hampered though their performance may be) will no longer have that leg up on Apple’s device, either—if they ever truly had it in the first place.
Mac users unhappy with Flash performance stand to gain as well. Daring Fireball pundit and Macworld Senior Contributor John Gruber has long suggested that Mac users uninstall Flash for better performance, advice I myself followed until reluctantly giving up very recently. Once Websites begin implementing Flash’s HLS support, Mac surfers should also be able to consume Flash video without actually having Flash installed.
Of course, HLS isn’t a panacea. Adobe’s newfound affection for the technology should help solve any lingering Flash video woes, but it won’t change anything in regards to Flash’s other uses. That means that things like Web advertisements, introductory animations, and Flash games still won’t work on iOS devices.
Lack of Flash support hasn’t seemed to impact iOS device sales negatively, and Adobe seems to be tacitly conceding that if it wants to reach that large swath of users, it’s going to have to do so on Apple’s terms. Adobe’s implementation of HLS is certainly a welcome change, but the move seems to be less about benefiting consumers and customers, and more about realizing that the writing is on the wall for the future of the Web video.