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Adobe Flash and the Mobile Web

November 15, 2011

A little while ago Adobe announced that they are officially pulling out of the race to be THE platform for delivering rich content to mobile browsers.  This means that the old standby of the PC era, Flash, is being effectively abandoned when it comes to the mobile browsing experience.  Of course, in a very real sense, that decision had already been made for Adobe.  The fact is that the #1 and #2 best-selling phones in the world are still the Apple iPhone 4S and the Apple iPhone 3gs, and neither one of those phone supports in-browser Flash applications (not to mention the dominant leader of the tablet world, the iPad).  So, as a developer, if I intend for my website to be visible and useable by someone on a mobile device, I simply can’t use Flash as the delivery system for that content.

So the next question is, does this mean the death of the Adobe Flash platform completely?  Well, Adobe is trying to make sure the answer to that question is “no” by taking two pretty important steps.  First, they have released a new, free tool, that will translate animations created for Flash into HTML5.   This is huge because it allows Flash developers to work in their favorite environment, but the results of that work can still be delivered to Apple devices.  Second, Adobe has launched their FlashBuilder platform, which is an application designed to build iOS and Android apps using a Flash-like interface, and the familiar scripting language behind Flash, ActionScript.

This is a very savvy move by Adobe.  Not only does it extend the life of Flash technology in general, but it also opens up a new market to developers like me, who prefer to program on a PC (as opposed to a Mac).  Also, and let’s be honest here, Objective-C, the primary object-oriented programming language for the iOS, is pretty clunky.  Now, with FlashBuilder, I can do just about everything the Mac-based programming environment would allow me to do, at least within the realm of mobile devices, without having to use Objective-C.

Now, that’s not to say that the Flash environment, and now, it’s bigger brother, FlashBuilder, don’t have their problems, too.  Ultimately, I think that Apple made the right move by restricting Flash from their devices.  The argument Apple has always made is that Flash isn’t stable enough to use in an environment with such limited resources as a phone or tablet, and that Flash security is sub-par.  I agree completely with both of those points (especially the security one – I once had my World of Warcraft account hacked and stolen because of faulty security programming in Flash).

However, I also think that Flash still has a place in the world of the modern web.  For example, HTML 5 has a very nice new tag that allows me to display and control video files within a website.  The tag, very appropriately called <video />, can be set up to use multiple file types, and will play the first one in the list that the browser is capable of interpreting.  It even has a section for displaying alternate HTML if the <video /> tag isn’t supported by the user’s browser.  That’s all very clean and cool.  But, it’s not very customizable.  What if my client doesn’t like the way the HTML 5 video controls are displayed?  What if I need some special functionality, like an overlay that will pop-up over part of the video playback at a certain frame?  If all I have to work with is HTML 5, I’m either out of luck, or I need to do some pretty sophisticated Javascript acrobatics to accomplish my goal, but with a Flash movie player, all of those tasks become simple.  In this scenario, even if my user’s browser supports the nifty new <video /> tag, I’m likely to try to get them to display a Flash movie first, and then fall back to HTML 5 if that’s my only option (i.e., on Apple devices).

Also, the last I read, the Flash platform achieved better than 99% market penetration for desktop and laptop computers that are web-enabled.  That’s just staggering, and frankly, there are plenty of applications I can think of that can make good use of Flash simply because the intended audience isn’t using the application on a phone.

Here at SNQ, what all of this comes down to is that nothing has really changed.  We’ll continue to evaluate the available technologies with each new project we face, and just like before, if that project will have a mobile audience, Flash won’t be our first choice, but that doesn’t mean that it’s time to throw away all of the knowledge and expertise we’ve worked so hard to gain, either.  We take pride in never letting the technology drive the direction we want to go with a project – rather, we look at the goals and decide on the best technologies to serve the need.  With that perspective in mind, I’m sure I’ll be running Google searches on some obscure ActionScript command again before too long.

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