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Adobe tries keeping Flash in Web vanguard

Some want browsers to run Web applications natively, but Adobe thinks its Flash plug-in is a step ahead. Adobe touts Flash and its cousin, AIR, at this week's Max show.

There's a major movement afoot to rebuild the Web as a foundation for interactive applications. But Adobe Systems, whose Flash technology already plays that role as a nearly ubiquitous browser plug-in, believes its technology will stay a step ahead of the game.

Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch
Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Web application folks are focused on HTML5, the next version of the Hypertext Markup Language standard used to create Web pages, along with associated standards such as JavaScript for programming. On this agenda is work to let Web applications work while offline, display video without any plug-ins, show accelerated 3D graphics, and churn away at background processing tasks that don't slow down the user interface.

Adobe is fine with that but believes programmers today are better off with Flash. It adopts new technology sooner and with consistency across browsers, said Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch.

"Innovation runs rapidly inside Flash," Lynch said. "A lot of HTML5 is looking to Flash and saying can we do that in HTML. That's great. We're able to be a leading agent in terms of exploring what's possible in the Web."

Lynch will make his case more concretely this week at the Adobe Max conference in Los Angeles, where the company plan to announce Flash Player 10.1. Along with the plug-in comes a related technology for Flash applications outside the browser, version 2 of the Adobe Integrated Runtime, or AIR.

Flash gets the Max spotlight
Flash Player 10.1 comes with support for major smartphone operating systems except the highest profile, Apple's iPhone. AIR 2 gets new abilities to act like a native application that can take advantage of resources on a computer, not just on the network. Adobe plans to release beta versions of Flash Player 10.1 and AIR 2 later this year and in final form in the first half of 2010, Lynch said.

Although the continued work is essential to ensure Flash's relevance, the technology has a position of tremendous power in the browser market. Not only is it installed in almost all browsers, its automatic update abilities ensure the most recent version spreads fast.

"Flash Player 10 has reached 94 percent in less than a year," Lynch said. "That is unprecedented in terms of innovation engine."

To be clear, Adobe isn't opposed to innovation in HTML. Indeed, the company is participating in the World Wide Web Consortium's HTML5 working group, and AIR employs the open-source WebKit browser engine also used in Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, Lynch said.

"We see renewed innovation happening in HTML," Lynch said. "There hasn't been as much progress in that space in the last few years, and now there is. We think it's terrific."

But even with Web site design tools such as Dreamweaver in its portfolio, the bulk of Adobe's developer relations activities and programming tools are aimed at Flash and, increasingly, AIR. For example, Mozilla Chief Executive John Lilly said he hasn't seen much Adobe involvement in the HTML5 work.

A consistent foundation
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But there are plenty of times when consistency isn't foolish. Programming can be one of them, and Adobe believes Flash it has a selling point here compared to HTML.

"If you look at the number of browsers and implementations, historically we've seen a lot of variation," Lynch said. "That variation looks like it will continue to happen, especially as innovation increases. The more expression that gets added, the more challenging it get to keep that consistency."

Lynch didn't mention it specifically, but Microsoft's dominant Internet Explorer plays a big role in this new Web application era. Even the new version, IE 8, has slower JavaScript than the faster-moving rivals that are moving to embrace richer Web programming technology. Programmers wanting to reach a broad audience are better off counting on Flash than on the latest Web app technologies, and the unified foundation from Adobe means the application will work the same regardless of browser changes.

"We think there's a lot of opportunity to provide a consistent experience across the browser," Lynch said.

One specific example has been video. Although HTML5 specifies a coding method that lets video and audio play directly in the browser with no Flash or other plug-in, the standard under development doesn't specify which video compression engine to use. Apple likes H.264; Firefox and Opera like Ogg Theora; Google likes both; and Microsoft hasn't weighed in at all.

Flash supports three engines, including the popular H.264, and indeed helped enable video on the Web by smoothing over difficulties that came with other technologies such as Apple QuickTime and Real Networks' RealPlayer.

Flash goes mobile
Taking the spotlight at Max will be Flash Player 10.1, which is getting the ability to run on a wide variety of high-end mobile phones, including those using Google Android, Palm's new WebOS, Nokia Symbian S60, Windows Mobile, and BlackBerry's OS--most of the important operating systems except Apple's iPhone OS.

"We are working on Flash Player 10 for all the major smartphone OSes and for iPhone, but we need Apples' cooperation to integrate Flash Player with Safari on the iPhone," Lynch said. "In the market, we've seen a lot of interest. We believe it's one of the top requests for the iPhone still. I'm hopeful we'll be able to bring flash to the iPhone over time."

Flash Player 10.1 also adds support for multitouch user interfaces, which are all the rage for good reason right now because they can enable an intuitive, direct interaction with computing equipment. There have been experiments with multitouch in Firefox, but it's a complicated issue in general since there's some contention about whether the operating system, a browser, or a browser plug-in is in charge of interpreting multitouch commands.

Adobe had a project called Flash Lite for mobile phones with less horsepower, but the future Adobe's focus is on the full version of Flash Player 10.

That poses a challenge for Adobe, because Flash programmers often have assumed the have the full processing power, large screens, and abundant memory of a personal computer. Mobile phones have impressive hardware compared to lower-end phones, but they're feeble compared to PCs, and now programmers must reckon with them, too.

"My view is there is only one Web," Lynch said. Adobe is trying to help, though: Flash Player 10.1 includes a low-power mode that slows video rendering to preserve power; an it's able to use the processor and memory more efficiently in general. For example, graphics are compressed for use on devices with small screens and a more limited colors, Lynch said.

Consequently, one popular AIR application, Tweetdeck, which provides a polished interface to the Twitter service, requires 35 percent less memory, he said.

AIR 2: more desktop integration
For AIR 2, the software foundation is getting closer to reproducing the features that software running natively on a computer's operating system can take employ. Multitouch is one example, since the software has Flash Player 10.1 built in, but another is support for USB mass storage devices--things like digital cameras or external hard drives.

"You can plug in a device like a Flip video camera, and it'll recognize the devices, generate an event, and the AIR application can talk to that devices," Lynch said. "It's further integration with desktop capabilities. That's the soul of AIR."

Also coming with AIR 2 is an ability to hand off files to software installed on a computer. For example, an AIR application that acts as a front end to files stored on Amazon's S3 online storage system could invoke Excel when a person used the AIR application to double-click on the spreadsheet file name.

Adobe plans to follow with broader USB support for other devices such as Webcams, he added. "Mass storage is our foot in the door. That's our start," Lynch said.

AIR 2 also brings the ability to listen to particular network channels called sockets or ports, which means AIR applications can be used for multiplayer games that set up instant-messaging networks among players, he added.

AIR is popular among the active Twitter crowd and boasts a sizable collection of software. And it has potential to spread farther, especially as Net-centric companies in e-commerce, the media, and social networking seek an easy way to bridge across Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

Despite some advantages, though, AIR provides is an answer to questions many programmers aren't even asking. Adobe will have more convincing to do before it convinces the world AIR deserves the ubiquitous status of Flash.