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Flash: Crippled but alive...for now

Adobe gave up its ambitions to make Flash Player as important in mobile browsing as it is on PCs. Flash is still important, but it's not healthy.

Flash Player logo

Adobe Systems just crippled Flash Player, but it hasn't put the browser plug-in out of its misery.

Today, Adobe confirmed that it's extinguishing the Flash Player plug-in for mobile devices. The move came as a surprise, given how hard Adobe worked to develop and promote the software and given that a key benefit of Flash is its promise to help programmers create software that spans many different computing devices.

But in context, the cancellation wasn't a complete surprise. Flash has plenty of opponents, and the biggest one, Apple, also happens to the single most powerful player in mobile computing. By banning Flash on the browser responsible for 62 percent of mobile Web usage, Apple effectively exercised third-party veto power over Adobe's ambitions.

The news triggered a jubilant round of ding-dong-the-witch-is-dead crowing. "Good riddance to bad rubbish," concluded John Gruber, who long has agreed with former Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs' view that Flash is a relic from a bygone age.

Flash criticisms are myriad. Practical criticisms focus on its direct drawbacks--overworked processors, squandered battery power, security risks that sometimes went unpatched for too long. Another camp saw Flash--proprietary technology controlled by Adobe--as anathema to the Web standards that at least theoretically stand to benefit a much larger group. It's those very standards that Adobe now holds up as a crucial part of its future.

But to those who believe Flash can now be considered dead, I offer the following caution: it's not.

Yes, Adobe just wrote off an important new part of the computing industry. Smartphones and tablets, led by Apple's iPhone and iPad, are attracting tremendous developer interest. They're developing at a breakneck pace and shipping by the millions. It can't have been easy for Adobe to give up its hope that mobile browsers could see the millions of Web pages that use Flash.

But let's be brutally realistic here. According to Net Applications' October statistics, 94.2 percent of browser usage was by personal computers compared to 5.5 percent for smartphones and tablets. Mobile is important, but there's plenty of life in the stodgy old PC market still.

And Flash Player is installed incredibly widely among those desktop and laptop browsers--more widely than is Internet Explorer 9 and all versions of Firefox, Safari, Opera, and Chrome. If you're a developer today, writing an online game, you could do worse than base it on Flash Player.

Adobe is pushing CSS Shaders technology as a Web standard to advance what's possible with Web sites and Web apps, and it's got Apple's cooperation.
Adobe is pushing CSS Shaders technology as a Web standard to advance what's possible with Web sites and Web apps, and it's got Apple's cooperation. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

And for all derision heaped upon Flash Player as being yesterday's technology, it offers a certain amount of stability and compatibility that's woefully absent in many of today's Web standards. New abilities with HTML and CSS crop up frequently, but often developers must know when they're safe to use or when they must be called upon only with -moz, -o, -webkit, or -ms prefixes to ensure they're exposed only to compatible browsers.

Firefox support for 3D CSS animations for special effects? Not there yet. Internet Explorer and WebGL's 3D graphics? No signs so far that Microsoft is warming to it. Hardware-accelerated Canvas for 2D graphics? Hit or miss.

The future is clear. These technologies are maturing and are destined for greatness. Everyone from Apple to Zynga is working hard on them.

But Flash is here today, useful, and many programmers know how to use it. It offers assorted copy protection controls for video. It runs a vast archive of online games that likely will never be updated again. Flash 11 brings hardware-accelerated 3D that's good for games--good enough that programmers who use Unity's game engine can target many of their games to Flash, for example. When my mom sends my son a Jacquie Lawson electronic greeting card, he'll need Flash to see it. Gmail uses Flash when it's time to upload multiple files as attachments at once.

In other words, there are significant disincentives for computer users to uninstall Flash and for developers to completely abandon it.

In that regard, it's like Windows in a way. Sure, iOS has emerged as programmers' new darling, for good reason, but Windows isn't going away anytime soon. Even if Microsoft ceased development on it today, it would remain an important part of computing for years by virtue of its tremendous installed base. Its inertia is tremendous.

And there's at least some future for Flash described by Danny Winokur, Adobe's general manager of interactive development, mentioned in his blog post announcing Flash's more limited future and Adobe's commensurate new attention to Web technologies.

"We are already working on Flash Player 12 and a new round of exciting features which we expect to again advance what is possible for delivering high-definition entertainment experiences," he said. Adobe continues to put games and premium video at the center of Flash's mission.

The problem is that Flash is now marginalized. Even as Adobe says Flash has a future, it's also offering consolation to Flash programmers that the company is working to transfer Flash abilities to Web standards so that they can transfer their work the same direction.

"We will continue to leverage our experience with Flash to accelerate our work with the W3C and WebKit to bring similar capabilities to HTML5 as quickly as possible," Winokur said. "And we will design new features in Flash for a smooth transition to HTML5 as the standards evolve so developers can confidently invest knowing their skills will continue to be leveraged."

It's telling that migration off Flash is part of Adobe's sales pitch today.

Flash has a future, but it's based more on inertia than excitement. That bodes ill for Flash in the long term.