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Summary:

After enduring Apple’s war against its Flash video player for nearly four years, Adobe is changing tactics and launching a system that will help make simple Flash animations and advertising visible on iOS devices. Does this mean Adobe’s longstanding resistance is over?

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Ever since Steve Jobs issued his “Thoughts on Flash” almost a year ago, there’s has been a lot written about the conflict between Adobe’s favorite runtime and Apple’s iOS platform, supported by the powerful new capabilities of HTML5.

We’ve certainly given it plenty of attention as Adobe has tried, and largely failed, to get Flash onto the iPhone, iPad and iPod.

It’s starting to look like those arguments won’t matter any more, however, since Adobe appears to be switching its strategy and launching new products that can cope with Apple’s restrictions. The first major example: Wallaby, a system the company launched Monday to convert basic Flash files — such as animations and banner ads — into code that will work on iOS.

Wallaby in action

Wallaby in action

The application is straightforward: It’s an AIR program that allows you to drag and drop a Flash file into it, at which point the system analyzes the file and outputs a sequence of HTML-friendly files that produce the same effect. By using HTML, CSS and SVG, the company says most simple Flash files can be recreated in ways that will work on Apple mobile products.

A prototype of the system was first shown off at Adobe’s MAX conference in October, but this time it’s real. As of now, it should be available to download from Adobe Labs.

I spoke to Adobe’s Tom Barclay about the launch, who said the project had a specific purpose — to make Apple’s Flash ban less painful for developers — but pointed out it was still very much experimental.

“There’s still room for improvement, but I think we’ve addressed a very specific use case for banner ads on iOS,” he told me.

He’s right to emphasize the limitations, because Wallaby certainly has them right now.

While it can port over simple animations and transitions, there’s a lot of information that it can’t handle: Notably, ActionScript instructions (which are used to program inside Flash) don’t convert, although Barclay suggested they may come into the picture further down the line. Similarly, some of Flash’s higher-end features — such as filters and blend modes — aren’t being ported through Wallaby yet. And it doesn’t convert audio and video because HTML5 has its own dedicated tags for those.

It’s also, for now, focused on Webkit browsers like Apple’s Safari and Google Chrome. In the future, if there’s demand, Adobe says it will extend the system to other browsers with different code bases, like Firefox or Opera (but not, he suggested, Internet Explorer — at least any time soon).

So is this Adobe capitulating?

It’s likely to be painted that way in much of the technology press, but that’s probably unfair. In one way, Adobe might have to take this route; after all, short of an antitrust lawsuit, it can’t force Apple to support a system it doesn’t like. But to think this is a case of Steve Jobs emerging victorious over his rivals is a dramatic — and dangerous — simplification of what’s going on.

Of course Adobe wants wider support for Flash, but it also already has a foot in the HTML camp too. That’s because Adobe is about a lot more than Flash — even in its own product lineup, it isn’t the only game in town. The company also produces HTML editing software like Dreamweaver, which can hardly ignore the advances being made in the Web’s native language.

Adobe has admitted that it didn’t realize mobile would take off so quickly, but now it is trying to get itself back on track. As Paul Gubbay, the company’s VP of engineering for design and web, told me last year: “We have to be realists about what’s happening.”

So, will Wallaby fix the enmity between Apple and Flash? Not entirely. For a start, it can’t handle complex Flash objects like games or applications. But it does solve a major and valuable problem, advertising. And it sends a clear signal that Adobe has decided it is more productive to build answers rather than just stamp its feet in protest.

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  1. Hamranhansenhansen Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Adobe’s lack of support for open standards has been shocking and sad, especially when you consider they are a member of W3C. They could have opened any part of their Flash technology during the creation of HTML5 over the past 5 plus years, same as Apple opened the canvas tag and the QuickTime file format and the WebKit browser engine. It is good to see Adobe starting to get their act together. I’ve been a Flash developer since 1997 and I’m embarrassed by what it has become.

    > antitrust

    Any antitrust action would be against Adobe, not for them, because they are the monopolist here. They are the one who is trying to extend their monopoly in Web video from the PC onto mobiles, which already have 100% open standard Web and audio video. Anyone can make a device that runs the exact same Web and audio video as an Apple device, without any involvement with Apple or anything to license from Apple, it is 100% open. The only devices that can run Flash are those that Adobe blesses with a FlashPlayer, usually 2-3 years after they commit to it. Adobe are the one who bought their only competitor in 2005 and ended competition in design tools. They are the one who has been refusing to work with vendor-neutral open standards. Part of their sales pitch for Flash is to say device makers have no choice but to use it because it has 98% market share on the PC. That is classic monopoly leveraging.

    And you don’t have to take my word for it, or Apple’s word for it. Before Adobe merged with Macromedia, Adobe complained endlessly about Flash’s lack of support for open standards and Macromedia’s monopolistic behavior. Adobe essentially had to buy Macromedia to get out from under that monopoly pressure.

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    1. Note Adobe did open source their ActionScript virtual machine, which Mozilla used for their JavaScript engine for Firefox. The latest speed boost in Firefox is a big part thanks to Adobe.

      As opening up their rendering engine, like Apple did with canvas, I don’t think it would have worked. One of the main reasons that Flash will never be completely open source, is that Adobe use pieces of license code themselves. However, the SWF format is an open format, so that if Apple wanted to create their own version of the Flash Player they could.

      Instead Adobe created the Open Screen Project. Anyone can join and then get the source code to the Flash Player and help optimize it for a specific device. Adobe wants to see Flash on every device, so they are pretty open for anyone to join. Apple could have joined and worked with Adobe to optimize Flash for iOS, but Apple wasn’t interested.

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  2. Adobe seem to be trying to do lots of things right, after screwing things up so much. A lot of interesting projects are coming out of them, and I think this is a better pursuit than getting flash on every device, where it clearly does not belong.

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  3. Laughing_Boy48 Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    As if anyone wants to watch banner ads, but it’s a good step in the right direction for advertisers reaching iOS. I wrongly thought that videos and audio would be able to be converted but I guess that isn’t going to happen any time soon.

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  4. Up until very recently Adobe had no full implementation of Flash for mobile devices. In fact, Xoom just launched without Flash being ready for it. This slowness is one of the main things that kept Flash off iOS.

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  5. “In one way, Adobe might have to take this route: after all, short of an antitrust lawsuit, it can’t force Apple to support a system it doesn’t like.”

    I’m trying to imagine an antitrust suit that would result in Adobe getting Apple to support Flash. I suspect that scenario doesn’t exist. Adobe has never had a Flash runtime that worked on a mobile device, there are plenty of other mobile devices that want to support a Flash runtime (when one exists), and there are other platforms beyond mobile devices. There is no scenario where Apple’s actions prevent Flash from thriving.

    The question I have is… Why bring it up?

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  6. Doesn’t the Flash AIR extension let you publish from Flash CS5 to iPhone?
    labs.adobe.com/technologies/packagerforiphone/

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    1. Yup and there’s now a lot of very successful iOS apps made with Flash. However, you have to go through the iTunes store, there is no way to reach users through the browser. Now web developers will be able to push Flash content to iOS users (mainly banner ads) through the browser.

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  7. reelfernandes Tuesday, March 8, 2011

    Flash is misunderstood by non tech savvy persons too often. It’s a much more robust & efficient web development platform than HTML-JS-CSS. Write once, don’t worry about browser fragmention. HTML5 doesn’t match features yet, but as it evolves in complexity so will the web apps creates with HTML & the same volume of crashes & bugs will be had. Long live Flash, Molehill is amazing.

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    1. Really? Because I’m fairly tech savvy (seeing as how I’ve been developing interactive media for 20 years and developing Flash applications for 15) and I’m pretty sure Flash is atrocious. It is the dominant meta-platform currently but it is a perfect example of lazy software development It is abusive of resources and full of idiopathic bugs.

      It works… but robust and efficient? No.

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      1. I agree 100% on all points – especially the lazy software development.

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  8. Why does this sound like a fluff piece for Adobe? It doesn’t even mention the fact that Flash consumes so much power as a reason for the ban on iDevices.

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  9. Adapt or die….It’s Steve’s world and we just code for it ;-)

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