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When Flash appeared near the end of the last millennium it promised a bright new world of rich multimedia content creation and delivery via what would otherwise be drab old web pages. At a time when Geocities was the best the Web had to offer, Flash was a tempting — and not to mention dazzling — new kid on the block.
Over the years, as web technologies evolved and matured, Flash proved to be problematic; for those who make websites (and care about accessibility and web standards in a way ordinary people just don’t) it has gradually aged into an unwieldy, outmoded platform.
Even for those enjoying the most remarkable fruits of early Flash labor — for instance, YouTube relied on the technology heavily in its formative years — Flash was simultaneously the bringer of video entertainment and the most common reason for all browser (and a great many System) crashes. Also — did I mention the security vulnerabilities?
I hoped (foolishly, it seems) that it was only the big movie studios who, paranoid we’re all stealing their stuff, were still insisting on Flash-based content delivery, but according to Erick Schonfeld over on TechCrunch, there’s a whopping two million Flash developers out there, and they’re simply dying to bring their Flash-authored wares to the last platform on Earth that has, so far, remained blissfully Flash free — your iPhone.
The iPhone has always been marketed as a breakthrough Internet device, in spite of two limitations considered by some people to be significant — the iPhone’s browser, Mobile Safari, has never supported Java or Flash.
While the absence of Java is no big deal (honestly, is there anything more horrid than Java web plugins?) the lack of Flash support on the iPhone was considered debilitating enough that, in the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority upheld viewer complaints and banned one of Apple’s iPhone commercials for ‘misleading’ customers with the line “All the parts of the Internet are on the iPhone.” It sounds rather like an over-reaction, but consider that in his 2008 WWDC keynote, Steve Jobs proudly announced, “Mobile browsing has gone from nothing to 98 percent with iPhone.” With so much mobile browsing going on, it seems any limitations matter profoundly. So, after almost three years browsing the web on our iPhones, how has the lack of Flash truly affected us?
Here’s the answer to that in three succinct syllables; not at all.
Seriously, has it so greatly inconvenienced anyone that they were driven away from the iPhone forever? (That rhetorical question will be read by our resident comment trolls as an open invitation to loudly proclaim their Android-based phones ‘superior’ because they do support Flash.)
Schonfeld offers an ominous prediction for 2010.
Adobe is going to bring its 2 million Flash developers to the iPhone, with or without Apple’s blessing. As it announced in October, the next version of its Flash developer tools, Creative Suite 5 […] will automatically convert any Flash app into an iPhone app. So while Flash apps won’t run on the iPhone, any Flash app can easily be converted into an iPhone app. This is a bigger deal than many people appreciate.
While Schonfeld thinks Apple’s lack of Flash support represents a “gaping hole in iPhone’s arsenal” I rather think the opposite is true. For all the iPhone’s inimitable prowess as a mobile computer, it’s not supposed to replace a laptop or desktop-class machine. What the iPhone brought to mobile phones (both in terms of functions and ease-of-use) was revolutionary in ways we readily take for granted today. But just think again of that figure; 98 percent browsing? That had never happened on mobile phones before, and it happened despite the lack of Flash.
But while I (perhaps incorrectly) assumed the lack of Flash was a usability consideration on Apple’s part, Schonfeld thinks the decision was motivated by a less obvious, and far more cunning, desire.
[Apple] wanted a chance to become ingrained with developers. Apple had to hold off Flash not so to control the video experience on the iPhone, but because it needed to establish its own Apple-controlled iPhone SDK. The last thing it needed was a competing developer platform getting in the way.
But Adobe Creative Suite 5 will provide precisely the magic button developers need to port their Flash apps to the iPhone.
…those 2 million developers will be able to keep working with Adobe tools and simply turn them into iPhone apps automatically. …if you thought there were a lot of iPhone apps now, just wait until the Flash floodgates are open.
This, frankly, scares me. I’ve rarely seen a flash site that I enjoyed. Even those which I thought impressive at first-blush rapidly became cumbersome and slow. And don’t get me started on the platform’s propensity for random crashing. If developers are granted the freedom to assault the stable, clean and comfortable world of my iPhone with gaudy, pointlessly-animated applications with inconsistent, ill-conceived UI’s, I can only hope there’s a quick and easy way to identify them in the App Store so I can avoid buying them altogether!
Schonfeld thinks CS5 will result in an avalanche of Flash-authored iPhone apps; I hope he’s wrong. Even on the desktop, Flash is something I prefer to avoid when I can. (I use three browsers — all of them employ a flash blocker — and as a result I feel my experience of the web improved markedly.) I honestly thought that, as 2010 gets under way, we’d all come to the same conclusion; that Flash is an antiquated technology whose security vulnerabilities and performance issues make it deeply undesirable.
If Apple can block these flash-authored apps, would it? Should it? Tell me how wrong I am, and why I’d better embrace it, in the comments below.