Adobe Hopes Wallaby Can Vault Apple’s Flash Blockade


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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