May 20, 2010

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Flash dance
Why software support matters
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

One thing the Apple iPad doesn’t have is Flash. Note the capitalization — it has plenty of flash, pizzaz, pop, but none of the Flash software that makes so many websites work. The company is betting that enhancements in the next version of web coding language, HTML 5, will make Flash obsolete.

It’s an odd choice. For one thing, Flash’s creator, Adobe, has enjoyed a pretty cozy relationship with Apple over the years. Its line of graphics and video software, from Photoshop and Illustrator to After Effects and InDesign, is a big part of the reason that visual artists generally prefer Macs.

For another thing, a lot of current websites use Flash. I mean, a lot. Far too many, really. There’s absolutely no need to implement Flash just to have funky navigation menus or show a pointless little “LOADING…” animation, but a lot do. On the other hand, Flash video has become a staple of online content delivery; everyone from YouTube to Hulu uses Flash as a relatively compact way to deliver video inside your web browser.

There are plenty of other applications for Flash, too. OK, maybe not “plenty,” but one really important one: games. Most of the time-wasting little browser games that friends e-mail you when you should be working are written in Flash. They’re pretty easy to create, so creative folk without a ton of technical acumen can still put their work out there. They’re usually free and simple in concept when compared to console or purchased computer games, so they’re actually, you know, fun. But if you could play free Internet games on the iPad, you wouldn’t need to buy from the App Store, right?

So I’m of two minds about this. Flash is a tool like any other, and the fact that many web developers used it badly doesn’t mean it should be effectively forced out of the marketplace. But newer standards evolve all the time, and taking one piece of functionality, video, away from one product a company offers will hurt that company, but not cripple it. Adobe has said it wants to offer tools for HTML 5 creation, so it’s not shut out entirely.

Apple isn’t just being political, either — it has technical reasons for excluding Flash. It eats up battery life, it’s unstable and slow on mobile devices, it doesn’t work well with touch interfaces, yada yada. Content providers are going to have to adapt to HTML5 sooner or later, so why not now?

The iPad (along with its little siblings the iPhone and iPod Touch) relies on a video encoding/decoding standard (or “codec”) called H.264. Don’t confuse the codec with the delivery software, or “container” — that’s Flash, or Apple’s own QuickTime. A video in a Flash software player might be encoded with H.264, or it might be an old-fashioned MPEG.

With HTML 5, the container will be the browser itself, using, instead of a plugin, nothing more than a single tag in the code. Much like pictures can be displayed on a Web page with the tag <img>, videos will be shown with the tag <video>. Doesn’t that sound simple? Of course it does, and it is, but a newer, simpler implementation means older software gets pushed to the sidelines.

Adobe doesn’t want to be on the sidelines. Flash, at least for video, was probably going to die out eventually, but Apple might just hasten its demise..