iPad Proves That Apple Wants to Kill Flash

For the iPhone's three generations, a common complaint among tech pundits at least is the lack of support for Adobe Flash video, the most widely used video playback technology on the Web. Apple CEO Steve Jobs intimated that the issue was Flash's poor performance -- badly written ActionScript code can, in fact, suck up resources faster than a tornado -- while many pundits (including me) suspected the reason had to be about maintaining control over video to favor Apple's paid iTunes offerings.

I'm less sure about the iTunes conspiracy theory, given Apple's recent approval of a Slingbox iPhone app and a Netflix iPad app, but I am sure about this: With the recent launch of the iPad, it's clear that Apple's goal is to do more than ignore Flash. Apple wants to kill Flash and the other RIAs. Its weapon of choice: the still-evolving HTML5 browser standard. (My colleague Neil McAllister recently wrote a great article explaining what you should know about HTML5 and its technologies such as the video tag.)

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Apple's backhanded attack on Flash video
Apple has begun promoting Websites that use some of the more baked parts of HTML5's draft standard, including the video tag for video playback. Apple Website's iPad marketing is explicit about that: "iPad features Safari, a mobile Web browser that supports the latest Web standards -- including HTML5, CSS3, and JavaScript. Here are just a few of the sites that take advantage of these Web standards to deliver content that looks and functions beautifully on iPad." It then lists a bunch of popular sites such as CNN, Reuters, and the New York Times, pointedly noting their use of the HTML5 video tag. Some examples:

  • "When you're browsing CNN.com on iPad, the site automatically displays an HTML5 video player, providing you with the best possible viewing experience."
  • "An HTML5 video player on Reuters.com lets you view most of the site's video content on iPad."
  • "The HTML5 video player on the NYTimes.com home page displays video in a format viewable on iPad."
  • "The 24/7 news site [for Time magazine] features an HTML5 video player for viewing recently published video."
  • "WhiteHouse.gov is a largely standards-based site that displays video using the HTML5 video tag."
  • "Recent video features on SI.com [Sports Illustrated's Web site] are displayed via an HTML5 player compatible with iPad."

The message is clear: Yes you can dump Flash video for the HTML5 video tag. And you should. Jobs has decided you should, and Adobe Flash video is in his crosshairs.

I'm betting Apple will win this one. Not so much because the iPad will become the driving factor in Web access, but because media sites are so desperate to find new ways to make money after discovering (surprise!) that giving away their products over the Web is killing them. They see the iPad and similar devices as a way to change the expectations that content must be free, especially now that they know that advertising won't pay for it either. Thus, they'll support the iPad's creator and driver: Apple.

Media sites' influence over Web developers, videographers, and the like will thus push HTML5 into the sites that most people visit, and that will create the expectation that the HTML5/CSS3 approach is better than using proprietary formats such as Flash. Never mind that there are still codec issues to work out with HTML5 video.

Anything "proprietary" means there's a dollar cost, while the "open standards" line Apple is usually means there's less cost -- and that will also push the eventual abandonment of Flash video.

Rich Internet apps are next to fall
Flash, Silverlight, and WebFX will continue to have a place for delivering interactive capabilities, but you can bet that Apple won't support them either. It wants developers to use the Web for lighter-weight content and capabilities and its iPhone OS for heavier-weight content and capabilities. It's in Apple's interest that you develop your functionality in Xcode for the iPhone and iPad rather than in Flash, Silverlight, or JavaFX. Not supporting these RIAs (as well as not supporting Adobe AIR) is a great way to tilt the playing field away from them -- which is precisely Apple's strategy.

It may be a bit harder for Apple to win this battle, but I think it will. Why harder? For one, Microsoft is basing its forthcoming Window Phone 7 platform with Silverlight as its main apps platform. It's tied Silverlight to .Net, to tap into the large base of .Net developers to get instant momentum. If Windows Phone 7 takes off, Silverlight might get some real traction. It's had a poor record on the desktop Web.

Here's why I don't think that will play out: .Net is used lagely for enterprise app develoment, not for Web development, and certainly not for content development. Adobe's been the major force in content-oriented development technology, and as Apple weakens Adobe's role on the mobile side, content-oriented developers are no more likely to turn to .Net and Silverlight than they are to Java and JavaFX. They'll turn to HTML5 and/or to Xcode, as well as the equivalent of Xcode for the Google Android platform.

Did I mention Google is promoting HTML5 as well? With the two mobile leaders pushing HTML5, and Apple slowly by steadily taking over the entertainment and content distribution industries -- Jobs has learned something from his affiliation with Disney.

None of this will happen overnight, but Apple has clearly declared war on Flash video and by proxy on today's RIAs.

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This article, "The iPad proves it: Apple is out to kill Flash," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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