In the “old days” of the Internet (before 1996), Websites had to refresh each page if changes were made. This meant graphics and animation on different sites were very difficult to develop and ran poorly due to limited connectivity. Using the Web was like looking at a slide show: Just one page flipping after another.
Then, Macromedia developed and introduced Flash in 1996. Adobe Systems subsequently acquired Macromedia in 2005. Using Flash, developers could easily integrate animation, motion and video on a Website. These elements became “live” and interactive. There was a rush to add Flash to sites, and hundreds of thousands of developers learned how to integrate Flash into their clients’ Websites. Millions of sites quickly came alive using Flash. It was amazing that one technology-Flash-had such a profound effect on the entire Internet.
However, as smartphones came to market, Web developers were faced with the challenge of how to present large Web pages on devices that had small screens. Developers also had to deal with much slower, mostly wireless connections. Flash greatly improved the user experience for the Web but made the user experience often much worse when accessed by mobile devices.
Apple determined early on with the iPhone that Web access using Flash in Safari on iOS devices wouldn’t give users a great experience. Yes, it would work, but it would hamper performance and battery life. Apple decided to declare Flash “off limits” for mobile devices including the iPhone, iPad and iPod touch.
A war broke out between Apple and Adobe. When someone used an iPad and went to one of the millions of Flash-enabled Websites, a message came up on the screen saying that the Flash Player plug-in was needed and halted further interaction. Note that Apple never complained about Flash being used with Mac desktops or portables. Rather, it was all about mobile, and Apple clearly put a line in the sand, saying that Flash would not pass the line and be acceptable on iOS devices.
In 2010, as an industry analyst, I called for Adobe, the Web development community and Apple to hold a Flash Summit so that a viable solution could be reached to settle the ongoing war between these two respected players in Internet technology. If there were errors that made Flash undesirable for mobile devices, then I called for Adobe to put their best engineers on the case to solve the problem.
I also suggested that Apple simply put a tax on the user: If you wanted to use Flash-enabled Websites on an iOS device, you’d pay Apple a fee in order to do that. While the Flash Summit didn’t happen, a number of Web developers and standards organizations decided to include many of the features in Flash in the next generation of HTML-Version 5.0.
Developers could build mobile-optimized Websites using HTML5 that would give users an experience very similar to what they had using Flash on Websites designed for desktops and notebooks. Apple was pleased that HTML5 would operate efficiently on mobile devices and publicly supported it.
Just last week, Adobe relented and agreed to abandon Flash on mobile and focus on supporting HTML5.
“HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms,” said Danny Winokur, vice president and general manager of Interactive Development at Adobe.
What does this mean for mobile developers? Developers now have to consider three development environments to address desktop and mobile device access: 1). traditional Websites using Flash for desktop and laptop access, 2) mobile-optimized Websites using HTML5 for mobile-device Web access, and 3) mobile-application development that may interact with Web resources on the back end.
Some seem to feel that Adobe lost the battle with Apple over Flash. A better way to reflect on this saga is to realize that by creating Flash, Adobe allowed the Web to mature much faster than it would have without Flash. For the people who were responsible for maintaining HTML standards, Flash became the vision for the future of HTML. Adobe is now focusing its mobile developer solutions on Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) that helps developers use Flash technology and develop apps that will run across multiple mobile platforms such as iOS, Android, BlackBerry and Windows Phone.
As HTML5 came to fruition, Flash-like capabilities such as animation without screen re-write, non-refresh page alterations and interactive graphics became part of the new standard. We have first Macromedia and later Adobe to thank for stepping up and “showing us the way” to make the Web behave in ways that greatly enhanced the user experience.
Now, with HTML5, users of mobile devices who will access the Internet with their mobile-device browsers will get many of these benefits and enjoy their mobile-optimized Web experience.