Adobe Software has let slip that it plans to abandon its Flash Player for mobile web browsers. Instead, the company will refocus its mobile efforts on web standards like HTML5, along with tools like Adobe AIR, which allows developers to convert Flash content into native mobile applications.
The move comes as something of a surprise given how vigorously Adobe has defended mobile Flash in the past. Lately, however, Adobe has been proposing new web standards and even bought the non-Flash mobile development tool PhoneGap, both of which indicate that Adobe is looking toward a future without Flash.
Indeed, while Adobe’s plans affect only mobile Flash at the moment, the sudden about-face does not bode well for Flash on the desktop. Mobile devices are the fastest growing means of connecting to the web; what doesn’t work on mobile devices will soon not be a relevant part of the web at all.
In abandoning mobile, Adobe is effectively admitting that Flash has no future on the web.
That doesn’t mean Flash will disappear overnight. Nor does it mean that Flash will ever disappear for developers interested in using it. It just means that when it comes to deploying Flash applications, the web won’t be a realistic option. Instead, Flash developers of the future will convert their Flash code into Android, Windows Mobile or iOS apps using Adobe AIR’s conversion tools.
Web developers, on the other hand, will likely abandon Flash if they haven’t already. Without a reliable way to serve Flash content to mobile devices, its web presence will likely continue to decline. Of course the demise of Flash has been inevitable for some time — after all, much of HTML5 was specifically designed to give developers a means of replacing Flash dependencies with native tools — but Adobe’s decision to abandon mobile devices should send a clear message to any developers who haven’t yet read the writing on the wall: Mobile is the future of the web and Flash isn’t part of it.
In the short term, Adobe is merely admitting what most developers already know; there are only two ways to develop for mobile devices: using the web and HTML5 or building platform native apps.
To choose web-based Flash apps over either of these options would mean consciously limiting your app’s audience. Given that neither Apple’s iOS nor Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 supports Flash (nor for that matter will Microsoft’s Windows 8 Metro), developing web apps that relied on Mobile Flash meant targeting only Android and Blackberry users. Adobe’s decision to abandon Flash for Mobile browsers is simply a pragmatic acceptance of the existing development landscape.
Similarly, while we don’t expect it to happen overnight, eventually Adobe will probably abandon Flash Player for the desktop as well — why continue developing a product when very few are using it? The AIR platform and its Flash-based tools for building native mobile apps will still be around to sell the Flash development tools (which is, after all, how Adobe makes money). Adobe simply won’t have any great need to continue pushing Flash on the web.
While some web standards advocates might see the eventual demise of Flash Player as a good thing for the web, we’re not so sure. Web standards were created to ensure that sites and apps work no matter what browser or device you’re using. Web standards were not created for — and have not historically been very good at — driving innovation on the web.
Innovation on the web has more often come from individual vendors — browsers, device makers and, yes, Flash. Flash laid many of the so-called cowpaths that HTML5 is paving in open standards. The audio and video tags for embedding media, the canvas element for animation, and the websockets protocol for communications are just a few of the things Flash helped to popularize on the web. That’s not to suggest that a web without Flash will want for innovation, but it certainly won’t be richer for Flash’s absence when that day arrives.
Photo: Laurence Olivier as Hamlet