Memo to Steve Jobs: Flash Isn't Going Anywhere

In the hype-filled world of tech media coverage, the last few months haven't been kind to Adobe's (Nasdaq: ADBE  ) dominant Flash technology. More than a few pundits have forecasted the technology's demise at the hands of the developing HTML5 standard, which, among other things, allows supporting web browsers to display interactive content such as videos and games without the need for a separate plug-in such as Flash. And to make matters worse, Steve Jobs not only refused to support Flash in Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) iPad, but also cited his belief in HTML5's future dominance as a big reason why.

I think that HTML5 does amount to a real threat to Adobe over the long-term. But all the same, I think anyone expecting it to do serious damage to Flash's market position over the next couple of years is in for a serious disappointment, for three reasons:

  1. HTML5 is a work in progress. HTML5 represents a complex new technology standard, and history shows that it always takes a long time to develop such standards... and then some additional time to work out all of their bugs so that users have a quality experience. The many years that it took for technologies such as Java and XML to be fully embraced by developers, in spite of their clear benefits, bears this out. While the first draft of the HTML5 standard was completed in early 2008, the standards body isn't expected to give it a full stamp of approval for web use until 2012. Until then, expect the technology to be implemented piecemeal.
  2. Licensing issues remain thorny. YouTube, with much fanfare, recently began giving users the option to view some clips in HTML5 instead of Flash. But not only does this feature have some big limitations – videos with embedded ads aren't supported, for example – and the only browsers it supports are Apple's Safari and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG  ) Chrome. Why? Because they're the only browsers to have licensed the encoding technology that YouTube's HTML5 clips are based on. If you're using Firefox, or Internet Explorer without a Chrome plug-in installed, you're out of luck. Throw in Mozilla's refusal to license the encoding technology used in YouTube's HTML5 clips for its popular Firefox browser, apparently based on principle, and this problem could take a while to resolve itself.
  3. Old browsers die hard. Even once the HTML5 standardization and licensing issues have been settled, I wouldn't expect web developers to abandon Flash overnight. There are just going to be far too many users out there running older web browsers that don't support HTML5. If you want proof, take a look at the browser market share data provided by Net Applications for the past month. Of the 61.6% of the market assigned to Internet Explorer, only about 26% came from versions of Internet Explorer 8, which was officially released a year ago, and partially supports HTML5. Another 14% came from versions of IE 7.0, which was released in 2006, and a stunning 21% came from versions of IE 6.0, which was released all the way back in 2001. Expect those last two groups of users to take their sweet old time in becoming "ready" for HTML5.

Microsoft comes around ... and so might Apple
While HTML5 continues working itself into game shape, Flash continues to clean up against its present-day competition. NewTeeVee.com reported that News Corp.'s (Nasdaq: NWS  ) Fox and Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) ESPN are both abandoning technology from start-up Move Networks, which provides an alternative means for streaming media, in favor of Flash for their web video content, and that ABC might do the same. And that not only is CBS (NYSE: CBS  ) going to support Flash for its NCAA Tournament webcasts in conjunction with the Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT  ) Silverlight technology that it's traditionally used, Microsoft itself is doing the same thing for a British video site that it just launched. If that doesn't amount to an admission of Flash's market dominance, I don't know what does.

As for Apple and its Flash-free iPad? Though I'm not one to underestimate Steve Jobs' stubbornness when it comes to the technologies he refuses to support on his hardware, I can easily see his customers forcing him to have a change-of-heart in this case.

On devices as small as the iPhone and iPod Touch, the lack of Flash support is easier to justify, since a lot of Flash content developed for regular web pages won't format properly on their 3.5" displays, and could act as a resource drain on their relatively slow processors. But iPad users are going to want their new toys to deliver a web-browsing experience that's comparable with what they get from their PCs, given the iPad's 9.7-inch display and 1 GHz processor. And when they find that a huge chunk of the online video and gaming content they want to access isn't available to them because it requires Flash, their frustration might not be something that Apple can just turn a blind eye to.

A day will come when Adobe's Flash business faces a credible challenge from the adoption of HTML5. But there's no need for Adobe investors to act as if that day is just around the corner.

Fool contributor Eric Jhonsa's umbrella held up for about five seconds during the weekend's Nor'easter. He has no position in any of the companies mentioned. Walt Disney and Microsoft are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Apple, Adobe Systems, and Walt Disney are Motley Fool Stock Advisor selections. Motley Fool Options has recommended a diagonal call position on Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Fool has a disclosure policy.


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  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 3:49 PM, ClemTig wrote:

    Memo to Flash and the Author of this article...

    Steve Jobs really doesn't care. He will move Apple in the direction he feels is best. Sometimes progress is painful. Remember when he was the first to get rid of floppy drives? Then disk drives? There are countless examples of Steve moving before the 'experts' thought it was the optimal time. As we have seen in the past, the Apple market will adapt. I can't wait to get my iPad and I won't miss Flash.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 4:06 PM, TonyV125 wrote:

    It's so nice to see someone speaking intelligently about this topic. Not only will it be some time before HTML5 makes any impact on Flash, but Adobe is so far ahead in the features it provides, and shows no signs of stopping.

    Most of the people bashing Adobe Flash have only used it on Macs, where it performs poorly. It's said that Apple will not grant Adobe access to the API required for GPU hardware accelleration. If that's true, it makes sense and explains why Windows & Linux users have no complaints.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 4:06 PM, EquityBull wrote:

    One of the best articles I've seen from any MF writer. I agree 100% with every single point and hypothesis here. I've literally written and spoken to associates regarding flash with the exact same facts and arguments as above. Well done!

    The only question that remains is "when" will Jobs give in and Flash Enable the iPad and how does he spin it to save face? As an ADBE and AAPL shareholder I love the match of flash plus apple. Matter of fact I feel Apple should buy Adobe with their cash hoarde and take advantage of Adobe's technologies. The entire Creative Suite plus Omniture along with flash makes the acquisition attractive to me. That said I would be surprised if Jobs pulled the trigger on such a large and logical acquisition. Keep in mind Apple already makes apps that compete with adobe with the only one that does well being Final Cut Pro. Bring some of that apple innovation to adobe and watch out google....

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 4:08 PM, daveshouston wrote:

    One of my favorite small programs is called ClickToFlash. Here is an excerpt from their website (http://rentzsch.github.com/clicktoflash/). I would like to see Apple implement something like this.

    Ever wanted to get rid of the scourge of the web that is Adobe Flash, but still retain the ability to view Flash whenever you want? With ClickToFlash, you can! Using ClickToFlash, all of those icky Flash bits that have infected most webpages on the internets are replaced with a nice, smooth gradient and the word "Flash" set in a nice, pleasing font. When you want to view the Flash, just click on it!

    The advantages of ClickToFlash are numerous. Since Flash isn't loaded until you specifically ask for it, your CPU usage will stay at normal levels when browsing the web. This has tons of benefits: web browsing stays speedy, your Mac laptop won't get as hot, and your Mac's fan won't come on as often. In fact, we guarantee* that ClickToFlash will quintuple your battery life and that it will protect those precious parts of your body on which you rest your laptop!

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 4:44 PM, windozeluser wrote:

    Apple has a history of starting off in new directions - man times in ways that don't seem to make sense at the time. Detractors point out how Apple's approach won't/can't work, but are eventually usually proven wrong.

    Flash is a resource pig. Apple has encouraged Adobe on numerous occasions to take better advantage of native APIs available on the Mac platform for their products, and they have failed to do so.

    Even on Android, Flash is a pig. There is a video on YouTube with a demo of flash on a NexusOne. In the video, you can watch as 25% of the phone's battery life is used up in about 5 minutes accessing flash games and video content.

    I agree that it will be a while before Flash is irrelevant, but Apple has proven with the iPhone and iPod Touch that if you have enough users without Flash, content providers will work-around it with other technologies, such as MPEG-4/H.264.

    Even if Flash went away tomorrow, it really wouldn't hurt Adobe, as they don't charge for the use of Flash players and plugins, only the authoring tools.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 4:50 PM, ConstableOdo wrote:

    I see Microsoft is working on Internet Explorer 9 with HTML5 capabilities. I think Microsoft is trying to eliminate plug-ins, too. The tide could be changing against Adobe and Flash. I'm not against Flash on the desktop. I've found ways around it and ways to deal with it. My desktop is plugged in so I know it won't quit on me when I run Flash even if the processor are working overtime. Actually Flash runs pretty well on my iMac with the latest Flash beta plug-in. Yet I still prefer to run ClickToFlash to eliminate ad banners so I never have to see them.

    I'm only against the use of Flash on mobile platforms because Flash is a CPU taxer and the batteries on smartphones don't need the extra burden. Let's just say I don't mind Flash as long as there is another alternative to use on Flash-heavy websites. I think that there should be a push to HTML5 as soon as possible, that's all. And I think that Flash-heavy sites just suck up bandwidth for the sake of having a fancy looking website.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 5:23 PM, 13astion wrote:

    TonyV125: "It's said that Apple will not grant Adobe access to the API required for GPU hardware accelleration."

    But show me what mobile computing device has a dedicated GPU?

    Yeah, that's what I thought. So you can expect that Flash will run even worse on the iPad than on an iMac. Gee, thanks Adobe...

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 5:30 PM, jbelkin wrote:

    Yea, Flash is not going away tomorrow but the MOST IMPORTANT and INTERNET SAVVY users are migrating away - starting with 100 MILLION iphone/touch & ipad users. like diskettes or IE6 users, the audience is going to be there but companies are going to ask web designers to make sure the site works on iphones - Flash is NOT built for multitouch and taps, it looks for the mouse ... it's time is done.

    Flash's only real purpose was it made designer's work easier - animating objects and easierto layer - letting them win design awards for razzle dazzle but the proof is that other tahn spam email, it requires an OPT OUT on the front page.

    Of course Adobe is DESPERATE to FUD because their only real revenue source is now Flash. But it's the animated GIF of the 21century. It had its moment in the Sun and it's time to retire it.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 5:51 PM, Inept wrote:

    13astion: "But show me the mobile computing device that does have a dedicated GPU?"

    Not that it's particularly relevant to your Flash experience, but all iPhones have PowerVR GPUs, which is why they're quite adept at playing 3D games and whatnot. Most current smartphones of any manufacture have dedicated GPUs.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 6:49 PM, AaronGaz wrote:

    @jbelkin

    Are you seriously calling IPad users the most important internet users? That is a touch pompous.

    Either way, all technology gets retired eventually, why is this surprising. Right now Flash is king, I with they would just work together rather than fighting.

  • Report this Comment On March 16, 2010, at 7:56 PM, UrbanBard wrote:

    You misunderstand totally. Adobe has been lying to you.

    Mac OSX has Flash on it and Steve Jobs isn't getting rid of it on that, although he may dislike it. Flash is buggy, ram hogging proprietary software. Its versions on the Mac are always behind Windows. The major cause of Safari freezing is because of Flash. Fortunately, Snow Leopard 10.6 sand boxes plug-ins, this allows you to kill the process that Flash is running in. Sure, Steve wants to move on the HTML 5, but there is no hurry.

    So, why is there a controversy? Why are people claiming that Steve Jobs wants to destroy Flash? It is because Flash does not work on multi-touch devises like the iPod Touch, iPhone and the iPad. Why? Because Flash was designed a dozen years ago to use a mouse, where there is a roll over. There are no roll overs on a multitouch devises.

    This is no dictatorial action by Steve Jobs. Flash is ancient, buggy software which needs to be discarded. But, there is no hurry.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2010, at 7:16 AM, markm72homeruns wrote:

    To the idiot above who says Flash is most of Adobe's revenue. Uhh, Flash player makes up 0% of Adobe's revenue so go get a clue before you post. Adobe makes money off of tools for content that eventually ends up in Flash.

    Also, hmmm, so in 2 - 5 years when HTML 5 is finally a standard, do you think that Flash won't have moved ahead...really, come on. HTML 5 will make inroads with sites like YouTube where it is basically just playing video but true interactive applications on the web will not be done in HTML 5 for a LOOOONG time.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2010, at 9:43 AM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    Good article.

    To the Jobs defenders who talk about Flash being a resource hog - what makes you think that HTML5 isn't going to be the same? It's not the Flash code that makes it a resource hog on mobile devices - it's processing the stuff like movies and games from code into movies and games.

    I think HTML5 is going to have the same fate as IPv6. It's not going to fail to take off because it's a bad idea. But if give the market a simpler solution that doesn't require a massive overhaul of the entire internet, and people are going to choose what's behind door #1.

    But everyone here is missing the real point behind HTML5: It's not going to be available for testing as a release candidate for another two years and the scheduled release as a formal, accepted standard is 2022. That isn't a misprint. HTML5 is as irrelevant to this generation of the iPad and iPhone as Holodeck 3.0.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2010, at 9:48 AM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    @13astion:

    Mobile device with its own GPU? Any Windows netbook, for starters.

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2010, at 9:36 PM, K4thwright wrote:

    Here's a link to a site by a programmer who talks about the near impossibility of making flash work with a touch screen device. This information confirms the statements in the earlier posts.

    http://www.roughlydrafted.com/2010/02/20/an-adobe-flash-deve...

  • Report this Comment On March 17, 2010, at 11:03 PM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    Before you confirm that information, you might want to ask someone who owns or develops apps for HP's Touchsmart touch screen PC's. Flash works on them.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2010, at 8:05 AM, EquityBull wrote:

    Flash has a major component that it uses as an action item just like a mouse users called "HOVER". When you mouseover an item an action could be called (think mousing over a flash menu to drop it down). With a tablet you cannot HOVER because once you touch the pad it is a click in that spot.

    What would be cool is if you get get the pad to detect pressure too so you could press lightly on the pad to simulate moving a mouse and press slightly harder to initiate the click action.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2010, at 8:06 AM, EquityBull wrote:

    Flash has a major component that it uses as an action item just like a mouse users called "HOVER". When you mouseover an item an action could be called (think mousing over a flash menu to drop it down). With a tablet you cannot HOVER because once you touch the pad it is a click in that spot.

    What would be cool is if you get get the pad to detect pressure too so you could press lightly on the pad to simulate moving a mouse and press slightly harder to initiate the click action.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2010, at 10:08 AM, baldheadeddork wrote:

    Again, go to a Best Buy and run a Flash application on a HP Touchsmart, and tell me why that couldn't work on any Apple touchscreen product.

    The Flash problem is an Apple problem, period.

  • Report this Comment On March 18, 2010, at 2:27 PM, kristm wrote:

    Flash is also insecure. Giving the software access to more API's and encouraging its presence on a closed platform (like the iPad or iPhone) is just asking for virus problems, not to (re)mention its impact on battery life and processor heat.

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