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Gone in a Flash: Adobe's long march to HTML5

Rise and fall of the Player

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AIR on a runtime

Adobe also integrated Flash and Flex into its enterprise development platform. Adobe LiveCycle originally performed forms processing, workflow and rights management for PDF documents. The addition of Flex Data Services, renamed LiveCycle Data Services, gave Adobe an end-to-end platform for enterprise applications.

In 2005 Flash looked like a huge strategic asset. Microsoft's WPF was delayed along with Vista, HTML was still near-frozen, there was no Apple iOS or iPhone, and virtually every web browser had the Flash runtime installed.

Microsoft must have been worried, because in March 2006 it announced WPF/Everywhere, a cross-platform and browser-hosted WPF that became Silverlight. Silverlight was actually good for Flash, causing Adobe to work with new energy on improving Flash with high-definition video (December 2007), full 3D support, advanced text rendering and more.

Other significant developments were the announcement of Adobe AIR in 2007, which uses the Flash runtime to power desktop applications, and the 2008 Open Screen Project, an alliance with hardware manufacturers and content providers to use Flash as a universal runtime for video and applications across desktop, mobile, televisions and other devices.

Flash beat off Silverlight and even won over Google, which embeds Flash in its Chrome browser. Yet in November 2011 everything changed. Adobe announced it is ceasing development on Flash for mobile devices, embracing HTML 5, and cutting back on its LiveCycle platform, concerning which vice president Arun Anantharaman says: "We will continue to sell and support our LiveCycle products in the government and financial services markets... Outside of those markets, we are now planning to focus our Enterprise efforts on products targeting the digital marketer."

It is the biggest setback for Flash since its inception and long-term may prove fatal. Why?

The answer seems to be threefold. First up is Adobe's failure to get Flash into the browser on Apple iOS, for reasons explained by Steve Jobs in his famous Thoughts on Flash: "Flash is a successful business for Adobe, and we can understand why they want to push it beyond PCs. But the mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short."

Apple's intransigence hurt. Michael Mullany is chief executive of Sencha, which markets a JavaScript framework for rich applications. He told me: "We saw people flailing around for an alternative to doing Flash ads on mobile. Because Flash was banned from IOS, it meant that a whole segment of rich advertising that was based on Flash for the desktop had nowhere to go."

A second issue is that HTML has evolved more quickly than looked possible in 2005. The W3C is back on board, and all the browser vendors – including Mozilla, Microsoft and those using the WebKit project – have greatly advanced HTML's native capabilities. Flash is becoming less necessary.

Adobe is not abandoning Flash, Flex and AIR. Its plan now is to give Flex to the Apache Foundation, to continue supporting Flash on desktop browsers, and to continue developing AIR – which bypasses the iOS restriction by compiling Flash applications into native code. Flash will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Nevertheless, Adobe is now saying that HTML 5 is the best technology for enterprise applications "in the long term" and its actions have made it difficult for its partners to recommend Flash-based solutions for new projects.

Evangelists without a script

Is Adobe jumping away from Flash too soon? The sudden manner of the announcement, a surprise even to the company's product managers and technical evangelists, has caused discontent within the Flash community; there is even a petition.

That said, Flash already looked wounded, not just by iOS, but by Microsoft's decision to exclude Flash from the Metro browser in Windows 8. Just as Microsoft came to accept that Silverlight could not compete with HTML, so now Adobe has made the same decision with regards to Flash.

It will not be easy for Adobe to gradually disentangle itself from Flash and to win back the trust of its community, but it is now well-placed to target HTML 5 in a single-minded manner, rather than juggling with the demands of two platforms. The long-running overnight success story finally looks over. ®

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