Gone in a Flash: Adobe's long march to HTML5
Rise and fall of the Player
Analysis Surf the web and it's ubiquitous. Ask most web developers building media content what runtime stack tools set they should – or do – target. The answer is simple: Flash.
Or it has been until recently. For the better part of a decade, Adobe's media player plug-in has dominated everything from modest web animations to films and complex ads online.
Only now there is uncertainty and with an industry backing off, Flash seems marooned at its high-water mark. Apple and Microsoft and the most vocal of developers are moving to HTML5.
Is this the end for Flash, and how did we reach this point?
Flash dates from 1993, when Jonathan Gay started a company called FutureWave. Its product was SmartSketch, co-authored with Robert Tatsumi, and was billed as: "Software that would make drawing on the computer easier than drawing on paper."
SmartSketch was soon enhanced to add animation, but the problem was how to play back those animations in a web browser. Experiments with Java proved too slow, so when Netscape announced a plug-in API, the company started work on FutureSplash Animator, released in May 1996. Adobe was offered the product, but turned it down.
Two early customers were Microsoft and Disney. The Disney contact got the attention of Macromedia, which purchased FutureWave in December 1996 and renamed the product Macromedia Flash 1.0.
Flash took off fast. By February 1999, Macromedia claimed that 76.8 per cent of web users had Flash installed. In September 2000 it was claiming 96.4 per cent. But results were mixed, and this became the era of "skip the intro". Not everyone was in love with Flash, and usability advocate Jakob Nielsen famously declared it "99 per cent bad."
It turned out that Flash was not just for prettifying websites, however. In 2001 a company called WebVertising Inc built an online reservation system for the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, an early example of a full Flash application. In 2002 Macromedia's Jeremy Allaire wrote a paper called The Internet and client-side applications in which he described how Flash was becoming "a 'rich client' environment for Internet content and applications".
A common complaint back then was that the Flash authoring tool was developer-hostile. Macromedia responded by creating Flex, first released in March 2004, which let you code for Flash using just XML and ActionScript, the Flash scripting language. The original concept was that you would host Flex code on the server alongside HTML, while Flex was compiled to Flash by Flex Server and rendered by the Flash player. Macromedia also released middleware called Flex Data Services to enable Flex clients to talk to databases and Java applications on the server.
Adobe's Flex-ible friend
Flex arrived at the same time Microsoft was talking up XAML and the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF), first presented in 2003. Both companies had a similar goal: to be the platform that took over when HTML was no longer enough. Microsoft played this game from both sides, holding HTML back by making little progress with the market-dominating Internet Explorer, while investing instead in Windows-only XAML and WPF. There was real risk that the web would become a more proprietary platform.
Flash was also popular for video. Video support arrived in Flash 6 (2002) and its simplicity and reliability compared to rival approaches made it the obvious choice for web video, and a factor in the success of YouTube, founded in February 2005.
Adobe acquired Macromedia in December 2005 and gradually enmeshed Flash into its design tools. Most tools in Adobe's Creative Suite gained the ability to export to Flash. Acrobat's PDF format could embed Flash content and the cloud-based Acrobat.com featured a Flash-driven online word processor and later a spreadsheet and presentation editor.
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."
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. ®