File Under: HTML5, Multimedia, Software

Flash Faces Down Threats on Adobe’s Big Day

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Adobe announced details of its Creative Suite of applications Monday amid a stormy debate over its relevancy and the vitality of Flash, one of its most important products. But even though the air around it has grown chilly and the skies above have darkened with menace, Adobe went ahead and held its big parade anyway.

[See our reviews of the new Photoshop, Dreamweaver and Flash]

The fact is, even though it looks like the cards are stacked against the Flash platform, there’s very little threat that it will be supplanted by another technology any time soon.

Key to Flash’s success is the explosion of web video. More than 90 percent of web-enabled computers around the world have Flash Player installed, and all of those people can go to sites like Hulu or Comedy Central or YouTube right now and watch the full spectrum of clips, from viral candy to Hollywood hits. Microsoft’s Silverlight technology, which can also stream videos at a level of quality roughly on par with Flash, doesn’t have the same penetration (it’s closer to 30 to 40 percent Update: the post I previously linked to was outdated, and according to Microsoft’s April numbers, it’s actually closer to 60 percent), and there are far fewer sites using Silverlight as their sole video platform.

Also, the latest version of Flash Player (version 10.1, which came out earlier this year) addressed many of the performance, security and consistency issues that have been dogging Flash for the last year.

So, for now, Flash remains the de facto standard for video on the web.

While some proponents of the open web would have you believe that a viable replacement for Flash is already here in the form of HTML5 video, that’s not exactly the case. The HTML5 video tag does indeed allow you to embed videos in web pages without Flash. But native HTML5 video has several things holding it back.

Most important, the HTML5 method leaves it up to the browser to actually play the embedded video. And that’s where the biggest problem arises — what video codec should the browser use? Apple, with the iPad, iPhone and its desktop apps, is pushing the H.264 codec. But the H.264 video codec has licensing requirements and is not free in any sense of the word. Moving from the Flash plug-in to the H.264 codec is like moving backward — from Flash to a more expensive Flash.

Mozilla has already said that Firefox will not support H.264. The company is instead backing Ogg Theora.

Google’s Chrome browser does support H.264, but the company also recently acquired On2, makers of a third, competing video codec. As NewTeeVee reported Monday, Google has plans to release On2′s VP8 video codec under an open source license soon. Both Theora and VP8 are promising, but it will be years before either of these technologies reaches the same level of maturity and acceptance as H.264.

Since there’s no agreement among browser makers on a standard for open web video, it means that no matter which option you choose — HTML5 with H.264 or HTML5 with Ogg Theora — the best case scenario is that 20 to 25 percent of the web can see your video without needing a plug-in.

As long as that’s the case, Flash is going to be part of the web. Unless of course you’re surfing with an iPad, an iPhone or an iPod Touch. Apple refuses to support Flash Player on its touchscreen mobiles, blocking owners of those devices from watching most videos online.

Of course, the web is much, much bigger than the iPad. But excitement around the devices is enough to drive some heavyweight companies, including The New York Times, Vimeo and YouTube, to create iPad-friendly versions of their sites that use HTML5 technologies to serve videos and animations, so they won’t be left out. But even those sites are only serving Flash-free pages to iPad and iPhone visitors. Everyone else still gets Flash.

That’s the web-video story. The other side of the campaign against Flash turned particularly nasty last week when Apple rewrote the rules for its iPhone OS, prohibiting its developers from using Adobe’s software to write apps for its touchscreen devices.

Apple’s new rule specifically bans applications built with cross-compilers from being sold in the App Store. Flash CS5 will ship with such a cross-compiler, Adobe’s Packager for iPhone, which lets developers build apps in Adobe’s suite of tools that can be exported with the click of a button and wrapped up as Apple-native code. Depending on how strictly Apple chooses to enforce the new rule, those apps likely won’t run on iPhones and iPads once the devices get their software updates this summer and fall, respectively. (There’s also a note on Adobe’s website Monday noting the use of Packager for iPhone is “Subject to Apple’s current requirements and approval.”)

This move, Brian X. Chen pointed out on Gadget Lab, is a setback for developers who are using non-Apple tools (including Adobe’s) to make iPhone apps.

Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch even ridiculed Apple in a video published by All Things D over the weekend, in which he imagined Apple releasing a future version of its developer agreement requiring programmers to “build applications by typing with one hand and swinging a chicken above your head.”

Even if they’re locked out of the iPad, developers will still be able to use Adobe Flash to build apps for Android- and Windows-based tablets and touchscreens. Several are expected later this year, and some of them, like Google’s tablet and the HP Slate look strong enough to truly compete with the iPad.

Lastly, Adobe is smart enough to realize it can’t take Flash’s current dominance over HTML5 for granted. The company knows HTML5 is going to be a big part of the web’s future, which is why it has built tools into Creative Suite 5 for rendering Flash elements as HTML5-ready Canvas animations, as seen in this video.

We can expect to see more export tools like that coming out of Adobe. Even if the Flash platform erodes away or changes shape as the web evolves — and it certainly will, just very slowly — Adobe will be able to maintain its relevance as a maker of developer tools that let people build apps for (almost) any audience.

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Photo: Brian X. Chen/Wired.com