And why would Apple ever ease up? The more the web relies on open technologies, the more iPad buyers will be able to do with their shiny new devices, and the more satisfied they will be.
In the two months since the iPad was announced, Apple has been waging a campaign urging web developers to stop using Adobe Flash Player and to use HTML5 for video playback instead. But while the most forward-looking developers are rushing to optimize their websites for Flash-less mobiles and tablets, many are wary of embracing open video whole hog. There’s no agreed-upon video format for HTML5, and the support varies greatly from browser to browser.
Some are going the route of falling back on Flash for any users not browsing with Safari. But that path — coding multiple versions of a website for multiple browsers — is precisely what developers have been trying to avoid for the last decade. It also opens up a can of patentlicense worms.
It’s also important to note that HTML5 isn’t just for video playback. It’s a substantial redesign of the way web pages are assembled (with an emphasis on semantic markup), and it includes various APIs for building full-blown web applications.
Not to be overly critical of Apple — anyone pushing for open web standards deserves kudos — but the company seems more deeply concerned with digging Flash’s grave than it does with promoting semantic markup. The page on Apple’s website mentions HTML5 ten times, and nine of those mentions refer explicitly to video playback.
Apple has posted some technical guides at the bottom of the page to help “ensure that your website looks and works great on the iPad.” It also has a form you can fill out to submit your site for its gallery of iPad-ready sites.
He waited a few days to make his point, but Adobe’s head software honcho has thrown a bucket of water onto the “Death of Flash” fire.
In a blog post Tuesday, Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch responded to Apple’s recent criticisms of the Flash platform and warned that a switch to HTML5 would throw users and content creators “back to the dark ages of video on the web.” Lynch went on to cite many of the same shortcomings of HTML5 video that we outlined in our post on the topic Monday.
First, here’s Lynch on Apple’s failure to support Flash on the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad:
We are ready to enable Flash in the browser on these devices if and when Apple chooses to allow that for its users, but to date we have not had the required cooperation from Apple to make this happen.
Engaging with ideas and information also means ensuring there is an open ecosystem and freedom to view and interact with the content and applications a user chooses. This model of open access has proven to be more effective in the long term than a walled approach, where a manufacturer tries to determine what users are able to see or approves and disapproves individual content and applications. We strongly believe the web should remain an open environment with consistent access to content and applications regardless of your viewing device.
These strong words are no no doubt directed at Apple, which is actively keeping Flash off of its newest devices.
As reported by Wired’s Epicenter blog, Steve Jobs laid into Adobe at an Apple employee meeting last week, calling the company “lazy” and deriding its Flash Player as buggy, saying Apple is refusing to support it in Mobile Safari for stability reasons.
To defend against that particular statement, Lynch also pointed out that Adobe has been busy enhancing Flash Player 10.1 (which will be released within a few months) to work better on Android, BlackBerry, Nokia and Palm devices — and not just phones, but tablets, netbooks and other so-called “transitional devices” where Flash has historically had a negative effect on performance.
In other words, Lynch says Adobe is working on making Flash perform better on everyone else’s tablets and phones, just not Apple’s.
And here’s Lynch on the notion that HTML5 will threaten Flash’s dominance:
Some point to HTML as eventually supplanting the need for Flash, particularly with the more-recent developments coming in HTML with version 5. I don’t see this as one replacing the other, certainly not today nor even in the foreseeable future. Adobe supports HTML and its evolution, and we look forward to adding more capabilities to our software around HTML as it evolves. If HTML could reliably do everything Flash does, that would certainly save us a lot of effort, but that does not appear to be coming to pass.
He pointed to inconsistencies in browsers as the main hindrance on HTML5′s video capability, adding that, “users and content creators would be thrown back to the dark ages of video on the web with incompatibility issues.” For this reason and a few other ones cited by Lynch, Flash will be sticking around — at the very least, as a stopgap solution — for years to come.
What is left largely unsaid is the future of Flash as a development environment.
Flash Professional and Adobe Creative Suite are some of the most well-loved and powerful tools for creating rich apps on the web, especially when building apps to run on multiple devices.
Right now, a lot of people are building that stuff in Flash. In the future, they will likely be using the same software to do it in HTML5.
Lynch touched on it a little bit here:
We support whatever technologies and formats that best enable our customers to accomplish these goals, and work to drive technology forward where there are gaps that we can fill.
The arrival of the Apple iPad is still months away, and already the tech pundits are declaring the demise of Flash.
The view is based largely on the fact that the iPad, like the iPhone, will likely not support Adobe’s plug-in, but it’s also a result of the enthusiasm surrounding the current momentum of HTML5. The emerging web standard, which is quickly being adopted by browser manufacturers and developers, offers native video playback and animation tools that don’t require Adobe’s Flash plug-in. Google recently added its significant weight to the HTML5 camp when it announced HTML5 video support for YouTube. That Apple appears to have again shunned Flash is simply more fuel for the anti-Flash fire.
At this point, however, the demise of Flash is anything but assured. Even if it does eventually fade away, Flash will still be with us for quite some time because there’s currently nothing to replace it with.
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 –that’s not exactly the case. The HTML5 video tag does indeed allow you to embed videos in web pages without Flash, but it’s up to the browser to actually play that video. And that’s where the 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.
The iPad then, even if it does hasten Flash’s demise, isn’t helping to bring about an open web, it’s just moving from one controlling body (Adobe) to another (MPEG LA, which controls the H.264 codec and is not, for the record, affiliated in any way with the MPEG standards organization). The iPad delivers Apple’s vision of the web, which currently happens to not include Flash. But the iPad isn’t some giant leap for the open web, no matter what Steve Jobs would have you believe.
Mozilla has already said that Firefox will not support H.264. Google’s Chrome browser does support H.264, but the company also recently moved to acquire On2, makers of another, competing video codec which means, if nothing else, Google isn’t completely satisfied with H.264 either.
Ogg Theora, which Mozilla has elected to support, is an alternative set of video codecs which might overcome some of the problems with H.264. But while Ogg is open source and free, there is some possibility that elements of it may be encumbered by patents. Apple has long cited these so-called “submarine patent” concerns among its reasons for not supporting Ogg. Critics dismiss these fears as misplaced. However, part of the reason Google acquired On2 may be to obtain these potential patents, and what Google does with them when the sale is completed — keep them or release them under an open source license — will have a significant impact on Ogg’s future.
So there’s no agreement on an open web video codec yet. This means no matter which option you chose — HTML5 with H.264 or HTML5 with Ogg Theora — the best case scenario is that 20 to 25 percent of the web sees your video without needing a plug-in.
Obviously that’s not ideal.
Adobe likes to say that if you use Flash, around 99 percent of the web will see your video. But throw in the iPhone, the iPad and other mobile devices without Flash capability and that number drops significantly. But even if Adobe’s penetration is lower than it claims, Flash still has a much deeper reach than any of the myriad other options.
So which option are developers going to chose?
Well, smart developers are going to chose all of the above. And indeed, they already have. YouTube has not abandoned Flash. The site is offering both Flash and H.264 video. We expect YouTube will add even more file formats to the mix before it’s done.
So if Flash’s dominance is slipping, then eventually it will just disappear right? Sure, just like IE 6 disappeared quickly as soon as something better showed up?
Flash isn’t going to disappear overnight, and probably won’t even fade significantly any time soon. Dion Almaer, who works at Mozilla and is editor of Ajaxian.com, put it best when he wrote about this in a blog post Monday:
HTML5 is slowly going to put a dent into [Flash] if we ever get some of the use cases just right (e.g. video), but Adobe has a good penetration and can move at the speed of a dictatorship… There is still much more work to be done. Flash and browser plug-ins have had a long history at forging new paths, and the web can come in behind them and standardize.
Flash will continue to exist because for many it will continue to be the best tool for the job. And let us not forget that while Flash has its problems — namely performance — it’s also been an incredible innovator for the web. All that Ajax and amazing desktop-like stuff we all love about today’s web? Many of the tools used create those interfaces were written specifically to catch up with Flash.
Instead of dancing prematurely on Flash’s grave, we ought to be hoping Adobe can turn it around and release something so innovative, so fast, so amazing — and so open — that even Steve Jobs has to smile.
Update 02-02-10: Adobe CTO Kevin Lynch weighed in on the debate over Flash and HTML5 video on the web in a blog post Tuesday morning. He expresses many of the same concerns about support and user experience inconsistencies across browsers, and offers comments about Flash’s ongoing future as a development environment.
Apple is getting ready to bring its iTunes Store to a web browser near you.
So says The Wall Street Journal. Citing the ever-vague, “people familiar with the matter,” the WSJclaims a browser-based iTunes Store — built from Lala.com, recently acquired by Apple — could arrive early next year.
Moving to an online, browser-based music experience would be a fundamental change for Apple, which currently requires that users install its iTunes software before purchasing music.
The key difference between the current iTunes Store model and Lala.com is that the later allows you to buy music that lives in a cloud-based library. You can then listen to your collection through a web browser, which means you can access your music from any computer with a network connection.
Of course, iPod and iPhone compatibility would still be an issue. While there are plenty of third-party music players that can sync music to your iPod, but such tools exist under the constant threat that Apple will change something and break the syncing capabilities.
There’s another potential upside to moving the iTunes store into the cloud — the iTunes application might return to being a media player and Apple can focus on improving it, rather than simply using it as a storefront.
Google’s Android mobile operating system was made available under an open source license Tuesday morning.
Android leapfrogged the release of T-Mobile’s G1 smartphone, the first commercial device powered by Android, by one day. The G1 will go on sale Wednesday at T-Mobile retail stores. Under a special arrangement, T-Mobile downtown San Francisco store will have the G1 phones for sale on Tuesday night — 11 hours earlier than the rest of the country. Watch Wired.com’s Gadget Lab for coverage of the G1 launch.
The Android code was released largely under the Apache 2.0 open source license.
According to the Android website, Tuesday’s release “offers a full stack: an operating system, middleware, and key mobile applications. It also contains a rich set of APIs that allows third-party developers to develop great applications.” Among the features accessible via those APIs are the speech recognition engine, some software development tools and virtual libraries. There’s also embedded Linux (the system was built using the Linux kernel). Not to be confused with Android’s software development kit (SDK), the toolset used to build individual applications which was released earlier this year, Tuesday’s source code release offers the operating system code — the actual software which runs the applications.
While this is a major development for open-source mobile software, don’t get too excited about abandoning your current mobile OS just yet. The Android code is available to all takers, but the process of installing it on the market’s current crop of smartphone devices is still hit-or-miss. For those of us eager to install the operating system on our own phones, the burden of adapting Android’s OS to our phones is on us. Accommodating the hardware, from the camera to the keyboard (or lack of one), is entirely up to cell phone developers and developers — with Google’s support, of course. Google is openly courting developers to suggest and contribute new features.
For those without that level of commitment, you’re going to have to wait until someone else does it for you, which can mean months or years before you get a chance to run Android reliably on your phone. That is, unless you buy T-Mobile’s G1 phone or whatever device arrives next.
The implications of an open source mobile stack are endless. Android was designed from the beginning to run on a variety of mobile devices. It opens up the software for manipulation at the creative whim of any mobile software designer. From that point of view, the version you’ll find on the G1 device is basically the bare-bones version of the operating system. However, whatever future mobile OS utopia that’s signaled by this release will take some time to arrive.
Since Google’s code is being released under an Apache open source license, we can expect to see multiple branches of the bare-bones version. For example, branches will most likely pop up for each of the major cellphone providers. Similarly, Android’s openness grants Google an interesting competitive advantage against other mobile OS providers like Nokia, RIM and Apple. If history is any indicator, mobile software companies have found it difficult to match the speed at which the open source community develops and updates its software. If the developer army behind the open source community embraces Android’s code (and the mobile industry watches in wonder to see if it will), we’re likely to see new advancements within Android appear quickly, adding pressure to competitors to play catch-up. Nokia has already latched on to Google’s strategy by snatching up the Symbian operating system, which runs on most of its phones, and intending to release it under an open source license as well. By contrast, Apple and RIM, which makes the BlackBerry, argue the control they maintain over their software offers greater stability.