Straight talk on Flash

At Cold Hard Flash, Aaron Simpson and Sean McKenzie have an excellent interview, “Flash Co-Creator Jonathan Gay Responds to Steve Jobs”… cuts through the last few months’ worth of fluff on touchscreen mouseovers, “bloated CPU hog”, “H.264 killing Flash”, and their ilk. I’m pulling out some striking quotes here, but only to whet your appetite for reading the full interview.

(By the way, if you’re not familiar with the work Aaron and friends do at Cold Hard Flash, then I’d really recommend the site… focuses not on technology capabilities, nor on technology marketing, but on how real people around the world are using technology to accomplish their personal goals, and to satisfy their audiences… a realworld tonic to phony blogospheric controversies.)

Top-level takeaway:

“In general, I think getting bogged down in discussing the details of Apple’s criticisms of Flash misses the point. The technical and performance problems are solvable and there would be real value to Apple’s customers to be able to view web sites that use Flash content.”

And what’s really driving the controversy:

“It’s disappointing to me that the media is letting Steve get away with dinging Flash on its openness while Apple advocates a much more closed model of application development. The fact that Steve wrote a letter explaining their position suggests how powerful the demand for Flash is from their partners and customers.”

He notes that Flash’s usefulness was first demonstrated on early desktop computers which were primitive and underpowered compared to today’s top pocket devices, and concludes:

“I think the iPhone should have plenty of processing power to run existing Flash content with reasonable performance. It’s always important when building media content to keep in mind the constraints of the delivery platform and I think that even without much performance work, Flash Player could deliver a good experience on the iPhone.”

Elaborating on this a bit further on:

“I don’t think there is any technical basis for Steve’s assertion that Flash is stuck in the PC world. Note that the Unix technology in the iPhone OS is a mini computer technology but it works well in the iPhone. Since Flash was developed, the two fundamental innovations in multimedia technology have been the development of sophisticated scripting engines and the availability of powerful graphics hardware acceleration. Flash has a state of the art scripting engine and Adobe is working on supporting graphics hardware. I think multimedia support in HTML5 will be less capable and lower performance than what Flash offers today. When Steve says Flash is stuck in the PC era he must mean that the Flash business model of free players, open content and affordable technology has been eclipsed by the closed, highly-profitable mobile platform of censored applications that Apple is building with the iPhone.”

How has Adobe handled it?

“With any technology, like Flash, the web or the Internet, where there are millions of people who have invested money and energy into making it part of their lives and their businesses, it’s important for there to be a good steward of that technology. The open source and standards body approach is one way for that stewardship to happen but having a good corporate steward of the technology is also a successful model. I believe that Macromedia, followed by Adobe, have done a good job of being stewards of Flash.”

Browser stability? After noting that browsers are having an increasingly hard time with ambitious HTML, he comes back to the commonsense approach of actually fixing problems rather than going all exclusionary on parts of today’s real web:

“My main thought here is that any problems that are present can easily be solved by Apple and Adobe working together to make web multimedia reliable for their customers.”

In response to “Jobs also jabbed Flash for having a bad security record. Do you think that’s warranted?”

“I don’t think so. I think Adobe has done a good job on security with Flash. Any Internet software written in C++ is going to have security challenges. It’s inherent in the complexity of the technology.”

For HTML, he itemizes many of the costs for delivering atop multiple runtimes rather than a single runtime, then concludes:

“It will be good for simpler content but the more sophisticated media content will still be Flash… it will take time to work through these issues and, in many cases, it will be significantly more expensive to develop HTML5 content than Flash content… This is an expensive multi-year process and its not really clear what benefit site owners would gain from this transition. It will cost them more money than Flash content. There will be uneven customer experiences until developers get it all figured out and the browser implementations mature.”

Further:

“My rule of thumb is that if you want to displace an incumbent technology, you need to offer a very large benefit. HTML5 will offer better integration of media if you just want to add media to a web application you are already building in HTML, but if your goal is to build media content for the Internet, I think it will be more expensive to build and a worse experience for your customers. How many sites want that?”

And finally:

“Flash is well established and has survived lots of competitors over the years. Years ago, we were afraid that DHTML, VRML, Java and other technologies would displace Flash but it’s actually hard to build a good multimedia platform and it takes a long time for developers to build skills in a new platform. In many ways, all the talents, skills and techniques in the millions of Flash developers are a more important asset than the technology in the player and tools.

Apple did innovate in opening up the North America mobile market to diverse business plans, and in “writing developers a check” through their App Store:

“On one hand, I think it’s fantastic how the App Store has created opportunity for lots of developers but ultimately, I don’t think a closed system like Apple is building can own the mobile applications market. There is simply too much diversity in the marketplace. People buy lots of non iPhone/iPad mobile devices and Apple’s resistance to Flash will probably actually accelerate opportunities for Flash developers on these other devices. Ultimately, I think Apple will be forced by competitive pressure to open up the App Store but it might take a couple of years.”

Long-term prognosis for the controlling approach?

“Personally, I think that Flash content will probably outlive iPhone and iPad apps because Flash is designed to deliver media content while the iPhone/iPad development tools are designed to build applications for a specific hardware platform that will be obsolete in 5 or 10 years.”

And:

“It’s up to consumers to embrace Apple’s model or to push back against it and decide that they want a more open model like Android provides. Ultimately, I suspect the cell phone carriers will decide that it’s OK for Apple to have a high-end niche, but that they will not give control over their customers to Apple for a really large numbers of devices. For Flash developers, this whole conflict will probably lead to a better Flash implementation on the non-Apple smart phones and more opportunities for delivering Flash content to mobile devices. Apple has momentum in the mobile application market right now, but I think they may lose their mindshare leadership position as consumers and carriers see the benefits of more open models. At the end of the day, the world benefits if there is a way to create multimedia content that is viewable on a wide variety of devices.

What’s more important: a technology platform, or what people have created atop that technology platform?

“I think Steve Jobs is willfully missing a key point with his arguments against Flash. The important reason to put Flash on the iPhone is that millions of developers have invested millions of hours building Flash content in Flash. The Flash content out there in the world is an asset of our society and the people who created it.

We’re at the end of a long hype cycle, now that the significant work of uniting desktop and mobile codebases is about to ship. Phony controversies will fade away, now that we’re at the dawn of a new design. Thanks again to Jonathan, Aaron and Sean for showing where the true priorities are.