Beginning of the End for Flash?

Posted January 27, 2010 in Code, Internet

The iPad Apple announced today is, from what I understand, an oversized iPhone—which is great, in my opinion, especially considering it's cheaper than analysts expected. But web developers have already noticed that this mega-iPhone is missing one tool: Adobe Flash.

What's Flash? Only the most ubiquitous proprietary format on the Web. It plays videos on YouTube, handles file attachments in GMail, tells interactive stories on the New York Times, energizes punch-the-monkey online ads, and….

And, it's proprietary. Adobe owns the file formats and the only tools that produce and play Flash files properly. That means YouTube, GMail, New York Times, and just about every web browser on the planet depend on Adobe to function, because Adobe has the right to dictate what happens with Flash files.

Flash isn't the only proprietary software out there. Mac OS is proprietary, as is Microsoft Windows. Internet Explorer is proprietary. Microsoft Word is proprietary. But here's the thing: they're commodities. You can replace Microsoft Word with a Google Doc; you can replace Mac OS with Linux. You can't replace Adobe Flash with anything.

That's a problem: when Adobe Flash, a thirteen-year-old piece of software, lets any website you visit take control of your computer (as in last December's security fiasco), all you can do is phone Adobe and complain. Adobe isn't liable to you, and Adobe doesn't stand to lose any market share because there is no market. Either you use Flash and benefit from its features, or you disable Flash, crippling your favourite websites.

There's a shift coming, and it's called HTML5. HTML is the standard language of the World Wide Web: every page you visit online uses HTML to tell your web browser what to show you. Most pages use HTML4, which was officially standardized in 1999, toward the end of the browser wars, incorporating the features Internet Explorer and Netscape had pioneered so that any alternative web browser could clone them (as Apple's Safari did). HTML4 is ten years old and it's missing some key features of today's World Wide Web: features YouTube, GMail and even the New York Times need.

And that's Flash's niche: it was made when competing web browser makers couldn't agree upon what features a web browser should have, and it supplies the features nobody else has.

HTML5, which isn't finished yet, is being hammered out by Google, Microsoft, Apple, Mozilla (Netscape's successor, which makes Firefox) and any number of web geeks. Their latest browsers break the Flash dependency: even without Flash, they can play videos, upload file attachments and handle interactive animations. When HTML5 is ubiquitous, browsers won't need Flash, since they'll be able to do all those advanced features of YouTube, GMail and the New York Times on their own.

And here's where the proprietary bit comes into play. Flash was created in the wild-west days of the Internet, before people realized how dangerous the Web could be. Those were dark times: evil Flash-reliant web pages could wipe out your computer and steal all your data if their authors wanted. Back then, people were innovating too quickly to worry about security.

Obviously Adobe has plugged most of the leaks, but it's hard to erase a program's origins completely. Maybe that's why a computer-compromising Flash vulnerability was uncovered last December. It left over 98 per cent of people browsing the Web in serious trouble: just by browsing to the wrong web page, they could give away passwords and personal information without realizing.

HTML5 won't be the same. It's not a piece of software: it's just a set of specifications. The web browsers have their own free market, so if one browser causes problems, its users can jump ship and use another browser.

Another browser like the ones being used on smartphones today. Smartphones don't have Flash. Google's new Nexus One smartphone might get it soon, but Apple's iPhone doesn't have it and we found out today it's likely not on the horizon.

Google and Apple phones both support the features in HTML5, though.

As iPhones, iPod Touches and the new iPads gain market share, the people who produce websites will have to consider how many of their users won't have Flash. We ought to see fewer and fewer Flash-reliant websites in the future. And who knows? Maybe ten years from now Flash will be gone altogether.

Without Flash, the Web would be a better place. Here's hoping.