Flash on iPhone OS: two extra reality checks

Unless you live in a remote and far away place you will have heard of the media impact of Apple’s decision to ban the Adobe Flash to iPhone solution and the various discussions that have ensued. I won’t bother with providing more links. I love John Gruber’s take and Louis Gerbarg’s as well.

Both J.G. and L.G. have brought up many valid points: Adobe dragged their heels on Flash for mobile for a looooong time. There have been countless detabes and blog posts.

I’ll bring two further arguments, one logical and one historical, the latter being one that I believe hasn’t been brought up yet.

Logical argument: the fallacy of Flash being cross-platform

Moreover, why should we choose to lock ourselves onto Adobe’s propietary API instead of Apple’s propietary API? Why is Adobe’s API, specs and runtime superior to any others? Many would say the main reason (the only?) is that it’s crossplatform?

Wikipedia says that cross-platform means:

“an attribute conferred to computer software or computing methods and concepts that are implemented and inter-operate on multiple computer platforms”.

Oh, okay, so multiple means Windows, Mac and Linux desktops. Hello?!? Anyone there?!? This is 2010 and the 90’s called because they want their meaning of “platform” back. Nowadays, multiple means desktop and mobile. Therefore:

  • Flash Lite is a joke. Where are the multiplicity of mobile devices supporting proper Flash 10.1 today?
  • Where is the pervasive Android support today? HTC Hero buyers are screwed, a phone bought as little as less than a year ago won’t be supported.
  • Where is the support for Windows Mobile devices? Not there until WinMo7. You mean it will be supported on a OS that it’s not even there yet?

Well, you could say that the Open Screen Project and the releasing of the FLV, SWF and the lot specs are true multiplatformness… Well, so far so good but where is the real market traction? Where are the tried-and-true implementations? Adobe has released this technology but until it gains traction it’s no more than a glorified press release. Apple can play this game too, with tech such as WebKit which is used in a zillion places including Adobe’s own Air platform. Press releases and freeing technologies are irrelevant until adopted. A good initiative which I applaud, but still not widely used.

No, Flash is not cross-platform anymore. What is the marketshare of the mobile devices capable of running Flash 10.1? Nowhere big enough for Adobe to be pulling muscle and demanding anything. It seems Adobe is using Flash devs and aficionados as cannon fodder or -as Gerbarg more aptly puts it-, “Adobe used its userbase and their livelihood as a bargaining chip”. Adobe dragged its feet for years in the mobile arena and now is paying for its mistakes.

Historical argument: Macromedia Adobe has screwed its own developers like this before

In the nineties Macromedia had a great product already. It was cross-platform (as per 90’s definition), had powerful scripting capabilities, an powerful extension architecture, a great browser plug-in runtime that was also cross-platform, video capabilities, awesome rapid development tools, stellar graphics integration, built-in debugger, great performance, etc. It was called Director and it was really cool.

Then Macromedia bought FutureSplash in 1996 which would be later renamed to Flash. It had far less capabilities that Director at the time (no real scripting at the beginning, etc.) and would remain technically inferior for sometime, having no debugging and many other features being missing for a long while. However, it had three distinct advantages. Strike one: having less features and being a newer codebase meant it could have a more lightweight runtime than the Director one. Strike two: it had support for vector graphics, which desktop CPUs at the time were just capable of displaying and animating adequately. Director came from a less CPU-intensive bitmap background, faster but consuming more space than vector definitions and looking less sleek in many cases.

One “advantage” remained. So what did Macromedia do? Take advantage of the FutureSplash technology acquisition and the Director established developer base? It could have easily added the vector drawing technology into Director (it supported many types of media already). Refactoring the code and runtime would be no trivial feat but doable. Any Director developer would have been OK with a new restriction being put into place that meant only vector-graphics resources being allowed any new Director web runtime, would have welcomed and embraced such a change.

Strike three: Macromedia realised that with the maturity and feature-complete of Director no long-winded upgrade path was in sight. Just adding vector graphics and a streamlined runtime would do for one or two Director upgrades, no more. They thoroughly screwed the existing loyal developer base royally and released a sleek new 1.0 Flash product. Then they spent years releasing upgrades that added features that had already been present in Director for some time. They created another cash cow, a cow that would ride the wave of the Web explosion of the .com era. Director out. And no, I’m not buying any of the “official” reasons for its languishing and Flash emergence. It was all about money.

I am not crying for Director’s demise -or rather, being put into life-support mode. It was a good platform and many (myself included) made good money using it. This doesn’t mean Adobe didn’t screw up many of its own developers and went in for the next cash cow.

I am not buying Flash developers and supporters taking offense and the moral high ground, the company (now Adobe) you support has done a much worse thing to its own developers. Why should Apple even care for developers of other platforms? Just because you learned a framework and are scared of it fading away doesn’t mean anything… Some of us have done this many times before and moved on…

Final word: put your code where your mouth is

Okay. Time to recap, folks. If Flash is such a great platform -it’s actually not bad but not that good either- go ahead and develop these killer apps on Android or WinMo7 whenever that comes out. With killer apps being available on competing platforms making a huge difference Apple will simply change the clause and allow you in. They’re not stupid.

Now stop crying and start coding. Myself, will try to put this out of my mind.

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