Is Adobe Flash's allure dimming?
Since Apple unveiled its iPad tablet last week -- perhaps you've heard of it by now? -- there's been a lot of chatter in techie circles about a feature missing from that touch-screen device: support for Adobe Flash.
Flash has made some great things possible online: streaming video at sites ranging from Hulu to YouTube, Google Street View interactive panoramas and a variety of rich, interactive interfaces. The nearly ubiquitous deployment of Flash has also largely eliminated the need to install other multimedia browser plug-ins, such as RealNetworks' increasingly marginalized RealPlayer.
But pushy, tasteless Web developers have abused Flash to unleash a plague of distracting animated site introductions and nagging advertisements. Flash can also be a resource hog, especially outside of Windows. Flash also requires frequent security updates to fix flaws attacked by hackers -- and there are so many out-of-date releases of the Flash player in circulation that the latest version of Mozilla Firefox now warns users to update those and other obsolete plug-ins.
When Apple shipped the iPhone in 2007, it left out Flash entirely -- and has yet to include it since, even though Adobe has since signed up other smartphone developers for an upcoming, mobile-optimized version of the Flash player.
The iPad will continue that tradition -- as the audience at the iPad unveiling saw when chief executive Steve Jobs brought up the New York Times' home page on the device, complete with the blue-Lego icon Apple's Safari browser displays when it doesn't have a plug-in required by a page. (There's almost no chance that a company as detail-oriented as Apple put on such a public display of incompatibility by accident.)
But set aside the iPad -- the iPhone, the iPod touch and other Flash-less devices already make up an increasing chunk of the Web audience. At the popular Lifehacker site, for example, the number of visitors without Flash has tripled to just over 6 percent. That's not a large number, but it's big enough for smart Web developers to pay attention -- just as, tech blogger Robert Scoble noted on Saturday, they had to switch to Web standards to accommodate the small but growing number of users using the first versions of Firefox.
Does that make the Flash Player the next RealPlayer? I'm not so sure. Although a new standard for Web coding, HTML5, allows for more interactive content and makes it easier to embed audio and video, Web browsers differ in the sort of HTML5 video they can handle on their own. Firefox can play a royalty-free format called Theora, while Google's Chrome and Apple's Safari support the competing H.264 format. In other words, Flash provides a much more compatible video solution.
In a blog post last week, Adobe Photoshop product manager John Nack defended his colleagues' software on those grounds while acknowledging its issues. Comparing Flash's widespread deployment and support with the halting, fragmented nature of other attempts at standardizing Web multimedia, he borrowed Winston Churchill's line about democracy to call Flash "the worst except for all the others ever tried."
That may be the case. But one thing does seem impossible to dispute: The animated Flash site intro needs to die. Can we at least agree on that? We can argue about all of the other Flash content in the comments below.
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