Will Apple's iPad kill Flash?

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Feb. 2 2010 4:50 PM

Did Steve Jobs Just Kill Flash?

How the iPad could dictate the future of the Web.

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Will Web companies take Apple's bait and ditch Flash for HTML5? Perhaps, but they won't be happy about it. Apple's insistence on locking down its devices and dictating tech standards to the rest of the industry can't sit well with developers. Indeed, there are probably no technical reasons why Apple couldn't figure out a way to incorporate Flash into its devices—Ludwig notes that Flash runs amazingly on the iPhone at Adobe's labs, and that Apple could institute a number of checks on Flash to make sure it doesn't use too much of an iPhone's (or iPad's) processing power or battery. And if Apple succeeds in killing Flash today, what might it kill tomorrow? How about all streaming sites? After all, they compete with iTunes. Sure, that sounds absurd—but with Apple, you never really know.

Still, for all its tyrannical ways, Apple has been a great proponent of open Web standards, and sites that comply with HTML5 likely have nothing to fear. Look at how Google was able to create an amazing HTML5-powered Web version of Google Voice after Apple rejected the company's iPhone app. We're likely to see this sort of thing happen more often. As long as Apple continues to make it a pain to get software approved by its App Store, it will create greater interest in building applications for the open Web—which, in the long run, is good for everyone.

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Except for Adobe. Flash isn't dying, but it has probably peaked. Even if the iPad fails, there's still the iPhone to worry about—a huge, Flash-free customer base that surfs the Web all day. Today, any developer considering using Flash has to consider the iPhone market. Are the bells and whistles that Flash can provide worth making your site inaccessible to a large segment of mobile users? Sure, some Web designers will stick to Flash anyway—but more might come to think of it as a Web technology of last resort, something you use when you don't have any other choice.

Jobs has a track record of knowing when a certain technology is about to go the way of the Dodo. When Apple launched the iMac in 1998, * it didn't include a floppy drive. The tech press cried foul—how could a computer not include a floppy? Jobs predicted we'd use the Internet to move our data, and he was right. The MacBook Air doesn't include a built-in optical drive. That seemed a little presumptuous when it launched in 2008; now, it seems normal. Jobs could be betting that the same thing will happen with Flash. There will be a lot of whining in the short run, but in time, we'll all forget we ever wanted it and keep buying iPads.

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Correction, Feb. 2, 2010: This article originally misstated the year Apple introduced the iMac. It was 1998, not 1988. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.