Did Steve Jobs Just Kill Flash?
How the iPad could dictate the future of the Web.
What was Steve Jobs thinking? That's been the general reaction to the most obvious shortcoming of Apple's new iPad—the tablet doesn't support Flash. While Jobs claims his new device will offer the best browsing experience on the planet, that's a hard argument to make when the iPad throws up little blue Lego icons when it encounters most Web videos. Load up the New York Times' home page, for instance, and you'll see the sorry-this-doesn't-work Lego where you'd normally see a video player.
Since its launch in 1996, Flash has come to power nearly everything online that isn't static: streaming video players, interactive graphics, animated ads, and more. Of the 100 most popular sites on the Web, 85 use Flash. Web surfers rarely upgrade their browsers, but they're quick to install the latest version of the Flash player, meaning Flash is the primary way that the Web gets new powers. So if you're going to launch a device whose main function is Web surfing, why would you ditch Flash?
Apple has never publicly stated its reasons, but they're easy to guess. The company likely believes Flash is riddled with errors and not worthy of its newest machines. Indeed, the iPad's inability to play Flash wasn't much of a surprise—Flash is also absent from the iPhone and the iPod Touch. And because Apple hasn't allowed it access to key pathways in Mac OS X , Flash is much slower on the Mac than it is on Windows. John Gruber, the Apple-focused blogger who has written several influential posts about Apple's war with Flash, reports that Apple believes Flash is responsible for at least one-third of all the crashes on the Mac OS. At an all-hands meeting with Apple's employees last week, Jobs reportedly unloaded on Adobe, which owns Flash, calling the company lazy and its software ridiculously buggy. The iPad doesn't play Flash because soon no one will be using Flash, he allegedly declared.
If we don't use Flash, what will we use? Jobs argued that HTML5, a Web standard that all new browsers are rushing to support, will be our salvation. HTML5-capable browsers can do a lot of what Flash does without having to use any plug-ins at all. They can stream audio and video, they can draw pixels on any point of the screen, and they can allow for the kind of features that we're used to in desktop apps (drag-and-drop, offline storage). What's more, HTML5, which is backed by many large tech companies (including Apple, Google, and Adobe), is seeing rapid adoption. Last month YouTube launched a beta project to play its videos this way. If you're using a new version of Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, turn it on and you won't need Flash to watch Lady Gaga at the Grammys. Pages running HTML5 video also work fine on the iPhone—meaning they'll look good on the iPad, too.
Adrian Ludwig, group manager for the Flash platform at Adobe, says that his company isn't worried about the incursion of HTML5. The fact that Web browsers can only now do what Flash first did five years ago proves how important Flash is for the Web, he says. YouTube, Flickr, Mint, Hulu and other sites that depend heavily on Flash chose the plug-in because it was the best way to create advanced Web pages. People who want to do cutting-edge Web development will continue to use Flash, Ludwig argues. After all, there are still plenty of things Flash can do that HTML5 doesn't support: 3-D, augmented reality, and on-the-fly audio generation among other advanced techniques.
Adobe adds that it isn't worried about the iPad. Nineteen of the top 20 handset manufacturers are moving to adopt Flash; soon nearly every phone and smart device will carry it. Adobe is itching for Apple to join in—Ludwig told me that the company would even be willing to turn over its Flash source code to Apple or let Apple build its own proprietary version of the Flash player if that's what it would take to get Flash on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Still, he insists, it's Apple—not Adobe—that will lose out by shunning Flash. Customers will realize that a browser that doesn't offer Flash isn't worth having. Either they'll force Apple to relent, or the iPad will fail.
Or there's a third option: Web sites, afraid of missing out on a potential new audience, will rush to make their sites compatible with the iPad. Doing so would require some work, but as Gruber points out, many Web companies had no problem building iPhone-specific Web sites or apps. One Flash developer recently pointed to several sites or Web games that would break without Flash, including FarmVille, Hulu, CNN, and Addicting Games. What he didn't mention is that most of those sites already have iPhone versions. In fact, Adobe is making it very easy for developers to turn their Flash creations into iPhone apps. The company will soon launch an iPhone "packager" for Flash, a system that converts Flash code into apps that can run on the iPhone. In theory, it should be just as easy to create an iPad "packager."
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Steve Jobs with the iPad by Ryan Anson/AFP/Getty Images.