It’s no secret that I’m no fan of Adobe Flash:
It should be no surprise then that I’m stoked to see a vigorous debate taking place about the future/fate of Flash well ahead of schedule, and even happier to see Flash sympathisers already resorting to desperate measures including “playing the porn card” (not to mention Farmville which, in addition to the myriad annoying, invasive and privacy-invading advertisements, I will also be more than happy to see extinct). In my mind this all but proves how dire their situation has become with the sudden onslaught of mobile devices deliberately absent flash malware*.
Let’s take a moment to talk about statistics. According to analysts there are currently “only” 1.3 billion Internet-connected PCs. To put that into context, there are already almost as many Internet-connected mobile devices. With a growth rate 2.5 times that of PCs, mobiles will soon become the dominant Internet access device. Of those new devices, few of them support Flash (think Android, iPhone), and with good reason – they are designed to be small, simple, performant and operate for hours/days between charges.
As if that’s not enough, companies with the power to make it happen would very much like for us to have a third device that fills the void between the two – a netbook or a tablet (like the iPad). For the most part (again being powered by Android and iPhone OS) these devices don’t support Flash either. Even if we were to give Adobe the benefit of the doubt in accepting their
deceptiveoptimistic claims that Flash is currently “reaching 99% of Internet-enabled desktops in mature markets” (for more on that subject see Lies, damned lies and Adobe’s penetration statistics for Flash), between these two new markets it seems inevitable that their penetration rate will drop well below 50% real soon now.
Here’s the best part though, Flash penetration doesn’t even have to drop below 50% for us to break the vicious cycle of designers claiming “99% penetration” and users then having to install Flash because so many sites arbitrarily depend on it (using Flash for navigation is a particularly heinous offense, as is using it for headings with fancy fonts). Even if penetration were to drop to 95% (I would argue it already has long ago, especially if you dispense with weasel wording like “mature markets” and even moreso if you do away with the arbitrary “desktop” restriction – talk about sampling bias!) that translates to turning away 1 in 20 of your customers. At what point will merchants start to flinch – 1 in 10 (90%)? 1 in 5 (80%)? 1 in 4 (75%)? 1 in 2 (50%)?
As if that’s not enough, according to Rich Internet Application Statistics, you would be losing some of your best customers – those who can afford to run Mac OS X (87% penetration) and Windows 7 (around 75% penetration) – not to mention those with iPhones and iPads (neither of which are the cheapest devices on the market). Oh yeah and you heard it right, according to them, Flash penetration on Windows 7 is an embarassing 3 in 4 machines; even worse than
SunOracle Java (though ironically Microsoft’s own Silverlight barely reaches 1 in 2 machines).
While we’re at it, at what point does it become “willful false advertising” for Adobe and their army of Flash designers to claim such deep penetration? Victims who pay $$lots for Flash-based sites only to discover from server logs that a surprisingly large percentage of users are being turned away have every reason to be upset, and ultimately to seek legal recourse. Why hasn’t this already happened? Has it? In any case designers like “Paul Threatt, a graphic designer at Jackson Walker design group, [who] has filed a complaint to the FTC alleging false advertising” ought to think twice before pointing the finger at Apple (accused in this case over a few mockups, briefly shown and since removed, in an iPad promo video).
At the end of the day much of what is annoying about the web is powered by Flash. If you don’t believe me then get a real browser and install Flashblock (for Firefox or Chrome) or ClickToFlash (for Safari) and see for yourself. You will be pleasantly surprised by the absence of annoyances as well as impressed by how well even an old computer can perform when not laden with this unnecessary parasite*. What is less obvious (but arguably more important) is that your security will dramatically improve as you significantly reduce your attack surface (while you’re at it replace Adobe Reader with Foxit and enjoy even more safety). As someone who has been largely Flash-free for the last 3 months I can assure you life is better on the other side; in addition to huge performance gains I’ve had far fewer crashes since purging my machine – unsurprising given according to Apple’s Steve Jobs, “Whenever a Mac crashes more often than not it’s because of Flash“. “No one will be using Flash, he says. The world is moving to HTML5.”
So what can Adobe do about this now the horse has long since bolted? If you ask me, nothing. Dave Winer (another fellow who, like myself, “very much care[s] about an open Internet“) is somewhat more positive in posing the question What if Flash were an open standard? and suggesting that “Adobe might want to consider, right now, very quickly, giving Flash to the public domain. Disclaim all patents, open source all code, etc etc.“. Too bad it’s not that simple so long as one of the primary motivations for using Flash is bundled proprietary codecs like H.264 (which the MPEG LA have made abundantly clear will not be open sourced so long as they hold [over 900!] essential patents over it).
Update: Mobile Firefox Maemo RC3 has disabled Flash because “The Adobe Flash plugin used on many sites degraded the performance of the browser to the point where it didn’t meet Mozilla’s standards.” Sound familiar?
Update: Regarding the upcoming CS5 release which Adobe claims will “let you publish ActionScript 3 projects to run as native applications for iPhone“, this is not at all the same thing as the Flash plugin and will merely allow developers to create applications which suck more using a non-free SDK. No thanks. I’m unconvinced Apple will let such applications into the store anyway, citing performance concerns and/or the runtime rule.
Update: I tend to agree with Steven Wei that The best way for Adobe to save Flash is by killing it, but that doesn’t mean it’ll happen and any case if they wanted to do that they would have wanted to have started at least a year or two ago for the project to have any relevance, and it’s clear that they’re still busy flogging the binary plugin dead horse.
Update: Another important factor I neglected to mention above is that Adobe already struggle to maintain up-to-date binaries for a small number of major platforms and even then Mac and Linux are apparently second and third class citizens. If they’re struggling to manage the workload today then I don’t see what will make it any easier tomorrow with the myriad Linux/ARM devices hitting the market (among others). Nor would they want to – if they target HTML5, CSS3, etc. as proposed above then they have more resources to spend on having the best development environment out there.
* You may feel that words like “parasite” and “malware” are a bit strong for Flash, but when you think about it Flash has all the necessary attributes; it consumes your resources, weakens your security and is generally annoying. In short, the cost outweighs any perceived benefits.