An overview of the Smartphone OSes currently available and announced (Windows Phone 7 Series). Interesting to note is that the only OS that supports Flash is Windows Mobile 6.5, and the newer Windows Phone 7 may or may not support it. For all non-iPhone OSes, Flash support is slated for "within six months".
In the early 1980's, John Warnock and Charles Geschke left Xerox PARC to co-found Adobe Systems where they invented PostScript which, with the encouragement of Steve Jobs and the introduction of the Apple LaserWriter printer, sparked the Desktop Publishing revolution of the mid-1980's.
For the two decades following, Adobe was a name irrevocably linked to publishing and design technologies. If you did any professional work in the visual or graphical arts, you worked with Adobe-made tools and used Adobe-made technologies. But by the year 2005 it'd become clear that Adobe had found itself a strong competitor in Macromedia, a company focused on Web technologies and whose product portfolio started expanding and threatening Adobe's stronghold.
In December 2005, Adobe acquired their destined nemesis and merged their product portfolio with Macromedia's, which included the already world-famous web browser plugin: Flash.
Meanwhile, in the years prior to and following this merger, Steve Jobs led Apple Computer out of the trenches and back into a life of fame and fortune, firmly establishing it as the No. 1 consumer electronics company in the world. Although long-time partners, the relationship between Apple and Adobe devolved, becaming increasingly rocky and competitive. When Apple omitted support for the Flash plugin on its new flagship product, the iPhone, many saw it as a move of sabotage.
Apple neither intended to undermine Adobe nor to give such an impression. The reality was that Flash was simply not stable and efficient enough to produce a great user experience on small, mobile devices—and providing great user experiences continues to be one of Apple's top priorities for all shipped products
Throughout all of this, another player entered the scene, but one that was not represented by any single company or technology. This was the World Wide Web, perhaps the single-most important technological revolution since the invention of the personal computer.
Meanwhile, Microsoft was losing critical ground in the mobile computing arena, with a far-from-great Windows Mobile on one end and an impractically designed full Windows OS squeezed into touchscreen tablets and netbooks on the other. Both products—Windows Mobile and touchscreen tablets/netbooks running Windows—were in the market before Apple introduced their competing products, the iPhone and now the iPad. Both of Microsoft's products are currently failing against Apple's offering, in the market and in mindshare, but more on that below.
New interaction paradigms require new interface solutions
The key in all of this is that the iPhone and iPad aren't trying to squeeze existing User Interface (software) paradigms into a new and revolutionary hardware device, a point explained in much more detail by Matt Gemmell in his article How To Compete With iPad.
Apple very sensibly made developers build brand-new applications, offering no way to "port" their existing apps to the platform but instead forcing them to write their applications anew—and this time, tailored to the new interface paradigm. A desktop-class version of Windows on a touchscreen device is simply too powerful, too complex and too demanding of your casual user; a simpler interface like the iPhone and iPad OS, which is designed from the ground up for the devices they're running on, is not too complex, and certainly not too demanding of the user. This makes it much more appealing to a much larger user base.
This lesson is a crucial one for hardware vendors to learn—Sony, HP, Dell, are you guys listening?—because they simply cannot rely on Microsoft to provide them with an operating system forever. Not while Microsoft itself is refusing to learn this lesson and design a brand-new version of Windows, one that drops the bulk and starts from the ground up with Natural User Interfaces in mind. Microsoft Surface is a decent product, but it is much more representative of the "touchscreen veneer" that Matt Gemmell warns against, than the iPhone OS that Apple created.
One company I've writtenabout before has already learned this lesson: Litl. Google has learned from their and Apple's example and is trying to do the same (or at least, a very similar thing) with the ChromeOS Netbooks. Perhaps where Microsoft failed, Google might succeed in producing an operating system suitable for touchscreen tablets that truly fall in the same category as the iPad, in terms of ease of use and interaction simplicity. Or might it be Adobe?
Leveraging Flash as a next-generation OS
With the announcement of the iPad came the renewed flurry of online discussion about the future of Flash—absent on the iPad OS as it is on the iPhone—and whether it was destined for obscurity and irrelevance, or whether Apple's iPad would fail to gain serious market share until it added support for Flash. The opinions were, of course, very mixed: I wrote a long post saying that Flash is dead in the water, Jeffrey Zeldman keenly proposed that Adobe now has an opportunity to make Flash the next-generation tool for creating (Web) content with. Dave Winer suggested that Adobe make Flash an open standard, but John Gruber aptly wondered whether that would really matter, given the reasonable assumption that Flash's codebase is far from great.
The three companies that have a huge stake in the continued success (or even just existence) of Flash are Adobe, Google and Litl. The first is obvious; the second two might need some explaining.
HTML5 and the closely related developments in the Web technology sector are a very real long-term threat to Adobe Flash, but the perhaps ironic reality is that these Web technologies, in all their greatness, are still far behind the level of performance and usability that native technologies have to offer.
That reality, however, is not stopping Google and Litl from developing their own "webbook" device, a small netbook-like computer that actively focuses on using Web technologies to drive the User Interface and the entire user experience. Both companies also focus on the interplay of hardware and software (like Apple does) and they both aren't trying to squeeze a full, desktop-class Operating System into a new category of device. But while HTML5, CSS3 and such are pretty great, they lack a lot of critical capabilities compared to native OS frameworks like Cocoa or .NET—capabilities that Flash can offer. There is also the ongoing political war surrounding HTML5 that I fear will hamper its progress for many more years.
Google has vast resources and other revenue sources to withstand a commercial failure of the ChromeOS Netbook market they're trying to create (but for which no product exists yet); Litl, on the other hand, is now seeing their one and only (existing) product compete with the iPad. Both parties have an opportunity to offer something compelling for the user: a small, sub-$1000 computing device with an interface designed from the ground up to take advantage of the new interaction paradigm that Apple introduced to the world (and has already made a killing with).
But just web technologies like HTML5 are not going to be sufficient; that missing component can only be offered by two technologies: native frameworks, and Flash.
Native frameworks are out; Palm is trying that route with WebOS and the Palm Pre platform, but it's not working out well enough for them so far. Android is something like that but not compatible enough with Web technologies on the one hand, and not widely supported enough on the other. Flash overcomes both hurdles: there are already millions of Flash designers and developers out there, it is a very broadly supported and understood platform, and it is capable of plugging the holes in the HTML5-based system.
The future for Adobe
Adobe needs to turn Flash into the webbook operating system of tomorrow, investing heavily in its performance and reliability and offering it as a framework solution to hardware vendors who use the Flash technology and tools to create a customized OS for their own touchscreen tablet devices, then in turn letting the existing installed base of Flash designers & Flash developers build apps for this new platform. No more "Windows 7 in a tablet form factor"; something that leverages web technologies as much as possible, as best as it can, and uses Flash for the things that web technologies can't do.
Adobe also must impose extremely strong restrictions on certain aspects, so that they can ensure this framework means equal-opportunity application development for developers and consistent interaction paradigms for consumers. What I mean by that is simple: the "Flash OS" platform for hardware vendors should be free for customization by each hardware vendor, but only to a degree: certain aspects, mostly hardware-oriented like screen resolution, minimum/maximum screen dimensions and specific interaction principles, must remain fully compatible between each device running the Flash OS.
One of the biggest predicaments of the Android platform is that each application has to design for the lowest common denominator in hardware and related software-features, which is antithetical to any great user experience. If the user experience of these products is miles behind Apple's iPad, even if they do offer more features and capabilities, the products will eventually fail in the market.
The age of User Experience
We have long entered the age of user experience, meaning that any consumer electronics device that offers a (notably) better user experience will win in the marketplace over any and all other devices, devices that may offer far more features and capabilities but simply have a lesser user experience.
Apple has shown with the iPod that UX wins out in the long term over features. Apple has shown with the iPhone that UX is capable of transforming an entire industry, surpassing all of its competitors in less than three years. Apple will show with the iPad that it can do the two combined, and transform the computing industry from being largely a point-and-click computer industry to a much more diversely fragmented computing industry with different levels of involvement: from the highly consuming-focused small devices like the iPhone to the highly creation-focused desktop-class computers and laptops. The iPad fits in the middle and will offer a level of User Experience never seen before, and unless competing players realize this and aim for that same goal (offering a great UX, not features) Apple will completely dominate that new industry with the iPad.
The challenges for Adobe
Adobe's task is enormous if they want to pull off this massive undertaking of positioning Flash as the new webbook OS, but it's not impossible. It requires several key things:
A visionary leader of this new project; not a new CEO, but someone who will have the vision and the absolute control over this project that Steve Jobs represents at Apple. The top-most priority for all of this is a combination of vision, a thorough understanding of the new interaction paradigms of touchscreen and mobile computing, and a strong knowledge of what makes or breaks a great user experience. The person in charge of this project must represent this combination; without such a person, it is virtually destined to fail.
A HIG—Human Interface Guidelines document—that must be adhered to by all hardware vendors and applications developers. This will be one of the biggest investments, but consistency in UI and guidelines for developers are essential.
A unified store maintained and operated by Adobe that sells applications for all these devices—Litl, ChromeOS netbooks and the hypothetical new devices that competitors will make. It must encourage paid applications (to attract developers to build apps for it), and the applications must be held to a high standard (set by examples made by Litl and the vendors, and the HIG) to produce a great value for users.
Extensive integration efforts to make the product play nice with both Windows PCs and Macs, ideally through a new piece of software that mimics what iTunes does: serve as the bridge between your content that exists on your computer and brings it to the device in the same way for all users, for all devices, and all platforms. Like iTunes, that software should also serve as a gateway to the applications store.
Strong partnerships with hardware vendors and companies like Litl to ensure close collaboration on the products; Adobe will need to oversee the full stack and act strategically and accordingly at every step along the way, and companies like Litl need to figure out where their unique advantages and offerings lie.*
Every effort made to prevent the Lowest Common Denominator problem and the "write once, run anywhere" fallacy. These devices must provide absolutely equal feature sets; major brand new features must come with major new versions of the OS and apps for them cannot be automatically backwards compatible. An iPhone app made for iPhone OS 3.0 simply won't work for OS 2.0, and that's how it should be for this hypothetical platform.
* an interim note: I think Litl already knows their advantages, one being that they're already in this market with a very promising product. All other hardware vendors are quite a ways behind.
Adobe has a strategic opportunity here. Litl has a strategic opportunity here. Google… well, let's forget about whatever Google is trying to do. Their existing efforts are conflicting (Android and ChromeOS) but there is potential there.
And what about Microsoft? Well, it's interesting. Very interesting, in fact. Microsoft today announced Windows Phone 7 Series, a rewrite from scratch that replaces the Windows Mobile platform which had lost all chances of success until today. What's so interesting about it is that it's dictating certain requirements for the hardware vendors, precisely what I'm suggesting Adobe does.
Whether this new Windows Phone 7 Series platform will work out remains to be seen; the first devices aren't slated for release until the 2010 Holiday season. The video demos on Engadget are intriguing, but whilst the UI is introducing some very fascinating new concepts, it also feels very unintuitive and chaotic. I think Microsoft managed to introduce some very promising new paradigms in mobile computing, without managing to remove the layers of complexity and confusion that so often come paired with that process. We'll see whether the many layers of management at Microsoft really do undermine the process of innovation and great user experiences.
So it turns out, as you'll have realized after reading all of the above, that I have somewhat reverted my position on Flash being dead. I'm still reserved about it, because while I think this strategy could save Flash and ensure its sustained relevance as a technology for tools and a runtime environment with which and upon which applications could be built, there are still two key factors that are currently not being met: One, Adobe needs to get itself some better vision and understanding of the situation—things like AiR on Mobile are not it, and Two: all of these companies need to get a better understanding of what makes a great user experience. Flash needs to be improved significantly to support a better UX if it is to serve this new role, but that's a technical hurdle which could be met, especially with proper interplay between hardware and software.
As well, I'm curious to see what will happen with Windows Phone 7 series, and whether it could scale towards iPad-class devices. Litl has shown that their webbook OS is capable of doing that, although they desperately need to add multitouch support to the device. Google seems poised to simply mimic everything Apple does, which may or may not work out well for them.
For now, though, my main interest will be to see whether Adobe will go in the direction I've outlined above, or not. Until they do, I'm hedging my bets on the iPad platform; the only one that's showing real promise of long-term success.
In a nutshell: Peter-Paul Koch claimed that mobileSafari is the new IE6, and Jonathan Rentzsch explains very efficiently why it's not.
The only thing I have to add is this: us Web Standards evangelists didn't get into the game to play by browser vendor's rules; we got into the game to convince browser vendors to play by the Web's rules: the Standards. PPK is actually encouraging that we go back to the painful modus operandi from 1999, but with five times as many browsers to worry about.
Why do we have standards? So that anyone making a new browser today could make it knowing that sites (that are built according to the standards) would just work, worry-free. It's not our fault these vendors are making brand new browsers and crippling them, thus crippling the experience of their users.
Adam Lisagor responds to Nick Douglas' questions about why he thinks the iPad is a big thing:
What we want from our technology, in its most elemental form, is to make our thoughts happen. Sure, it’s still very much sci-fi in 2010, but what every calculating machine and telephone and computer and phonograph and light bulb and hammer and every tool ever invented is about at its core is our desire, our evolutionary imperative to control our environment at our will. And we’re getting closer and closer to that happening.
I've linked this on Twitter already a couple days ago, but it's so good I feel the need to share it to even more audiences. Further, this bit is particularly relevant today, following Engadget's closing of comments:
You have but to take a peek in the comments section below this column, any column, any article on this or any news site whatsoever, to see just how mean and nasty we have become. It does not matter what the piece might be about. Obama's speech. High speed rail. Popular dog breeds. Your grandmother's cookies. The anonymous comments section of any major media site or popular blog will be so crammed with bile and bickering, accusation and pule, hatred and sneer you can't help but feel violently disappointed by the shocking lack of basic human kindness and respect, much less a sense of positivism or perspective.
Engadget is not the only site that would benefit from either closing comments more often, or switching to Facebook Connect-based commenting exclusively to eradicate anonymity.
There are still some aspects to be thought through some more (like managing waste smells), but this direction has me terribly excited. Bringing the reuse-cycle into every individual home has significant benefits.
Clearly, neither of these well-respected programmers have ever looked at the AppStore's many hundreds (if not thousands) of applications that allow people to be creative. The iPhone/iPod Touch platform has already driven creativity among consumers to grand new levels (including some New Yorker covers). Apparently, to misters Pilgrim and Bray, "creativity" means tinkering with settings.
But even that's not true; the fact is, these guys remind me of old men sitting on their porch yelling "Get off my lawn!", except in this case it's old men sitting behind Apple ][e's yelling at kids playing with iPhones and iPads, drawing paintings directly with their fingers rather than through inputting complex mathematical algorithms and vector patterns in a command line.
When these men became programmers, they didn't do so because tinkering was "so much fun"; they did it because there was no other way. When they were young, doing anything with a computer required a strong understanding of mathematics, the ability to think in binary and the perseverance to keep exploring things without any book or person around to guide you.
That time has long gone.
Nowadays, some of the best programmers you'll find have never tinkered with computers in their life until after they first learned all about Objective-C, Java, Ruby or what-have-you. They learned from the treasure trove of information found in books and on websites that helped them learn Object Oriented Programming and memory management. Entire college courses exist to teach people how to write code; is that not better than forcing these millions of students to learn how to do this by tinkering?
"But I can't write code on the iPad!" these old men whine. Perhaps not—that might change, though. More curiously, why aren't they writing apps to write code with? Last I remember, the great pride of hackers was that they would create their own tools whenever tools didn't exist to do their work.
Well guess what? Only shade-tree tweakers give a flip about creating their own tools. Most people want to use the quality tools at hand to create something new.
The simple matter is that these guys are old, and they grew up in an age where tinkering was the only possible course of action if you wanted to use the latest and greatest technology to its fullest potential. The Mac, in 1984, shifted that paradigm of creativity and creation towards average consumers a little. The iPhone and iPad are shifting it even further towards consumers, away from the tinkerers of old, the small little "elite" that excludes the vast majority of people.
It's a shame to see such respected programmers try to position Apple (a professional competitor to them, mind you) in an evil light, but fortunately there are plenty who see what's really going on. As Dan Moren wrote for Macworld:
For Apple, it’s not about killing off tinkerers, but ensuring that not everybody who wants to use a computer has to be a tinkerer.
I’ve been an open web standards enthusiast and evangelist for many years and have long dreamed of the day that Flash would either become an open technology—meaning, not proprietary and controlled by only one company, originally Macromedia, Adobe today—or that it would simply go away and become irrelevant.
This desire has had nothing to do with any disdain you might think I have for the controlling company; it’s all about the impact Flash has had on the usability of websites throughout the entirety of my career as a web professional. We’ll get to my criticisms in a moment; I want to start with a very true argument made by John Nack, an Adobe blogger who has nothing to do with the Flash team but has valuable insights nonetheless. The recent announcement of the new Apple iPad—which, like its smaller-in-size device siblings the iPhone and iPod Touch, does not support the Flash plugin for web content—has stirred up a lot of debate online and Nack’s piece is worth reading in full. I want to address just this bit, however:
Flash has indeed been the sole piece of technology that drove video on the web forward and brought it to the millions of users enjoying it today. For that, we should be thankful because the Web would not have been quite so interesting without sites like Youtube, Vimeo, Hulu and countless others.
But Nack conveniently ignores a similarly big impact Flash has had on the web, one that is rather negative. After video, what are the two most common uses of Flash on the Web? Online games, and advertisements.
The games, I couldn’t really care less about. Flash on OS X is so slow and cpu-heavy (not just video, all of it) that graphically rich Flash games aren’t particularly enjoyable for me and simple ones are nothing compared to even basic iPhone games. The ads, on the other hand, well, they’ve been a source of endless frustration since the very first time I came across one. Flash-blocking plugins exist for almost every browser, without a doubt in large part thanks to the pervasiveness of Flash ads, their average intrusiveness and the high degree to which Flash causes browsers to crash or lock up.
Ever heard of an SVG blocker? A CSS3 blocker? They don’t exist because they’re not considered necessary; these technologies are open, but more importantly, they don’t get abused and they don't create terrible user experiences.
If it weren’t for the utter necessity to sometimes visit certain websites for their information and data, I would have flat out across-the-board abandoned any and all sites that had the distasteful audacity to put a Flash ad covering most or, worse, all of the page's content until clicked away. Even with plugins like ClickToFlash I sometimes have to deal with this nonsense, and the only reason I can imagine sites keep doing this is because the ads are so utterly intrusive that users accidentally click on them a lot, making them a financially worthwhile affront to any sense of taste.
It really accentuates how Flash makes it easy to build something that looks fancy and pretty, but typically lacks great usability and/or accessibility.
Back to the situation at hand: the iPad, a handheld computing device aimed expressly (among other things) at browsing the Web and providing the best experience in doing so. What does its lack of Flash mean for that?
Well, evidently far less than Adobe would like you to believe. With big fanfare, an Adobe employee (speaking solely on his own terms and not representative of the company, it should be noted) pointed to a number of popular websites that use Flash technology to provide (predominantly video) content. And all but two of them were debunked as they had mobile device-optimized sites or even dedicated applications that allowed users without Flash to experience the same content. Oops.
Months ago, I installed a browser plugin for Safari called “ClickToFlash.” It blocks all Flash content. You’ll see a placeholder image in the webpage and if you want to view the content, give it a click and it’ll load in. I have not noticed any drop in my ability to enjoy the Web. What I have noticed is that my browser is faster and more responsive, and that I can leave a couple of dozen tabs and windows up for weeks without having to force-restart my Mac.
Not much of a strong case in favor of Flash's value to the web, there.
Developers of websites tend to understand this concept pretty well: use a proprietary plugin to deliver your content, and you’ll almost certainly have to offer a version for those without the plugin. Without the latter you risk losing part of your audience and thus, income. Websites that exist solely as a Flash app will have to make a difficult choice: create a non-Flash version, or place the against-all-odds bet that Flash will soon be added to the iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad devices.
Lastly, there are the advertisers who make Flash ads; their ads will not be served to this growing segment of users, so they’ll have to reconsider the technology or simply lose money at an increasing rate.
From Adobe’s perspective, this appears to be a pretty grim situation. Flash, for all its contributions to bringing video to the Web, is set on a course to irrelevance. Worthwhile content is already being delivered by alternative technologies—including video, thanks to HTML5—and worthless content like Flash ads are not particularly missed by users. The only real use case left for Flash is games, a huge sub-industry it must be said, but not one that is likely to change the course of our industry as a whole.
Flash, I’ll tell you right now, is dead.
What about opening it up?
Nack argues that open-sourcing Flash would not benefit the platform:
Open-sourcing Flash would lead to a fragmentation of the format & Flash runtimes, and that would destroy the predictability and agility that differentiate Flash from other standards.
I’m not really convinced by this; opening up Flash and documenting it to become an open Web Standard, allowing for its runtime to be improved by countless developers all over the world and for browser developers to implement much better, native support, could well be the only thing that could save Flash. Adobe would have a huge lead on competitors in terms of authoring tools, and it would take a long time for the open source community to create an authoring tool just worth mentioning (and I don't see Apple bothering with it), so from a business perspective this wouldn’t disrupt things that much; far more important is the long-term situation, where Flash actually remains relevant.
Nack suggests that Flash will stay relevant anyway, by continuing to innovate and “deliver better features more quickly”, but those arguments are worthless to developers when they have to build the same content twice—once in Flash, nice and easy, and once for mobile devices that otherwise wouldn’t be able to access it.
One such “innovation” was the Flash-to-iPhone-App idea, which converted Flash games to native iPhone games. A laudable effort, but the depth and usability of the first series of games made with this technology was so severely lacking that it’s hard to imagine it’ll really take off, let alone sometime real soon.
Meaning, if you think that the Flash team is capable of bringing such amazingly great features to market that developers would forgo supporting the iPhone, iPad and similar non-Apple-product but equally Flash-deprived users, you’re fooling yourself and you’ve clearly not paid attention to the past ten years of technology development on the Web.
The symptoms are all over the place, starting with the discussion raging online right now—this piece included. Another telling development is that Flash-lacking user percentages are now being measured publicly for websites on Twitter, via the #shareyourflashstats hash tag. Another is that because of all this, the soon-to-be-released Modernizr 1.2 will feature a check against the user’s ability to render Flash.
Developers are smart, they balance tradeoffs all the time. For the past ten years, Flash’s ubiquity and ease-of-authoring has heavily outweighed the various downsides (for enough people, anyway). Now that there are well over 75 million mobile devices that browse the Web with no support for Flash at all, as well as an increasing number of people using Flash-blocking plugins in their desktop browser, that tradeoff becomes a much harder sell. Clients wanting to reach as large as possible an audience will soon realize, if they don’t already, that Flash is not going to get them there. Authoring content twice is more expensive than authoring it once, and Flash is not the one technology that works across the board.
Flash may well continue to exist as a technology for authoring specific content or as part of other tools—like how it is used in the Adobe Creative Suite, not that I or anyone I know is a fan of that—but as for being a technology to deliver Web content with, it is effectively dead.
Some people just won’t acknowledge this yet.
I’m not mournful about this myself—my criticisms outlined above explain as much—but I also don’t want to dismiss the good things Flash has brought to the Web. We have awesome video sites delivering great content, now and for many more years to come, and I’m quite thankful for that and will be for as long as that lasts. Flash also brought about some fun games I enjoyed, though none that captured the depth or excitement I’ve found in many iPhone games. But Flash’s days as a part of the Web’s technological infrastructure are numbered, and as time passes more and more people will realize this and move on. This process will take years, but I’m ready to say goodbye now.