The Future of Flash

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.

The Web represented a new competitor to Adobe, but they didn’t realize this until very late in the game. Web technologies embodied in HTML5 and CSS3 and the rapid progress made in JavaScript performance in recent years all culminate into a serious threat for Adobe Flash and, consequently, all the many years of serious investment in the technology made by millions of people around the world.

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 written about 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.

In conclusion

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.

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