If you like Apple, don’t dismiss Flash

Asked the doozy of a question “what advice would you give young developers?” at the international WWW2010 Conference last week in Raleigh, Tim Berners-Lee gave a fairly generic response about joining up with organizations seeking to improve the world online.

Then Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, raised his voice with an addendum: “especially those focused on building with HTML and CSS.”

If you read that comment out of context, it’s not very striking. But if you were with me in the audience that afternoon, then the remark immediately connected with the mantra uttered by numerous speakers that week. Open source code = beneficial for the public good. Proprietary code = detriment to society.

It’s a sentiment that isn’t just playing out at tech conferences. The belief in open source is the rallying cry that has the multimedia world buzzing about the supposed death of Flash. For a web purist, anything other than a universally accepted code puts a commercial roadblock between developers and their audiences. In 1,000 years, as Internet pioneer and Google VP Vint Cerf remarked during the conference’s keynote, the information held in that code might be unreadable on modern devices and thus lost forever.

But it’s not open sourced purists who have struck the severe commercial blow to Flash. It’s Apple, a company that exerts the strictest control over its products. The company’s iPhone and iPad have rigorous standards for apps that makes Apple the sole arbiter over what can run on the devices, raising antitrust concerns. Locked out entirely is Flash, which Apple founder Steve Jobs sharply criticized as obsolete in a public statement issued last week.

Jobs has some valid arguments on why Flash shouldn’t run on the iPad or iPhone: it drains battery power, has a greater tendency to crash compared to HTML websites, and wasn’t developed with touch screens in mind. But Jobs also takes the high and mighty route by railing against Flash for not adopting open web standards. That’s highly hypocritical for a company that takes draconian measures when its own proprietary information is leaked.

Lost in all this posturing is the simple fact that Flash does things you can’t do with open sourced software … at least not yet. HTML5 offers the promise of driving the kind of dynamic video and animation that Flash is known for, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy for non computer science types (designers, photographers, journalists) to code. Flash built a following for the relative ease it injects into an otherwise complex coding process, allowing developers to direct their energy towards content and design.

Even Jobs concedes this point at the end of his statement, calling for Adobe to “focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future.” Software that topples the coding barrier of HTML would indeed be welcome, opening up web creation to billions of people who never took a computer science course. But will any company produce that software without the profit motive that drove Adobe? Apple’s proprietary products made it possible for millions to create multimedia for the first time. If we’re willing to concede Apple’s self-interest in exchange for the great hardware it creates, why must the web community judge Adobe software by such a harsh standard?

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    • cbritain
    • May 12th, 2010

    Good post Brook. I think it’s interesting to look at Jobs’ urging of Adobe to create an HTML5 tool in the light of recent rumors which say that Apple is developing a product to rival Flash http://www.neowin.net/news/apple039s-gianduia-framework-to-rival-flash-and-silverlight. The product would run off of javascript, ergo would be consistent with Apple’s new “open-web” philosophy, but I’m convinced that Apple’s new web purism is still rooted in money. For them, it’s all about profits, and Apple thinks it will make more profit without Flash. Look, Apple, you’re a public company, so of course you’re going to be in it for making a profit. But like you said so well, Brooke, they need to get off their high horse. Flash has it’s role, and just dismissing it entirely is as arrogant as it is anti-competitive.

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