Adobe’s Flash Dilemma.

The eventual withering away of Flash has been internalized by all but the most fervent Flash enthusiasts.  It is therefore fashionable to berate Adobe for mismanaging Flash, for having failed to adequately feel the pulse of web development, to hear the HTML5 train bearing down the tracks, to sense the nearing zeitgeist. What if there is another explanation?

The Story in Which Adobe is the Hero.

Flash has been rightly lauded lately for filling in the gaps of the web experience. Per Jonathan Snook:

Between then and now they’ve managed to offer useful features such as cross-domain requests, local storage, binary sockets, multi-file uploads, and shared objects. On the animation front, there are 3D effects, inverse kinetics, and pixel bending. On the streaming side, there is support for multiple codecs, full-screen playback, and dynamic streaming. Flash also allows for screen, audio, and webcam capturing, as well as peer-to-peer connections.

Even a Flash skeptic as zealous as myself has made frequent use of Flash video players and Flash-assisted fonts. One hardly need the many sites that would have been impoverished without Flash. The world would be a sad place indeed without Hulu, YouTube, and Gimme Friction Baby.

This aggressive technological approach is a sign of a healthy, engaged company. A company that, rather than resting on its much-ballyhooed 99 percent market-penetration laurels, chose to innovate. After all, it had software to sell.

Which conveniently brings us to Adobe’s fatal decision, the decision to listen to the wrong people — their customers.

The Story in Which Adobe Does the Right Thing and Gets the Wrong Results.

Readers of The Innovator’s Dilemma will recognize the hallmarks of a story that has been told many times.

Adobe, like any good company, provided the features and capabilities demanded by their customers.1 In this case, Adobe’s customers are web developers who buy Flash software, and perhaps more significantly, the clients served by those web developers.

Said clients wanted smoother and more sophisticated animations, better accessibility, multimedia support, exotic 3D effects, enhanced realism, real-time capability, and more. Flash (and entrepreneurial web developers) delivered.

What has been achieved with Flash is in many cases astounding. The richness of the experience should in no way be underestimated. Yet this very list of features has doomed Flash, for up from the depths has slunk a competitor, HTML5.

It’s About to Get All Disruptive up in Here.

It’s hard to fault Adobe for not seeing HTML5 coming. After all, who here heard of HTML5 before last year? Adobe’s customers were no doubt clamoring for more advanced functionality not less. Hulu for example is a Big Deal™ and the <video> tag isn’t close to being ready to handle the demands of a company looking to embed ads and track conversions. You know who is ready though? Personal video sites that don’t need anything fancy. Individuals who just want to embed a video for their friends. In short, most people.

The same is true for every other upcoming HTML, CSS, and Javascript feature that you can name. HTML is quickly reaching parity with Flash for the features that matter. When that happens, you know which technology gets selected? You know which technology Hulu will adopt? The one that works for the greatest number of people. It’s past time to start counting mobile users in that conversation.

HTML5′s primary advantage is that it works on mobile devices (of the iPhone class), while Flash … doesn’t.2 Like any market leader, Adobe likely had a strategy in place for this scenario. Perhaps they called it something inspired like “Flash Lite.” Their failure to execute compels me to believe Adobe as a company did not (and most likely still does not) see the mobile market as a life-or-death situation. They should.

It must be tempting for Adobe to believe that because the current HTML5 implementation is David to Flash’s Goliath — it has half the features, a quarter of the reliability, and none of the history — HTML5 will never catch up, to believe that because it is low-fidelity, cumbersome to wrangle and test across browsers, and utterly incapable of approaching the ceiling established by the elite Flash sites, HTML5 is in every way inferior to Flash. It is, almost. HTML5 is inferior to Flash in every way … except the ones that matter over the next 10 years.

It is true HTML5 cannot do now what Flash can do. This is, as I have labored to make clear, not a problem. Their capability curves are about to intersect at the point where HTML is “good enough.” HTML5 is tantalizingly close to handling every situation web developers encounter on a daily basis. While Flash is busy moving upmarket on the desktop with bigger and better features (as every armchair Flash jockey is quick to assert), HTML5 is happily snatching up the bottom tiers. I can’t remember the last time I saw a Flash slideshow, and I suspect neither can you. If you need a dozen photos to animate in a fixed area, you use Javascript. Doesn’t seem like the death knell of Flash, right? It is. Flash developers sneer that they never liked doing slideshows anyway. Well, they probably don’t like doing video players, charts and graphs, or simplistic games either, which is perfect because soon they won’t be.

Adobe is thus being squeezed in a most uncomfortable fashion. HTML5 is encroaching on Flash’s traditional territory from below3, and the iPhone’s native applications (and anti-Flash policy) are preventing Flash from retreating upmarket. It must be terrifying.4

  1. Except not their Mac customers, which complicates the “good management” theory. Their failure to identify Mac as the predominant web-developer platform going forward and thus failing to address significant performance problems with Flash and UI problems with their development suite has angered key constituents and potential allies. []
  2. Flash is, shall we say, late to the mobile party. Word is that Flash will be ready soon, but it’s already been three years since the world changed. Three years is an incredible head start for mobile HTML development on one side and native application development on the other. []
  3. HTML is rising up  thanks in part to the talented Webkit team that Apple has wisely chosen to allow to work independently of the main company. Webkit is, as they say, killing it. Not only have they have been rapidly implementing the CSS and HTML specs, they’ve been defining new features like CSS Animation. While nobody will confuse HTML5 plus CSS and Javascript with Flash today, Apple has apparently found it robust enough to use it as the foundation of their iAd platform. []
  4. Time will tell if Adobe can maintain a handhold on Android, et al. But one wonders given the monkey-see, monkey-do nature of other companies (see App Store / Android Market) if Flash will even be able to hang on there. []

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