iPad vs Flash: Developers, Choose Wisely

Apple iPad

This past week, the entire Web community it seems has been obsessed with Apple’s announcement of the iPad. Is it a revolutionary device that will change personal computing forever, or an overpriced toy that will lock those foolish enough to buy one into a closed software ecosystem? SitePoint members had plenty to say in both blog comments and forum posts.

A week later, however, the most contentious issue for web developers is clear: iPad offers no no support for browser plugins like Flash. Apple’s position is that the iPad will provide the best web browsing experience, period; clearly, therefore, it does not see Flash as a significant missing feature. Adobe, predictably, argues that Flash is a crucial component of the modern Web platform — particularly for delivering video and online games.

For users, the truth is somewhere in the middle. To the vast majority of of us, Flash is neither positively vital nor absolutely dispensable to our web experience. Since the initial release of Apple’s iPhone (which also lacks Flash support), major websites have deployed alternative content for these devices (most recently, video sites such as YouTube and Vimeo), and many users are finding that alternative content to be superior to the Flash content it replaces. On the other hand, if your enjoyment of the Web greatly hinges on your ability to play Flash-powered Facebook games, you’re unlikely to think of iPad as “The best way to experience the web […]. Hands down.”

For developers, the important question is not about whether you’ll buy an iPad, but how this new device will impact on your work. As important as the mobile browser market has become, people are used to a second-class browsing experience on their phones. If the iPad is a successful product (and at this point I wouldn’t bet against it), the iPad-equipped users in your audience will be less forgiving if your site relies on Flash technology. SynBay

The good news is, for most uses of Flash there are relatively practical alternatives:

  • To deliver video, use a technique like Video for Everybody! to deliver high-quality MP4 and low-quality OGG versions, with a Flash player fallback for browsers without native video support. While the industry sorts out which video format should win, you can support everyone.
  • To deliver games or rich web applications, consider building a standards-based web UI if it makes sense for your product. The alternative is to build an iPhone/iPad application (the upcoming Flash CS5 exporter will make this easier!).

The trend is clear: users want to access the Web on a greater variety of devices, and the only factor these devices have in common is support for open web standards. As developers, we no longer have the luxury of relying on plugin technologies like Flash, Java, and Silverlight if we wish to maximize the reach of the web experiences that we build — not unless we’re prepared to use other closed technologies (for example, iPhone or iPad apps) to cater for the Web community one device at a time.

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  • secoif

    “… and many users are finding that alternative content to be superior to the Flash content it replaces.”

    Who are these users? Based on what user study? What type of content? Superior in what regard?

  • dougoftheabaci

    You forgot the third option. Use HTML5’s Canvas and a bit of lovely javascript to create some extremely nifty pieces of future-proof web tech.

    I don’t see why more people don’t do this… The examples I’ve seen are quite exciting and the best part is since you’re already using javascript there’s no reason you can’t use a bit more to make it work in older browsers like IE6. Right now the performance isn’t going to be the best but give it a few years. Recently IE8 became the most used browser on the web. Chrome is rising fast and Firefox, Safari and Opera all hold respectable rankings. IE7 is slowly sinking and IE6 is slinking faster than the Titanic (too soon?).

    I’m now starting to wonder. If javascript is now so acceptable anyway why not use it to get everyone ready for the future? When it happens instead of having to update your Flash files to a new platform, you just remove a layer of javascript.

  • XLCowBoy

    This debate is nothing but a huge mess of double standards, and both sides are guilty.

  • Nasser

    iPad is not supporting Adobe Flash , that is known. But , is it too difficult technically for Apple to support plug-ins in Safari browser in iPad / iPhone ? I dont think so ! So why the do not support it ? Legal issues ? something else ?

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    I don’t see why more people don’t do this…

    Because it doesn’t come close to offering the same capabilities, perhaps?

    As a standards-obsessed developer, I’m a little reluctant to admit this, but Adobe are absolutely right – this is a serious ommission.

    Having observed Apple’s commercial behavior over the last few years I think it’s almost certain that this was a deliberate move which masks a specific hidden agenda, and I’m sure we won’t have to wait too long to find out what that is!

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    I don’t think it’s a particularly hidden agenda. Flash is a viable alternative to native iPhone applications. Apple want to control and take a slice of all the action, but they can’t do that with web and Flash apps.

  • Lee

    Surely this gives Microsoft a great advantage. If Windows Mobile 7 supports Silverlight (inluding out of browser) then developers will be able to write their applications with the same programming languages they are familiar with. I know this article is related to the iPad but really it highlights Apples neglect to Flash as a rival to it’s application infrastructure.

  • http://www.brothercake.com/ brothercake

    Gotcha. The point remains though – they’re doing it to protect their commercial interests irrespective of the needs or wants of web users, and then lying about that reason.

  • emedepe

    I am not sure developers will go to all the trouble to support all video embedding systems and provide fallback mechanisms. The RAI (National Italian broadcaster) site uses Silverlight. And full stop. So either you go the Microsoft way or you don’t watch their content online. Those are your 2 alternatives.

    It is a pity that Flash video, which is a de facto web standard is falling apart. We’ll regret it.

  • simplejim

    At the end of the day, Apple not supporting flash criticisms sound like the criticisms when Apple dropped the floppy drive.
    The matured market, whom happen to be the older generation, have been struggling for many many years to adopt and get into computers. Mouse and Keyboard just does not come naturally for them. The iPad is going to sell like hotcakes to them, plus the ibookstore… it’s a deal breaker.

    Flash will eventually die, and Apple’s tradition is to get rid of it and force everyone to use a much better product.

  • RobbieGoD

    Personally, I think Apple left Flash out of iPhone, iPod touch & iPad because they don’t want users of these devices to be able to use Flash apps. Alot of people already know flash so Apple said, “Here’s a new shiny toy. Make some apps for it.” I can’t say that i blame them. Do you think there would thousands of apps for the iPod in the iTunes store if Apple would have allowed flash to run on its hardware?

    Eh, maybe they would have more? I think Apple was afraid that it would have killed there App development and also there lack of control over the content that got published to the web.

    I’m not going to buy an iPad. I don’t see anything revolutionary about it. I’d rather have an iPod Touch. But what i would really like is an iPod Touch that runs Flash — eh, instead I will get a DROID. I think Apple made a mistake here and they can still fix there evil ways by just putting Flash support into the iPod line of products.

  • RobbieGoD

    One more thing, Apparently, Apple has not heard us. They think what they’ve done is OK.

    It’s not ok. Maybe we need to start a petition to Apple to add Flash support to its products.

    Someone over at apple should listen up!

  • XLCowBoy

    It’s appalling how the Flash-haters have teamed up with the Apple apologists in order to burn Flash, citing proprietary tech, yet remain ridiculously silent with regards to Apple’s own proprietary tech, which is also required in order to access Apple’s content, yet is completely inferior to Flash.

    Then you have the same situation popping up with regards to H.264 v Ogg, and all the parties with vested interests turning what should have been a step in the direction of universal standards into a political warzone.

    The web standards are a joke.

    I pray Flash sticks around for another decade, because at least with Adobe’s “proprietary” tech, there is actually something akin to evolution going on.

  • dawgbone

    Simplejim, care to explain how a touch screen is more intuitive than a physical keyboard and mouse? Users late to adapt to technology are the same ones who rely on devices that feature tactile feedback. Phones, remotes, etc… none of them are anywhere close to the touchscreen.

    And what makes you think they’d be quick to adapt to the ipad? Are these not the same users who have not grabbed onto anything else (including iphones, itouches, imacs, iwhatevers)? What about this makes them want to switch? Why are they going to want to all of a sudden read an ebook over a normal book?

    Which brings me to the last point… the ibookstore. Interesting you say it’s the dealbreaker… what has been announced for it so far? The print world is even more archaic than the music or movie world was.

  • Michal

    This is funny – I clicked on the link to the iPad promotional website, and I wanted to watch the iPad promo video… I was expecting some nice Flash player to show up, but instead I got a message saying to “get Quick Time.” No, thanks. ;)

  • pauland

    The iPhone/iPad flash no-go zone is there only because Apple wants to leverage the platforms through licencing revenues via the appstore and developer programs – this is not a technical issue but a commercial one.

    There’s no problem producing a great iPhone/iPad experience, but as you say, currently it won’t be flash based. Should that put people off using Flash? don’t be ridiculous – there’s a huge market out there for development on non iPhone/iPad platforms and while Apple has had great success, that market segment is still not dominant.

    I wonder if the advice to Apple developers should also be to not develop for the iPhone since it doesn’t give a great experience for windows or symbian based devices?

    Nice controversial subject for a blog – well done. I also never fail to be surprised by Apples great innovation and ability to generate increasingly large amounts of money from a minority (but growing) userbase. Top marks Steve.

  • Matthew Case

    Apple is the most controlling company of the last decade. Like IBM in the 80’s and Microsoft of the 90’s, they’re trying to corner the masses into going through them for everything. Like the last two examples, no one could figure out how these monopolies could be broken. Then the rise of Dell and Google both destroyed those companies and left them as shells of what they used to be until they learned to adapt, but by then they had lost their monopoly power on what truly mattered at the time.

    The same will happen to Apple. Controlling your customers is a good way to piss them off, and ultimately drive them away. If you think Apple is the only company that will ever make shiny gadgets with slick interfaces that people will buy, I’d encourage you to look at history and think again.

  • arts-multimedia

    Flash has wonderful features which are easy to implement, it penetrates 98% of the internet, which as far as I know no other platform ever has accomplished, so it would be very stupid to neglect its potential. The possibilities of Flash are nearly endless and that is why it was able to conquer the internet.
    For instance, Flash video players offer so much more then only video. It supports Closed Captions, Audio Captions, playliests, expiring url for S3 Amazon, and so on.
    Apple has a fight with Adobe and they play it dirty, that’s the whole deal. Is iPad going to change the world? Possibly. We live in a shallow world where image is everything and Apple has spend a lot of effort to brand itself as a life style product and as a result, Apple has many blind followers, kissing the ground Steve Jobs walks on.
    It’s a pity, but I’m afraid Apple is going to change the way we work, whether we like it or not.

  • Justen

    If it drives adoption of HTML5 video & audio, SVG, and javascript-based animation that’s fine by me. I wouldn’t touch the iPad with a ten foot pole (okay, maybe I’d touch it), but if web developers are serious about supporting it and other mobile devices that may be the prompting Microsoft needs to get modern web standards into IE9 (or the prompting that users need to ditch the browser).

    Flash is good for certain kinds of things – goofy little web games and interactive animations, and I hope it sticks around until someone comes along with Javascript libraries and great editing software that can reproduce that on an out-of-the-box browser. It’s way past time to get it out of the content presentation business though, and like I said if the iPad drives developers away from that once and for all it is a net gain.

  • EastCoast

    In reality despite the popularity of the iPhone as a mobile browsing device, it does not account for a huge web browsing percentage (less than 1% of overall web trafic: http://www.w3counter.com/globalstats.php)

    The iPad, being a non-essential purchase and niche product isn’t going to sell anywhere near as many, though those that buy them will likely make a lot of noise about it.

    There are of course demographics where these end clients will be a lot higher, but whether it’s a worthwhile exercise retooling/recreating web content to target this fraction depends on what you currently use flash for, and how replaceable its functionality is, versus the payoff of the extra viewership.

  • Nonz

    Could just be that Apple sees control over what their browser will show will help to keep things consistent. And I guess that also means no more flash cookies either.

    I wouldn’t get my hopes up about Apple giving into public opinion, this is a company that presides itself on leading the way, not taking directions.

  • JonathanPDX

    I’m not an Apple fan, but I’m not a Flash fan, either. There’s way too much Flash being used for stuff for which it really shouldn’t be used. If I come to a web site with Flash and it says “loading”, I move on. Maybe it’s OK for some types of video, but with ads, it’s just as bad as having a flashing banner.

    The iPad…LOTS of potential uses in the real world, and it’s only in its first incarnation. I’m happy to wait till version 3 rolls out to see what kind of innovation is made. I waited till the iPhone 3G came out before getting one, and it’s been an incredibly useful tool.

  • Arlen

    No need to look for hidden agendas. Apple isn’t letting Flash on the iPhone/iPad devices until it learns to behave itself, and not be such a battery drain and all-round performance problem. Adobe claims it can’t achieve this without direct access to the hardware, and Apple’s been burned too often by third party developers directly accessing the hardware and then later causing problems when Apple wants to switch some hardware around, so Apple insists everybody must go through their high-level APIs to access the hardware. No Exceptions.

    Personally, I see Apple’s point. Adobe is generally the last company to update their apps when Apple makes changes (how long did we have to wait for intel binaries from Adobe?) and Apple doesn’t want their iPhone revisions to be held hostage every time a third party decides its priorities don’t align with Apple’s.

    So no, I don’t expect this will change anytime soon.

    This means using VFW (or Jillian’s Sublime) for your video. If you want to only store one copy of the video, you store it as h.264 video, which mobile safari plays natively, and which Flash can deliver and play for the browsers that don’t support it directly.

    Oh, and yes, I prefer the HTML5 approach to video. It gives me more control over the appearance of the player, and if I want to change it, all I need is a few quick CSS edits. Meaning I can support multiple “skins” for the video player without creating multiple Flash files. The more I can handle with simple HTML/CSS the easier site maintenance becomes for me.

    Don’t count me as a Flash hater. It has its uses, and I’ve placed it on lots of websites. It seems to me the heart of all this is that for a long time Adobe has been the gatekeeper for multimedia on the web, and they’ve gotten comfortable with not having to justify their existence in the marketplace. Now Flash is becoming optional, rather than mandatory, and they’re having trouble dealing with the new reality.

    Flash currently still has an edge for games, and for backwards compatibility with less functional browsers, so there are plenty of reasons to still use it. But javascript is rapidly catching Flash, and HTML5/CSS3 are nibbling away at other corners (such as video and typography, and check the CSS3 transformations) that Flash has called its own. Someday it’s going to have to give developers a reason to use it, instead of simply remaining complacent and relying on the fact they have to, so Adobe needs to start preparing for that day.

    Full Disclosure: While I’m not very happy with Adobe for killing the best illustration program I’ve ever used (FreeHand) to the best of my knowledge that has not colored this opinion.

  • Anonymous

    After success of ipod and iphone, Apple looks like its taking its old steps back, when Apple lost market to Microsoft in 90s with their proprietary OS to work on only Apple’s hardware. Apple is making again same mistake. Think it would loose this time. Too much of i devices. I think its time, users are getting pissed off.

  • Dale Hurley

    It is a big floor. I often consider Flash sites as some of the most amazing sites on the internet.

    I find it a great shame that the iPad/iPhone do not support it. It also sucks that the web is so hell-bent on impressing Google for SEO that Flash development is limited. There is some SEO work arounds though they do not work as well as traditional XHTML.

    It would be good to see more flash development. I would love to take more time to it more.

    Dale

  • _mark

    concerning the mobile market, not if Google has anything to do with it. Apple’s stronghold on the mobile market will slip with 2010 being a great year for Android.
    No access to these slick tools (just a few):
    http://www.aviary.com/
    http://www.sumopaint.com/
    http://www.prezi.com/
    http://www.picnik.com/
    http://labs.digg.com/arc/

    Apple is helping take the web back to ‘The Dark Ages’ by restricting flash.

    And all supposed crashing? It’s specific to those machines! Fix your computers people! Most people don’t experience this. All these RIA’s wouldn’t exist if the platform was that unstable!

    As far as the iPad?
    I find it disturbing that Apple would dictate what information I receive on the web from it’s OS and not allow the user to make this decision. There is something inherently wrong with that and it grinds at the very core of my belief system. It’s ridiculous that Apple fanboys are willing to accept this! What a bunch of pussies!

    WATCH THIS (it’s hilarious and true):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sr4pPAn-m5g&feature=player_embedded#

  • arts-multimedia

    I’ve noticed that some of you confuse the capabilities of Flash with what a minority actually does with it. Goofy games, ad banners, … it can do so much more that your head would spin if you really knew. But the thing is, if Flash is used wisely, you don’t even notice it is there.

  • simplejim

    dawgbone, it’s simple.
    Your keyboard and mouse are on the table. Your screen is not at the same viewing angle.
    If you move your mouse, you need to not look at the mouse and keep your eyes on the screen.

    This tactile effect thing is true, if and only if you’re looking at what your using. Which is why a lot of people still do not touch type. They might get past looking at the mouse.

    Your comments come from someone that has never trained a new user to a computer before. I have, and this is a fundament step for a lot of new comers to computers.

    On the other hand, a touch screen, you would see the interaction of the screen in the same viewing angle. No need to put a vibrator on the screen, people are not blind that they need a vibrating machine in an iPad to feel something happening.

  • Web Developer

    “Apple is helping take the web back to ‘The Dark Ages’ by restricting flash.”

    Actually, quite the contrary. Flash has allowed web development to go backwards in capability. Here we are in 2010, and we’ve just barely begun to scratch the surface of html+javascript’s capabilities. This has happened because Adobe gave the masses Flash and it allowed for development to become lazy. Instead of advancing web technologies and moving forward with development capabilities, “eh, just make it in Flash”.

    Flash is a great tool and has a well deserved place on the web. However it is not the great web development platform is has been used and abused as over the past years.

    It’s the same path tables took over css. Putting html development and content delivery years behind where it should be. As well as the same path which has made the browser market more of a jumbled mess of standards thrown out the window, non-compliant, horrible rendering machines.

    Development needs to get back to the basics and move forward with the incredibly powerful, cross-platform, standard compliant, and inherent software which have always been there. HTML+CSS+JS is the future of the web. Third party plugins and crutches for development are out.

  • EastCoast

    The contention that “Flash has allowed web development to go backwards in capability” is incorrect.

    On the contrary, it has allowed deployment of advanced functionality years ahead of the glacial pace of web standards progress. Have a look at the HTML5 functionality which is proposed (but not yet ratified and won’t be widely deployable for years yet) then look at which year Flash provided the same capability (add about 1 year for when each player version question had reached saturation):
    (stats courtesy of http://inflagrantedelicto.memoryspiral.com/2010/02/just-to-put-things-in-perspective/)

    Audio Playback -> Flash 4 [1999]
    Video Playback -> Flash MX [2002]
    Canvas (2D Drawing) -> Flash 1 [1996](Timeline) / Flash MX [2002](API)
    Offline Storage -> Flash MX [2002] (Local Shared Objects)

    So HTML5 in a couple years time will provide the equivalent to what Flash did back in 2002.

  • arts-multimedia

    So HTML5 in a couple years time will provide the equivalent to what Flash did back in 2002.

    Perhaps this statement is a bit over the top as embedding video was already possible in 2002, but I generally agree with what you say, EastCoast.

  • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

    arts-multimedia:

    I’ve noticed that some of you confuse the capabilities of Flash with what a minority actually does with it. Goofy games, ad banners, … it can do so much more that your head would spin if you really knew. But the thing is, if Flash is used wisely, you don’t even notice it is there.

    Thank you… Finally, a voice of reason!

    Look, I have a Mac and an iTouch (and a bunch of PC’s) but I think this idea Apple has of not supporting a plugin for Flash is motivated by self interest and nothing more. I have never crashed a Mac or Linux by hitting a site with faulty Actionscript.

    I have written some incredibly bad Javascript that would stop a browser in its tracks and even ran into a site last night that had that effect but I can’t say I’ve run into it due to Flash. Mac’s crash because the apps or the OS hasn’t been patched. It has nothing to do with Flash. It’s Unix for crying out loud. Everything is sandboxed.

    Anyone who is seriously developing Flash has years invested in honing their craft and I doubt they will walk away from it gladly. Apple should get off their high horse and support the one multimedia tool that has 97% – 98% compatibility across the board. It’s not just about playing You Tube videos or flash banner ads.

  • Anonymous

    I have been a long time user of Apple, but this product is just embarrassing.

  • Stevie D

    @arts-multimedia

    Flash has wonderful features which are easy to implement, it penetrates 98% of the internet, which as far as I know no other platform ever has accomplished

    What about PDF? Or, dare I say it, HTML?

  • http://www.lunadesign.org awasson

    @Stevie D:

    What about PDF? Or, dare I say it, HTML?

    PDF’s are clunky and only run in the browser for MS Windows. For Mac & Linux, they open in whatever application you’re using to view them… It’s hardly a seamless experience.

    HTML is fine and dandy but it’s ability to animate is limited and further limited by browser capabilities when compared to a Flash based approach.

  • Anonymous

    I think APPLE is not wise enough this time

  • DAZ

    I agree with _mark’s post above. I don’t particularly like Flash at all, it is responsible for some of the most horrendous sites on the web. But it has also solved many problems in the past (no Flash = no Youtube). I want to be the person who chooses if I have Flash on my device or not. What I don’t want is a locked down platform that dictates what I can and can’t access on my system. That’s not open at all.

    If Flash is still being used by developers then why not support it? I’m all for supporting open standards, but that would include open video standards too. At the moment, Apple are picking and choosing which open standards suit them, possible at the expense of their end users.

    One reason why we still need Flash is the Unknown Future. HTML5 is great, but the spec only really solves current problems of what we want to do on the web. In the past Flash has been used to plug any gaps while Standards catch up. Examples off the top of my head are Youtube (and online video in general) and SiFR image replacement. We didn’t know that we’d use the web for these things when the specs were written, but Flash allowed them to happen right there and then for the majority of Internet users.

    In the future, we might want to do something else that just isn’t possible with HTML5. Flash would give a possibility of making it happen in the most cross-browser way possible.

  • misho

    Apple do what is perfect for them, not for developers. I am asking – who cares what they do with closed platform in a market (Europe) where almost nobody uses Apple products?

  • Jed

    Personally, I don’t think we’re supporting either. I imagine most developers will continue their natural progression and will be using html5 and css3 very soon. Flash is about to hit upon hard times; regardless of what the iPad becomes. The new html and css specs, if they live up to the hype, will make audio/video delivery via the web much easier. Flash will take a direct hit if this holds true. Flash is cumbersome for most who don’t use it everyday and accessibility is an afterthought. All of those factors will hurt Flash much more than the iPad. I actually think Apple made a good choice supporting the new standards.