iPad vs Flash: Developers, Choose Wisely

    Kevin Yank

    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.