The new browser wars: Flash vs. Swipe

Pardon me for adding yet another iPad analysis (certainly, when a computer product launch makes it into Doonesbury, we have crossed a new threshold of hype), but one thing actually missing from the copious words and videos on yesterday’s event at Moscone was the simple fact that we have a new browser war on our hands, and it isn’t a pretty sight.

The browser wars of yesteryear between Microsoft and Netscape seem so quaint. (And look what happened to Netsacpe, too.) Today it is all about Adobe Flash versus the multi-touch swipe technology that is part of Apple’s product lines.

Why is this a war? Apple’s iPod, iTouch, and now iPad all share a lack of support for Adobe’s Flash technology, the animation glue that binds Web pages to in-line video playback. When you bring up your Safari browser in these devices, you see a big blank nothing on the pages that have Flash content to play. And what that means to me is that Apple has made it clear: rewrite your sites to support our own technologies (including new apps that are certain to populate the iTunes Store soon), or be forever absent from this brave new world of cool devices that Steve is creating.

I come to the support of Flash most reluctantly, mind you. Flash is a necessarily evil, and for the most part we just don’t even think of it when we merrily surf around the Internet, finding new video content to amuse and inform us. (Unless our plug-ins are outdated or messed up, that is.)

Flash will bring about the Internet TV revolution a lot sooner than the misinformed mainstream TV executives will like to admit, too: the more video that gets encoded in Flash, the fewer hours that 20-, 30-, and 40-somethings will spend in front of their living room TVs, if they even have living room TVs anymore. See what has happened to Leno et al. Their best bits are immediately uploaded to YouTube and watched the next morning. That is the power of Flash.

But Apple has its own idea about how to watch video, and it has nothing to do with standards that anyone else creates. It is about making Web content creators develop new iTunes Apps that can deliver their content customized for their devices. Anyone using an ordinary Web browser can be ignored. Granted, they have sold a lot of iPhones, so it isn’t a market that has been marginalized like their share of the PC market – but still. Why do so many Web site owners want this? Because of the latest Steve reality distortion field. See the comment about Doonesbury above.

It is ironic, because in the early days, Apple was a big boost to Adobe’s Postscript technology, the glue that made printing pretty pages from your PCs possible. But let’s not rest on these accidents of history.

Is a multi-touch swipe worth starting a new war? Maybe. Swiping the glass for controlling the display is very intuitive. It is a wonder that more tablet PCs haven’t incorporated it yet. In the mean time, we all will be watching and see how this shakes out, but (I can’t believe I am saying this) my bet is on Flash.

NB: As you can imagine, this essay has ignited a series of comments, some of them posted below. I will say that I should have mentioned work afoot on HTML v5 to try to bring some standards sense to this arena. And there are a few browsers, and a few sites, that support this, but not as many as we’d like. Thanks to all my readers that keep me honest!

9 thoughts on “The new browser wars: Flash vs. Swipe

  1. Yes, Apple and Adobe are butting heads here. But it’s not about swipe vs. Flash. It’s about Flash vs. HTML 5 and h.264 and other codecs that are not under Adobe’s control. No one would accuse Apple of being shy about using proprietary technology when they control it. But here Apple is using open standards to disrupt someone else’s proprietary tech.

    Google is likely on Apple’s side here, and is moving YouTube to support HTML5 in place of Flash. Flash won’t go away, and it’s quite useful. But the swipe (or lack thereof) has nothing to do with it.

    Related: http://daringfireball.net/2010/01/apple_adobe_flash

  2. I disagree. I think the future is in HTML5 which supports video in an open fashion. Surely, Apple will allow some flash to come into the picture, but today, Flash crashes my computer or drives it 100% busy all too often. I’d rather they find something that works better.

  3. “But Apple has its own idea about how to watch video, and it has nothing to do with standards that anyone else creates.”

    I completely disagree on this one. I’m no Apple fanboy by any means, although I use their products and some are good.

    In this case, Apple is un-doing what Microsoft wrought unintentionally almost 15 years ago by bundling Flash with IE. Had that never happened, Flash would be just a has-been technology. Just ask RealAudio.

    Even MS regrets that one – Silverlight is their attempt to take back the RIA space from Adobe.

    But the good news on this is that the Iphone supports the HTML5 tag standard, as does Google’s Android (and their respective desktop browsers Safari and Chrome).

    Firefox also supports this tag (although not the codec used by most of the big sites).

    YouTube and Vimeo just announced site-wide support for it. More will follow.

    The real fight going on now has more to do with proprietary codecs that these sites employ (a browser can decode any video the OS has a codec for, but the politics of patents make this a tricky thing).

    See the comments by some of the Firefox folks on this:

    http://weblogs.mozillazine.org/roc/archives/2010/01/video_freedom_a.html

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  5. I’m not sure the battle between Apple and Adobe will come down to supporting or not supporting Flash. My understanding is that an SDK has just recently been released that will allow Flash developers to develop applications for the iPhone.

    YouTube has used Flash as the basis for video streaming and this works just fine on Apple’s iPhone and iPod Touch using the free YouTube app.

    Apple argues (perhaps rightly) that Flash has some inherent security flaws. My understanding is that Adobe Reader, Acrobat, Flash and other desktop applications that interface with web content have these same vulnerabilities.

    I believe that due to the shear volume of iPhone users (with iPod Touch & iPad Tablet), practical methods for presenting Flash content on these devices will be forthcoming in abundance. Then we’ll have competing software, technology, OS, platform, hardware and other factors under the weight of “evolutionary” pressure. Right now, Apple seems to be ahead in the world of mobile apps. The next year or two should tell what the consuming public will choose from among the competing admixtures. I hope for as much openness and interoperability as possible.

    I’m not sure if HTML 5 will be the answer, but proprietary software like Flash may well be forced to work with the more widely available and accepted standards.

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