What's next in the war on Adobe Flash?

Flash will remain the de facto standard for rich content unless HTML5 is happy to do a deal with the devil.

You always knew you'd struck a nerve when Steve Jobs decided to lead a crusade against you. Apple's head honcho decided to go "thermonuclear" on Android, while Blu-ray was a "bag of hurt". When the iPad came along suddenly netbooks weren't "better than anything". Back in 2010 Jobs also wrote a 1500 word manifesto on why Adobe's Flash was "no longer necessary"and thus barred from iGadgets.

At the time Jobs claimed he'd "never seen" Flash perform well on a mobile device, although he wasn't looking very hard as the recently released HTC Desire offered smooth Flash video playback. It's true that Flash performance on Android can be hit and miss, but when you cut through Jobs' reality distortion field it wasn't hard to see the business reasons behind bad-mouthing Flash. The lack of Flash on iGadgets (along with Blu-ray on Macs) was significant because it increased people's reliance on the iTunes store for services and content. These days it's clear that the primary goal of every Apple product is to drive people to the iTunes store -- Cupertino's golden goose.

Of course Jobs had so much influence that his prophecies tended to be self-fulfilling. Now Adobe has halted development of Flash for Android, withdrawing it from the Google Play Store and declaring there won't be official support for Android 4.1 Jellybean. Instead Adobe intends to focus on HTML5 and AIR-based native apps for smartphones, while retaining Flash for desktops.

You can argue that Flash is less relevant in the mobile space with the move towards HTML5, but HTML5 take up was driven by the need for iPhone compatibility. So Jobs wasn't predicting the future as much as he was dictating it.

Flash for Android isn't completely dead. Security updates will be available for another 12 months if you have a device with Flash already installed, or pre-installed by the manufacturer. If you missed the cut-off date there is a workaround -- you can can still download the APK from Adobe and sideload it onto an Android device, but these are developer versions which won't receive security fixes from the app store.

With the demise of Flash on mobile devices, its detractors are now baying for its blood on the desktop. Some of them will tell you that Flash is already dead but that's just wishful thinking. Content makers and those who deliver it have too much riding on Flash and HTML5 simply doesn't want to play ball.

It's true that it's getting easier to live without Flash on the desktop and you can see why people hate it. Flash is generally employed for the benefit of advertisers and over-zealous web designers to the detriment of end users. If you install a Flash blocker plugin in your browser you'll be surprised at how much unnecessary content it blocks and how rarely you need to disable it. You'll also be pleasantly surprised by the performance boost it gives your computer, especially an old Mac.

Technologies such as HTML5 are clearly the way of the future. Eventually Flash could fall by the wayside, as Real Player did before it. But for now the reliance of so many high profile video sites on Flash ensures that it has a future on the desktop. They're sticking with Flash because it offers Digital Rights Management protection which HTML5's backers are reluctant to add.

Video giants such as YouTube, Hulu and BBC iPlayer are all built on Flash, along with all of Australia's major Catch Up TV services (except for NineMSN which is obligated to go with Silverlight because it's in bed with Microsoft). Netflix also uses Silverlight. Most of these services have dipped their toe into HTML5, particularly when targeting mobile devices, and YouTube even offers a HTML5 trial. But for now these video giants are sticking with Flash because it gives them more control over how their video is used online. For example the BBC tweaked iPlayer's Flash implementation to add a verification layer which locked out access via open source players such as Xbox Media Centre. Many game developers are likely to stick with Flash for similar reasons. These web giants aren't going to fully back HTML5 until it offers the same level of protection as Flash can, although such a move would go against the spirit of the open standards movement.

Earlier this year Microsoft, Google and Netflix put forward a draft model for adding support for Encrypted Media Extensions to HTML5. They haven't proposed actually building DRM into the HTML5 standard, but even the idea of a DRM extension has been labelled "unethical" by HTML5 editor and custodian Ian Hickson -- a Netscape alumnus who now works for Google. Keep in mind that Microsoft, Google and Netflix are really just the middlemen here. They need to ensure a secure content delivery platform to appease the major content providers such as the movie houses. The Motion Picture Association of America is the National Rifle Association of the content industry -- not someone you want to pick a fight with. As long as HTML5 refuses to be a team player, Flash is still in the game.

Adobe has unveiled its "Flash Next" roadmap for the next five to ten years, and in the short-term it revolves around improving the performance and stability of Flash on the desktop. On mobile devices it intends to focus on HTML5 and AIR-based native apps, with the Adobe's AIR platform capable of acting as a de facto security wrapper for HTML5 content.

The video giants are still experimenting with HTML5, but mostly in controlled environments such as on set-top boxes, games consoles and mobile devices. Offering mobile-friendly HTML5 content over the open web leaves it exposed, unless the content is provided via a secure app. So delivering HTML5 without DRM is likely to drive content providers to the app stores, where the likes of Apple can demand a slice of the action. It looks like Steve Jobs gets the last laugh, unless HTML5's backers are prepared to sell out their principles and embrace Digital Rights Management.

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