Did Steve Jobs Just Kill Flash?

How the iPad could dictate the future of the Web.

Steve Jobs with the iPad

What was Steve Jobs thinking? That’s been the general reaction to the most obvious shortcoming of Apple’s new iPad—the tablet doesn’t support Flash. While Jobs claims his new device will offer the best browsing experience on the planet, that’s a hard argument to make when the iPad throws up little blue Lego icons when it encounters most Web videos. Load up the New York Times’ home page, for instance, and you’ll see the sorry-this-doesn’t-work Lego where you’d normally see a video player.

Since its launch in 1996, Flash has come to power nearly everything online that isn’t static: streaming video players, interactive graphics, animated ads, and more. Of the 100 most popular sites on the Web, 85 use Flash. Web surfers rarely upgrade their browsers, but they’re quick to install the latest version of the Flash player, meaning Flash is the primary way that the Web gets new powers. So if you’re going to launch a device whose main function is Web surfing, why would you ditch Flash?

Apple has never publicly stated its reasons, but they’re easy to guess. The company likely believes Flash is riddled with errors and not worthy of its newest machines. Indeed, the iPad’s inability to play Flash wasn’t much of a surprise—Flash is also absent from the iPhone and the iPod Touch. And because Apple hasn’t allowed it access to key pathways in Mac OS X , Flash is much slower on the Mac than it is on Windows. John Gruber, the Apple-focused blogger who has written several influential posts about Apple’s war with Flash, reports that Apple believes Flash is responsible for at least one-third of all the crashes on the Mac OS. At an all-hands meeting with Apple’s employees last week, Jobs reportedly unloaded on Adobe, which owns Flash, calling the company lazy and its software ridiculously buggy. The iPad doesn’t play Flash because soon no one will be using Flash, he allegedly declared.

If we don’t use Flash, what will we use? Jobs argued that HTML5, a Web standard that all new browsers are rushing to support, will be our salvation. HTML5-capable browsers can do a lot of what Flash does without having to use any plug-ins at all. They can stream audio and video, they can draw pixels on any point of the screen, and they can allow for the kind of features that we’re used to in desktop apps (drag-and-drop, offline storage). What’s more, HTML5, which is backed by many large tech companies (including Apple, Google, and Adobe), is seeing rapid adoption. Last month YouTube launched a beta project to play its videos this way. If you’re using a new version of Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, turn it on and you won’t need Flash to watch Lady Gaga at the Grammys. Pages running HTML5 video also work fine on the iPhone—meaning they’ll look good on the iPad, too.

Adrian Ludwig, group manager for the Flash platform at Adobe, says that his company isn’t worried about the incursion of HTML5. The fact that Web browsers can only now do what Flash first did five years ago proves how important Flash is for the Web, he says. YouTube, Flickr, Mint, Hulu and other sites that depend heavily on Flash chose the plug-in because it was the best way to create advanced Web pages. People who want to do cutting-edge Web development will continue to use Flash, Ludwig argues. After all, there are still plenty of things Flash can do that HTML5 doesn’t support: 3-D, augmented reality, and on-the-fly audio generation among other advanced techniques.

Adobe adds that it isn’t worried about the iPad. Nineteen of the top 20 handset manufacturers are moving to adopt Flash; soon nearly every phone and smart device will carry it. Adobe is itching for Apple to join in—Ludwig told me that the company would even be willing to turn over its Flash source code to Apple or let Apple build its own proprietary version of the Flash player if that’s what it would take to get Flash on the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. Still, he insists, it’s Apple—not Adobe—that will lose out by shunning Flash. Customers will realize that a browser that doesn’t offer Flash isn’t worth having. Either they’ll force Apple to relent, or the iPad will fail.

Or there’s a third option: Web sites, afraid of missing out on a potential new audience, will rush to make their sites compatible with the iPad. Doing so would require some work, but as Gruber points out, many Web companies had no problem building iPhone-specific Web sites or apps. One Flash developer recently pointed to several sites or Web games that would break without Flash, including FarmVille, Hulu, CNN, and Addicting Games. What he didn’t mention is that most of those sites already have iPhone versions. In fact, Adobe is making it very easy for developers to turn their Flash creations into iPhone apps. The company will soon launch an iPhone “packager” for Flash, a system that converts Flash code into apps that can run on the iPhone. In theory, it should be just as easy to create an iPad “packager.”

Will Web companies take Apple’s bait and ditch Flash for HTML5? Perhaps, but they won’t be happy about it. Apple’s insistence on locking down its devices and dictating tech standards to the rest of the industry can’t sit well with developers. Indeed, there are probably no technical reasons why Apple couldn’t figure out a way to incorporate Flash into its devices—Ludwig notes that Flash runs amazingly on the iPhone at Adobe’s labs, and that Apple could institute a number of checks on Flash to make sure it doesn’t use too much of an iPhone’s (or iPad’s) processing power or battery. And if Apple succeeds in killing Flash today, what might it kill tomorrow? How about all streaming sites? After all, they compete with iTunes. Sure, that sounds absurd—but with Apple, you never really know.

Still, for all its tyrannical ways, Apple has been a great proponent of open Web standards, and sites that comply with HTML5 likely have nothing to fear. Look at how Google was able to create an amazing HTML5-powered Web version of Google Voice after Apple rejected the company’s iPhone app. We’re likely to see this sort of thing happen more often. As long as Apple continues to make it a pain to get software approved by its App Store, it will create greater interest in building applications for the open Web—which, in the long run, is good for everyone.

Except for Adobe. Flash isn’t dying, but it has probably peaked. Even if the iPad fails, there’s still the iPhone to worry about—a huge, Flash-free customer base that surfs the Web all day. Today, any developer considering using Flash has to consider the iPhone market. Are the bells and whistles that Flash can provide worth making your site inaccessible to a large segment of mobile users? Sure, some Web designers will stick to Flash anyway—but more might come to think of it as a Web technology of last resort, something you use when you don’t have any other choice.

Jobs has a track record of knowing when a certain technology is about to go the way of the Dodo. When Apple launched the iMac in 1998, * it didn’t include a floppy drive. The tech press cried foul—how could a computer not include a floppy? Jobs predicted we’d use the Internet to move our data, and he was right. The MacBook Air doesn’t include a built-in optical drive. That seemed a little presumptuous when it launched in 2008; now, it seems normal. Jobs could be betting that the same thing will happen with Flash. There will be a lot of whining in the short run, but in time, we’ll all forget we ever wanted it and keep buying iPads.

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Correction, Feb. 2, 2010: This article originally misstated the year Apple introduced the iMac. It was 1998, not 1988. (Return to the corrected sentence.)