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How Adobe is moving on from Flash to embrace HTML5

Chris Minnick and Ed Tittel | May 2, 2014
Adobe Flash is still widely used, but it's seen as obsolete in the face of HTML5. In response, Adobe is taking several steps to adapt and contribute to a HTML5 future without browser plugins.

Steve Jobs' famous Thoughts on Flash article from April 2010 marked the beginning of the end for Adobe Flash's future on mobile. Jobs listed several reasons why iOS wouldn't support Flash. At the time, Mobile Flash was seen as a pretty hot technology and a great way to create cross-platform apps — if only Apple would just get with the times and approve it for the iPhone.

Not supporting Flash was a bold and controversial move. In short order, however, Apple's position pushed Web developers to start learning about HTML5. It also got Adobe to move beyond Flash and reinvent some of its core product offerings.

After Apple Rejected Flash, Adobe Had to Embrace Open Source

Adobe has a long history with open source — primarily in creating expensive commercial products that spur others to develop open-source alternatives. Photoshop inspired GIMP, Dreamweaver beget a passel of open-source WYSIWYG HTML editors, and Adobe's large commercial font library prompted many low-cost, free and open-source alternatives.

In some cases, Adobe spurred open-source standards by making the company's proprietary standards and products more compatible with such standards. For example, Adobe Illustrator supports SVG, and Flash's ActionScript language is a dialog of ECMAScript (aka JavaScript). Adobe also has a history of donating software to the open source community; its open-source websites on SourceForge and GitHub list more than 100 projects that Adobe has released, along with numerous projects to which Adobe still contributes.

For years, though, Adobe and Flash seemed to compete with the Open Web. Until recently, Adobe was clearly winning, too. The free (but not open source) Flash plugin is installed in nearly every desktop browser and was the de facto standard for Web video and multimedia. Adobe's goal was to make Flash just as ubiquitous on mobile devices. When Apple rejected Flash, quashing that dream, Adobe embraced HTML5 and the Open Web wholeheartedly.

Adobe's problem, however, was the lack of a good alternative to Flash. HTML5 was still in its infancy, and key features still weren't well-supported in any browser, especially mobile versions. Apple's creation and open sourcing of the WebKit browser engine moved the Open Web and HTML5 a giant leap forward — but there was (and still is) a long way to go before Web standards could compete with Flash in terms of functionality, ease of development and ubiquity.

In a perfect world, HTML5, CSS3 and JavaScript would be stable and fully baked the same way in every browser. But even HTML5 and WebKit lacked key functionality that Flash could provide. Compared to Flash, HTML5 had a few big shortfalls, including the following:

  • Lack of good development tools
  • Unfinished HTML5 and CSS3 standards not fully implemented anywhere
  • Inability of HTML5 and CSS3 to access device functionality directly
  • No way to distribute HTML5 apps in app stores

 

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