The Present and Future of Flash

Adobe Flash is at an interesting point in its existence. For about a decade, it was the only way to get rich, dynamic content onto the web. If it was the year 2001 and you wanted a really sleek UI, or video, or any kind of animation, Flash was your best bet — it was pretty much a monopoly. Then things started to change:

  • DHTML started to take over some of the really basic use-cases for dynamic events like rollovers and showing/hiding content.
  • AJAX made truly dynamic content easier for the non-flash world.
  • The mobile web started to take off, with most devices not capable of supporting Flash.
  • Microsoft released Silverlight, a competitor to Flash in the rich interface space.
  • Apple started releasing wildly popular devices that intentionally avoided supporting Flash.
  • Browsers started implementing support for HTML5 and CSS3, which are slowly being adopted by designs that would historically require Flash.

Slowly but surely, alternatives to Flash have been picking up speed, and things beyond Adobe’s control have prevented Flash from penetrating certain markets (mobile in particular). What does this mean for Flash as a technology?

Flash isn’t going away anytime soon…

This isn’t one of those posts about how HTML5 or the iPad or global warming is going to spell the end of Flash. Flash is a major player in many areas of the web, most of which won’t change anytime soon. In particular:

Games — There are tons of online Flash games. This is a huge market that Flash has absolutely dominated since day one, and none of the technologies mentioned above can compete with Flash on this level of interactivity.

Video — Like it or not, HTML5 is not yet strong enough to handle cross-browser, web-based video. Even when it is (and it will be sooner than you think) Flash will still be used well into the future because it’s the only solution for legacy browsers, and the vast majority of users don’t update their browsers as often as they should.

On top of that, Adobe has created an entire ecosystem of software and a vibrant community for designing, building, and publishing Flash-based applications. Plenty of people are heavily invested in these tools, and no amount of evangalism is going to convince them that their problems could be better solved by today’s Flash-alternative du jour.

…but Flash will start having a reduced role on the web in general.

It would be unrealistic to pretend that these new technologies aren’t eating into Flash’s market share. For one, even in the most complex cases, some projects are choosing Silverlight over Flash. Not the majority (not even close) but more than none, and Microsoft is a powerful competitor that can compete with Adobe on the development tools and community levels.

Secondly, HTML5 and CSS3 can do some pretty neat things. For cases such as modern, dynamic navigation and simple logo animation, it will soon make much more sense to use features supported by the browser than a heavyweight proprietary plug-in; especially if all you need is a quick piece of eye candy.

Finally, there are the problems caused by Apple. I can think of three:

No iPad/iPhone Support — The longer this keeps up (and I don’t see it changing anytime soon), the more likely it is that someone will create a cool, interesting way to do fancy, Flash-like things in an iFriendly format. And then a general-mobile format. And then a web format. The last thing Flash needs right now is for some brilliant start-up to shake things up even further.

Macbooks are getting popular — Adobe claims that Flash runs on every platform ever, but as Chris Rawson astutely points out in this excellent article, that’s been easy to say while most of the world has been running Windows. With Apple’s laptops gaining popularity, people are starting to realize that Flash doesn’t run as well in OSX. The more Macbooks Apple sells, the more Adobe’s claims of market domination will start to dissolve.

No iPad/iPhone Support: take two — I want this website to be viewable on the iPhone, the iPad, and whatever whimsical hardware Apple comes up with next. That alone means I’m not going to use Flash in my blog’s design, ever. I’m admittedly in a minority here, but I wouldn’t be surprised if today’s kids getting into web design are also going to want to show off their cool, new, standards-compliant sites on their cool, new, iApproved devices. This sort of trend will slowly but surely push Flash out of the cool-new-site space.

Getting along with OSX is something that Adobe is going to have to work towards to keep Flash competitive, especially as new markets evolve out Apple’s hardware.

I’m not anti-Flash.

I’ve been using Flex Builder to build cutting-edge Flash applications for years, and I still believe there are many cases where Flash is a legitimate choice for creating a rich internet experience; there just aren’t as many as there used to be, and this combination of new, exciting technologies and pressure from Apple are making for some exciting times in the world of web design.

2010 is shaping up to be a wild ride for Flash and its competitors, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us. What are your predictions?

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2 Responses to “The Present and Future of Flash”

  1. Dani Says:

    un related to your post above…
    I herd about Buzz…
    What do you think of Google Buzz? do you think its location on G-mail is going to help or hinder? is it going to live up to all the hype? (better or worse than wave?)

  2. dan Says:

    Buzz is an interesting technology. Like any social networking system, it’s only going to be any good if lots of people use it. They’re trying to encourage this by enabling it automatically in Gmail, so that will definitely help because it drastically lowers the barrier to entry.

    What they did very badly, however, was the launch. No big announcement or private beta, they just kind of released it without really telling anyone. They did a much better job building hype for Wave (and Chrome and Gmail…) than they did here, and I think that will hurt the initial adoption of Buzz quite a bit.

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