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Now It’s Inevitable: Flash is Dying!

In 1998, Apple killed the floppy drive. It took a few years for the rest of the industry to catch up, but the handwriting was clearly on the wall. Of course, anyone who actually lost data on a worn or defective floppy would only cheer the end of that flawed storage scheme.

Segue to 2007. Apple introduces the iPhone without support for Flash. People complain, but iPhones sell at ever-increasing rates. Today, with some 40 million of them around the world, and the iPad on the immediate horizon, Steve Jobs has made it quite clear that Flash is the floppy drive of the 21st century. It’s time for it to go.

Now there have been lots of complaints from the tech media, but you have to wonder whether some of those stories were actually fed by Adobe’s spin machine. Sure, the players are given away free, but you have to pay for the developer tools, and that’s where Adobe earns lots of money. Indeed they bought Macromedia to get Flash and — of course — kill Illustrator’s main competitor, FreeHand.

Yes, it’s true that the lack of Flash on Apple’s mobile gear means that many sites will not look right. Whether navigation menus, introductory videos or special features, you won’t be able to access all the available content.

Adobe takes the position that they are working on a version of Flash that will better support mobile platforms, with improved support for Multi-Touch, which is where the existing version fails badly. Maybe that’ll happen, but Steve Jobs is not likely to backtrack on his decision. He’s already accused Adobe’s developers of being “lazy,” and complained that Flash is the number one cause of crashes on Macs.

You’ll note that, with Snow Leopard, browser plugins are sandboxed, so if they crash, it’s not accompanied by the application itself. In fact, 90% of the very few crashes I’ve encountered since installing Snow Leopard last August were, in fact, caused by Flash.

Now as tens of millions of additional customers acquire Apple’s mobile products, the number of visitors to Flash-based sites will also decline, which pretty much forces the issue. Web developers must either build two versions of their sites to accommodate the different requirements of their potential visitors, or just set Flash aside and try to work within open Web standards.

That may be happening. Google is beta testing an alternative to YouTube without Flash, and just this week Virgin America, a small airline, decided to drop Flash from its site. In the Macworld article reporting on the change, writer Dan Moren concludes, “Because, as we know, all it really takes in the corporate world is one executive with an iPhone to ask why she can’t use the company’s site on her device.”

But that’s just the beginning. Any site that depends on attracting the highest possible number of visitors to attract ads and/or garner subscription revenue will also take notice when the potential customer base drops. One thing is certain, and that is Apple will not be easily persuaded to work out something with Adobe to ultimately support Flash. I’m not going to say never, because it’s quite possible that Adobe, seeing the loss of potential profits, will press its development team to tame Flash for the iPhone and address all or most of Apple’s concerns.

But the window of opportunity is small, and I suspect if it doesn’t happen this year, the chances that Flash will persevere despite the lack of support from Apple are slim to none. Yes, Apple still has a minority share of the smartphone market, but they also have a disproportionate share of mobile-based Web users. Maybe that disparity will even itself out some as competing devices improve their Web access, but the problems with Flash will persist.

As has already been mentioned, even if Flash runs with decent performance, and even if it doesn’t hog system resources or compromise stability, that doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to magically access all or most Flash sites on your smartphone. Flash is designed to work with regular personal computers that have conventional input devices. The Multi-Touch universe can cause loads and loads of trouble, starting with the imprecision of using your finger as a pointing device on a tiny screen. Not only will Flash have to be updated to support such issues, but many sites may have to be reprogrammed substantially to accommodate the changes. It’s not an easy process.

As a result, Web developers might begin to look for the free, open source alternatives to Flash that don’t require paying fees for Adobe’s products.

In a few years, Steve Jobs may be proven correct once again. Flash will be history, and Adobe is just going to have to adapt to the situation and let those other products keep them in business. It’s not as if Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign are going away any time soon, even without Flash support.