Adobe has moved forward with its Flash-based strategy, announcing today Flash Player 11 and AIR 3 for creating "immersive" application experiences across devices and platforms. The announcement comes on the heels of ongoing setbacks at the hands of standards-based HTML5 technologies, which do not require proprietary plug-ins like Flash to enable the kinds of multimedia capabilities favored on today's mobile and desktop Web.
Slated to ship to desktop systems in early October, Flash Player 11 and AIR 3 will feature hardware-accelerated rendering that will render 2D and 3D graphics "1,000 times faster" than with Flash Player 10 and AIR 2, according to the company. But Adobe's real challenge may be to keep Flash relevant in a quickly transforming technology landscape.
Flash Player has already been banned from Apple's increasingly popular iOS devices, in favor of HTML5. It's also not available on Windows Phones and on BlackBerry smartphones, although Research in Motion has promised it for some time. And now that Microsoft has revealed that its tablet-oriented, Metro-style version of Internet Explorer 10 will not offer any plug-in support, HTML5 will be the platform of choice on Windows 8-based mobile devices as well. The desktop version of IE10 will continue to support plug-ins.
"Running Metro-style IE plug-in-free improves battery life as well as security, reliability, and privacy for consumers," said Dean Hachamovitch, Microsoft's corporate vice president for Internet Explorer, in a blog post. "Plug-ins were important early on in the Web's history. But the Web has come a long way since then with HTML5."
It's notable that Microsoft's own Silverlight plug-in, long a competitor to Flash, will also suffer at the hands of the change in IE policy.
Adobe, however, believes Flash will remain vital on Windows desktops. "We expect Windows desktop to be extremely popular for years to come (including Windows 8 desktop) and that it will support Flash just fine, including rich Web-based games and premium videos that require Flash. In addition, we expect Flash-based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the way they are on Android, iOS, and BlackBerry Tablet OS today," wrote Danny Winokur, general manager for platforms at Adobe, in a blog post.
Winokur's blog post also stressed Adobe's own support of HTML5.
The future of Flash
Flash's long-term prospects will no doubt be tied to usage. Even then, some Web-based organizations are already shifting away from Flash, in favor of HTML5.
Web property SlideShare, which offers a website for sharing PowerPoint presentations, is one such entity moving more tasks to HTML5. "We're reducing the amount of Flash on our site," says Jon Boutelle, SlideShare's CTO. "It's primarily because it's really hard to find engineers who want to work in Flash. It's perceived as a designer tool, not an engineer's tool."
But Boutelle did acknowledge that Flash still offers some unique capabilities. "The thing with Flash is it does some magic stuff that you can't do any other way, and it's also doing some stuff that's being replaced by HTML5." Flash is the way for accessing a user's camera and microphone, he says. But HTML5 is now replacing Flash in the areas of embedded fonts and graphics. The lack of Flash support on iPhone and iPad also is "definitely an issue," says Boutelle.
Developer tools still key for Adobe
Analysts offered mix reactions when asked about the continued relevance of Flash.
"I do agree with Adobe's critics that Flash in the browser on phones and tablets doesn't always provide the best experience, even on the mobile platforms that do support it, such as Android and QNX [used in BlackBerry tablets and planned for use in future BlackBerry smartphones]," says Avi Greengart, an analyst at Current Analysis. "But Adobe doesn't make money selling Flash; it makes money selling tools. On the PC browser, Flash is still the most common runtime environment for casual gaming, video, and graphical websites, and Adobe's tools can be used to create, manage, and help monetize those efforts."
"Flash is still well-supported on the desktop, and as other Web technologies have evolved, so too has Flash," says Michael Gartenberg, an analyst at Gartner. "For many use cases, Flash remains the technology of choice. Adobe's challenge is to continue to drive that effort forward."
Flash Player 11 and AIR 3 ship for desktop systems in early October. Specific support plans for mobile devices will be revealed when the software ships for mobile systems in a few months, although an Adobe official acknowledged Android was a good bet to be supported. iOS is already supported by AIR, the offical noted.
In other highlights, AIR 3 native extensions will enable developers to tap into software and hardware capabilities, including access to device data and Near Field Communications. Developers will also be able to automatically package AIR 3 with applications to simplify installation on Android, Windows, Mac OS X, and iOS devices.
Adobe is also extending support for 64-bit OSes and browsers on Mac, Windows, and Linux. H.264 video can be played on iOS via AIR 3. The upgraded products will also enable protection of premium content sent to mobile devices via Flash Access 3.
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