How Adobe Flash lost its way

Despite early successes on the Web, the latter years of Flash have been a tale of missed opportunities

Adobe has long dreamed of establishing Flash as a premier cross-device rich application development platform, but as the competition mounts, those hopes appear to be dwindling. This could be Adobe's last chance.

As its annual Max developer conference approaches, Adobe has announced details of the forthcoming Flash Player 11, along with AIR 3, the latest iteration of the Adobe Integrated Runtime desktop app based on Flash technology. Among the top features of the new versions is hardware-based 2D and 3D graphics acceleration, which Adobe promises will make Flash content run "1,000 times faster."

[ InfoWorld's Paul Krill reports that Adobe is preparing to release Flash 11 just as the industry is turning away from Flash. | Get software development news and insights from InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

In addition, Adobe has hinted that the Max keynotes will unveil "a new company initiative that reimagines content authoring" and transform "the creative process across mobile devices, personal computers, and the cloud."

Even if Adobe delivers on its grand pronouncements, all this may prove too little, too late. Once, Flash was near-ubiquitous. Today, as consumers move away from desktop PCs toward smartphones, tablets, and other devices, Flash's influence is waning. Apple stopped shipping the Flash Player with new Macs in 2010 and forbade it outright on iOS devices, amid scathing criticism from then-CEO Steve Jobs. Now comes word that the Internet Explorer 10 browser for Metro, Microsoft's new Start screen shipping with Windows 8, will not support any plug-ins, including Flash.

If Adobe hopes to reignite interest in the platform now, what it ships this year can't merely be iterative. It must be downright spectacular.

Advantage: Silverlight
Flash fans are sure to point out that Windows 8 will also ship with a desktop version of IE10 that still supports the plug-in; Google ships its Chrome browser with a version of Flash built in as well. Increasingly, however, this is beside the point. On the Web, Flash faces the growing challenge of HTML5. Soon, Web developers are likely to turn to Flash for only the most media-rich applications -- such as those that need access to Webcams and microphones.

Some will also argue that although Metro-style IE10 won't support the Flash plug-in, it won't support the Silverlight plug-in, either. Silverlight has long been viewed as Microsoft's direct competitor to Flash, and critics see this latest development as a victory for Adobe and an admission on Microsoft's part that Silverlight is a failure. But they're wrong.

Silverlight as a brand seems to be fading out of view, but its technology definitely is not. The top way to build apps for Windows 8's Metro environment is using a combination of HTML5, JavaScript, XAML, and .Net-managed code -- in other words, pretty much all the same stuff that goes into Silverlight apps. When you develop apps for Metro, you essentially are a Silverlight developer.

The message is clear: Instead of creating Silverlight content to be served over the Web and wedged into a browser window via a plug-in, developers can use the same skills, technologies, and techniques to offer the same content as first-class apps for Windows, using touch-centric Metro-style UIs.

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