Lights out for Flash and its RIA brethren

Apple's ban on Flash for the iPhone is another nail in the coffin for proprietary RIA platforms -- and good riddance

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From an Apple PR perspective, these are fair points. Right or wrong, mobile phone users do tend to associate service problems with their handset vendor. An iPhone that drops calls is an iPhone that drops calls, regardless of whether the problem lies with Apple's hardware or AT&T's network. Similarly, Apple would take the blame for iPhones that were clumsy to use, executed applications slowly, and had short battery life, even when a poor-performing RIA runtime was the real culprit.

More important, however, Jobs' criticisms of Flash on mobile devices only echo the kind of complaints that have dogged the platform on PCs for years. Flash performance on Mac OS X is underwhelming, to say the least, and the Adobe AIR platform has been plagued with memory leaks. Flash lacks support for standard browser features, such as bookmarks and the Back button. And while Flash content looks nice in a browser window, it falls short for other applications. Because of its roots as a multimedia file format, Flash doesn't always play well with screen readers and other assistive devices for the disabled, and search engines have a harder time indexing Flash content than comparatively text-based HTML. The same is true for most other plug-in-based RIA platforms.

Not entirely an open-and-shut case
But Jobs' top complaint about Flash has always been the most crucial. Because Flash is a proprietary platform, building applications on Flash makes developers beholden to Adobe -- both for the Flash runtime itself and for the developer tools to go with it -- now and for the foreseeable future. Adobe is free to add or drop features, change its APIs, alter its pricing and licensing terms, or withdraw its products completely; developers have no choice but to go along.

On the other hand, there's HTML, a completely open platform with roots in free software that's maintained by an industry-wide consortium. Given the choice, it's hard to see why any developer would be willing to take on the risks imposed by a proprietary RIA platform -- particularly now that HTML5 promises to bring huge advances in multimedia and interactivity. Little wonder that not just Apple, but Google and even Microsoft see HTML5 as "the future of the Web."

Still, here too is where Jobs' comments ring a little hollow, for as surely as Flash is proprietary, Apple's Cocoa APIs for the iPhone OS are every bit as much so. Furthemore, while developers for rival smartphone platforms -- including Android, BlackBerry, and Symbian -- can write their apps in Java and other languages, iPhone developers must use Objective-C, a language that's all but exclusive to Apple.

Far from being the champions of openness that Jobs suggests, then, it's easy to suspect Apple of having an ulterior motive for blocking Flash. Perhaps it's afraid that an unrestricted Flash runtime would allow iPhone users to download Flash applications directly from the Web, bypassing the App Store (and thus Apple's revenue stream). Reversing the ban on Adobe's Flash CS5 cross-compiler, which transforms Flash content into native apps that can only be installed from the App Store, would be a welcome demonstration of Apple's good faith.

With Flash now making its way to Android and other platforms, however, we'll soon see if Steve Jobs' instincts were correct. I for one suspect Flash won't be nearly as big a hit in the mobile developer community as Adobe hopes, for the reasons Jobs cites and more. It took guts for Jobs to say the time for proprietary RIA platforms is over. I say good riddance.

This article, "Lights out for Flash and its RIA brethren," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in software development at InfoWorld.com.

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