Stop bashing Flash

When Steve Jobs and Microsoft's point man for IE agree, you have a right to be skeptical

Steve Jobs' 1,700-word indictment of Flash is a classic piece of marketing guile. Several of his reasons for barring Flash from the iPhone and iPad hit the mark, from Flash's lack of respect for battery life to the "reliability, security, and performance" problems of many Flash apps.

But Jobs' hypocrisy shows through when he assails Flash as proprietary -- that takes some nerve -- and reiterates his assertion that HTML5 is a panacea that makes Flash unnecessary. He also says the lack of support for Flash video is no big deal because most videos on the Web, whether in a Flash player or not, use the popular H.264 video codec supported by his platform. Well, sure, H.264 videos will play if, like YouTube, you decide to write an iPhone app or, like the New York Times, you change your Website's video delivery technology.

[ Get the lowdown on the Web's future with "What to expect from HTML5" by InfoWorld contributing editor Neil McAllister. | Follow the latest news in software development with InfoWorld's Developer World newsletter. ]

It didn't take long for Microsoft to chime in. Dean Hachamovitch, general manager for Internet Explorer, bashed Flash's "reliability, security, and performance" (same three words, same order) in Microsoft's IE Blog just hours after Jobs posted. And he offers the broad assertion as Jobs: "The future of the Web is HTML5."

The key word in that sentence is "future." As contributing editor Neil McAllister wrote in his recent InfoWorld feature, "What to expect from HTML5, "It may be years before a completed standard emerges and even longer before the bulk of the Web-surfing public moves to HTML5-compatible browsers."

What exactly are we supposed to do in the meantime? Flash may not be open, but like it or not, it's ubiquitous to the Web and essential to rich interaction on a huge number of sites. To Hachamovitch's credit, he concedes that "Flash remains an important part of delivering a good consumer experience on today's Web." No kidding.

What could possibly motivate Microsoft and Apple to agree on anything? Let's start with Microsoft. If you ask me, Hachamovitch was just surfing the Jobs firestorm to burn Firefox.

See, the bulk of Hachamovitch's post was devoted to explaining that H.264 will be the only video codec natively supported by IE9 -- and should be the codec of choice for HTML5. Both Silverlight and Flash already support H.264, but due to licensing restrictions (you can't embed a proprietary codec in a pure open source browser), Firefox cannot provide native support. In an HTML5 future where neither Flash nor Silverlight will be required to play embedded Web video, Firefox gets aced out.

Jobs' motives are less convoluted. His "most important" reason for shutting out Flash is that it's a "cross-platform development tool." Even more transparently: "The 200,000 apps on Apple's App Store prove that Flash isn't necessary for tens of thousands of developers to create graphically rich applications." In other words, he doesn't want the competition, and wrapping himself in the HTML5 flag is a great way to look "open" as he slams the door on Flash.

Don't get me wrong: I think HTML5 is the future, too (eventually). I also believe poorly written Flash applications are the scourge of the Web. But I've also seen plenty of useful Flash apps, and they seem to be getting better. What's wrong with giving users a choice?

If you haven't noticed, we're in a pitched battle for the future of the Web, from HTML5 video codecs to the faltering struggle to maintain Net neutrality. Every time you lock out an established technology, the more you increase the chances of a Balkanized, nightmarish Web future.

Jobs closes his argument with the assertion that cross-platform apps can never equal apps nestled safely in the App Store. Shouldn't users be the judge of that? Apple needs to do the right thing and open the door to Flash.

This article, "Stop bashing Flash," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Eric Knorr's Modernizing IT blog and get a digest of the key stories each day in the InfoWorld Daily newsletter and on your mobile device at infoworldmobile.com.

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