A lot has been said since Steve Jobs wrote his Thoughts on Flash open letter, and while there is a lot of Apple spin in it, there are some truths. Adobe responded with a letter from their founders but I still feel that Apple do have a point.
There are two main issues here:
- The Flash plugin has bugs – it crashes, and, according to Microsoft, a security flaw in it was the most common exploit last year.
- There is no viable alternative plugin that plays Flash files
The first issue is a big one, and I get the impression that Adobe’s quality assurance processes aren’t up to scratch. Adobe boasts about Flash being installed on most of the world’s computers, but to me it doesn’t seem as if they take the responsibility that this creates. If your software is ubiquitous, then people are going to find ways of exploiting it for ill-gain – this is why people write viruses for Windows more than Mac OS X. The Flash Crash site will crash the Flash plugin – and yet the owner of the site reported this to Adobe in September 2008.
And in all but the most modern browsers, if Flash crashes, so does the browser. I have little doubt in my mind that one of the main reasons that browser vendors like Apple, Google, Mozilla and Microsoft have been moving to ‘Out of process plugins’ is driven by Flash’s flaws – in the out of process model, a crash in the Flash plugin will only kill its parent process and not the whole browser.
The second issue is that if you want to watch a Flash file, in most cases you must use the Flash plugin. Attempts at an open source alternative, such as Gnash, do exist, but they’re not up to parity with the current Flash plugin – Gnash for example is only equivalent to Flash version 7 (with some version 8 and 9 features), whereas the official client is at version 10. Compare this to viewing PDF files where there are viable alternatives to Adobe Reader, such as FoxIt or Apple’s built-in Preview application on OS X.
Ed Bott states the Flash is the new Vista – it’s a poor quality product and computer users are increasing having a poor perception of it. But because so many web sites use Flash, it’s a necessary evil.
Or at least, it is currently a necessary evil.
HTML5 will make the situation better. It avoids the second issue that I mentioned – each browser vendor will implement it themselves, rather than relying on a third-party plugin, and this is especially important on mobile devices as the HTML5 code be written in a way that fully utilises the hardware of the device. Adobe is only now introducing hardware-accelerated H.264 video in its Mac Flash plugin, whereas on the iPhone, H.264 video has been hardware accelerated from the start when used through HTML. Using hardware acceleration where possible on mobile devices is important for performance and battery life reasons.
Once Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4 are released, we should find that all the main web browsers have sufficient HTML5 support for Flash to be no longer necessary in many cases. Of course, IE9 isn’t available for Windows XP which is still the world’s most used operating system, and it will take time for people to upgrade.
Ed Bott makes a good conclusion – he sees Flash still being around in 5 years, but its dominance will have diminished. By how much so will depend on what Adobe does next. If it can pull its finger out and make the Flash plugin more secure, with less bugs and better hardware acceleration (not just for H.264 but also 2D graphics, using Direct2D for example), then it may have a brighter future. If they remain complacent, they could be in trouble in a few years time.