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Flash vs Apple: A Digital Designer’s Opinion.

April 30th, 2010

Since I was a kid, when my dad brought home a new Apple LC III, I’ve been a Mac guy. Every computer I’ve ever owned, all six of them, has been made by Apple. I am typing this on a Mac Pro, my iPhone is resting in my pocket, and my little red iPod Mini is sitting there neglected on the bookshelf in the corner. I also have quite a history with Flash. I started out nearly ten years ago animating things in Director and Flash. I now design and build complex experiences in Flash using AS3, Flash’s powerful programming language. I respect both companies for the great user-centric digital experiences they’ve enabled over the years, but I’m stewing over the philosophical direction that Apple seems to be taking with their newest portable devices — a direction that could set the stage for some very lame industry practices.

I’ve taken part in many-a-heated debate lately over Apple’s campaign to exclude Flash from all of their portable devices. Apple’s position on the topic, as is clearly evidenced in a letter released yesterday by Steve Jobs, is that Flash is a misguided proprietary software platform that is best replaced by other technologies. He, and many angry bloggers, point to a still-in-development revision to HTML (the programming language that makes up the foundation of the Internet) called HTML5 as providing a viable replacement for Flash. HTML5 won’t be finished until an estimated 2022, but one of the features that is stable now is video playback within the browser itself. HTML5 uses a technology called H.264 (a video codec that itself is proprietary) to play high quality video. You can try it out on many sites already, including YouTube and Vimeo. But does this new technology replace Flash?

One of the big problems with HTML5′s H.264 video playback is that it doesn’t support ads, annotations, or any other “interactive” elements within the video player. It just plays back video. This is great for video watchers, and if all Flash did was play video, I would totally jump on the “Kill Flash” bandwagon. However, if content makers are unable to make any money from offering video online, many of them simply won’t offer video online. Gone will be popular sites like HULU that depend on in-video commercials to pay for the content that users can now watch for free. If television stations couldn’t put ads between their programs, all that TV would offer us for entertainment would be the public access channel. The whole reason TV exists as it does today is because of ads. People hate ads, but it is how the people that make the shows we love pay the bills. Imagine television with no Lost, no House, no Seinfeld, no Doogie Howser MD… it would be pretty sad.

Actually, the TV analogy is a pretty useful one to illustrate the real reasons why Apple would want Flash blocked on their devices. Picture Apple as a Pay-Per-View television company. When you turn on your television, you would pay $1 for each sitcom and $4 for each movie that you wanted to watch. If this system of pay-per-play was the only way that TV shows could make any money, and it was the only way you could get access to content – Apple would be in a very strong position indeed. They would be gatekeeper – deciding which shows you could watch – and they would profit from everything you saw on your TV. If Flash came along and offered television producers a way to get their content to viewers that enabled them to pay their bills by selling their own advertising – bypassing Apple’s Pay-Per-View system and basically turning your TV into the experience it is today – you can see very easily why Apple would be balk at the prospect. Getting back to the real matter at hand – it almost doesn’t matter that HTML5 allows browsers to play back video at a quality equal to Flash. No websites will be able to afford to offer you any decent content if they can’t make money from its consumption. This is why the HTML5 argument is merely a diversion from the real truth: that Apple needs to ensure that iTunes is the only way that you can conveniently access premium media on your iPhone and iPad. This is how they make money.

Now, this business decision makes a fair amount of sense – and I don’t blame Apple for making it. I would want to keep making as much money as I could if I developed a rad device like the iPhone or iPad. I would probably feel entitled to it as the maker of what are arguably the best portable consumer electronics in the world. However, since Google and Microsoft are both promising excellent mobile experiences that will allow Flash into their ecosystem, I think that this protectionist decision by Apple is shortsighted, and I certainly think that many of their public reasons for excluding Flash are disingenuous.

So – what’s the big deal? Why do I care if Flash is allowed on a phone or not? While we’re at it, why should YOU care? Like I said before, Flash isn’t just a video player. Even if you didn’t value the relative freedom of a system that allows content creators to make money from streaming video without charging the consumer – allowing both popular and unpopular video content to survive and subsist online – you should examine what else Flash has to offer. As it turns out, Flash is the most powerful and easy-to-use cross-platform multimedia-friendly software authoring tool that currently exists. This means that people can make a compelling multimedia experience – a game, a video player, an art project, whatever – and it will work on nearly any device that has a web browser. This is very, very good both for people who make and people who enjoy these experiences. It means that authors don’t have to develop a different version of their experience in a different programming language for every single device that a user might own. When the New York Times makes an app for the iPhone – only owners of an iPhone can use that app. The New York Times has to make a whole new app for someone that owns a different phone. You can see why this isn’t ideal for anyone else other than the phone manufacturers – each of whom are competing for a developer’s attention at the cost of all the other potential users interested in the content. For the New York Times, developing multiple version of their apps might not be a big deal, but to the average developer, it is a huge roadblock. Don’t make me choose who has access to my ideas – this seems backwards.

I chose to learn to make experiences in Flash because it allows me to make really interesting, fun digital experiences that are accessible to nearly anyone. Dreaming up and designing these websites is very enjoyable, but programming them can be quite tedious and time consuming. If the future of multimedia experiences means having to develop an experience for half a dozen different phones in as many programming languages (or choosing one and alienating everyone else), then I’m not so interested in making a project anymore. This is why we need Flash, or something just as powerful – so that we can make an app once and have it go out to all the available platforms. This is ideal for developers, and it ensures that users have access to all the cool things we make.

However, all these dreams of powerful web standards aside, we know that the real way that Apple makes money is by differentiating its products from everything else on the market. They need you to think that the iPhone is unique – that the apps that essentially define its functionality can’t be found anywhere else. The fear that we will lose out on some sort of compelling and unique experience keeps us paying a lot for an expensive phone with an expensive monthly fee.

It’s true that Adobe also benefits from people adopting their product to develop applications, and that it also represent proprietary technologies and unique experiences. However, Adobe makes their money by ensuring that apps made with Flash are available to whomever the author chooses, while Apple makes their money by ensuring that authors only offer their creations in one place: on Apple devices. I will evangelize the philosophy and practice of the former over the latter any day of the week.

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