The iPad, HTML 5 and Flash

The recent release of the iPad and the decision by Apple not to include the flash plug-in on the device has triggered masses of debate in twitter, blogs and on a much smaller stage, the MadeByPi office.  The debate has been about both the validity of Apple's decision and the wider subject future of flash itself as part of the web now that the HTML 5 specification is starting to cover areas where flash has been the default tool. 

MadeByPi have made some fantastic content over the years using the flash plug-in and we are also excited about the future of the web both on new devices like the iPad and with new standards like HTML 5 .The current debate will have an impact on the way we work and the front end of  sites we build over the coming years.  What follows is not a corporate opinion or a consensual opinion (there is no consensus in the office) but is my own personal opinion.

Apple's decision is not entirely surprising since the iPad is essentially a bigger iPhone and the iPhone doesn't support flash but it wasn't a moot decision.  The improved CPU, screen size and target market of the iPad as a sofa browser meant that it wasn't an unreasonable expectation that the device would offer the same browsing experience as your workaday desktop / laptop or net-book and that means being able to see flash based contet. Apple have not made any clear statement as to why  it was omitted and I wish they would, mainly so we could stop trying to second guess them in the MadeByPi office and get back to talking about important things like when Matt would make a brew next.

If their reasoning is technical and Apple wont support the plug-in due to the effect of CPU intensive Flash content on battery life , or the number of crashes caused in Safari that would send a clear benchmark to Adobe that they could work on and improve. That would be a good thing for all web users and content developers. If Apples support for standards and HTML 5 is so strong that they think politically that the plug-in should be left off then fair enough, regardless of whether you agree with them it would be a brave and principled decision.  If their reasoning is financial and they want users to continue spend lots of money in the app store rather then mess about with free flash content then, again, fair enough. It wouldn't be brave or principled but it's their train set.

An alternate view is that it's just to stir some controversy and drive some further publicity, I imagine Apples PR agency have long coveted a mention on the MadeByPi blog, their wish has now come true and on a million other tweets and blogs too. Perhaps they are just holding it back for the new version of the iPad next year when they could add features it should have had from the very beginning like a video camera and flash support.  I'm not sure these last two options are likely because I made them up but I agree with the summary (although not all of the content) of this blog post that its a mix of the first three technical, political and financial reasons and its easier for Apple to stay quiet than come clean and tell the world the truth.

The lack of inclusion of the flash plug-in on the iPad has had varied reactions.  Jefferey Zeldman approves as it will improve the use of web standards as sites will have to include alternative semantic content whenever flash content is used.  Adobe's flash platform team have expressed their understandable dissapointment that the plugin is not included making a large amount of web content unavailable on the iPad.  There has also been alot of praise for the decision since this the support of HTML 5 in Safari means that we shouldn't use flash anymore and this is essentially the first steps in the removal of  flash from the entire web.  Personally I would rather see flash on the device and let content producers and the public who consume the content make the decision about when (or if) flash is a valid technology.

The wider debate that it is time for us all to start to use HTML 5 and abandon Flash on all devices is a little premature and too clear cut for me.  I can't wait for HTML 5 to be the markup we use day to day and I think clearly Flash's days as the technology to display video on the web are over.  Without support from all of the browser (yes that one in particular) and some resolution over the final niggles in the HTML5 spec (can't a grown up step in and sort out the video codec nonsense?) its still a way off, probably a time span more likely to be measured in years than months.

Even when the majority of user have browsers that meet the HTML5 spec I think its likely that Flash will still be the best tool for some types of content. Right now without some seriously good tools coming out I can't see how HTML5 would be effective and economical for a lot of the animation, gaming and educational content that is produced using Flash. With control of the flash plug-in platform Adobe have the ability to quickly innovate. I have no idea what that form that will take and whether it will take off but if they do produce something good they can get it onto a lot of machines very quickly and there are a platoon of designers and developers who are very qualified to capitalize on it.