The End of Flash?

Ever since last week’s iPad launch, the image of an iPad’s web browser with the missing-plugin Lego-brick has been generating a lot of discussion. Is Apple at war with Adobe? Is Adobe’s Flash critical to the web experience? Is Apple’s restriction going to doom the iPad? It’s not only bloggers talking, even the New York times has a story on the issue.

There’s a great deal of support for not including Flash. In fact, the movement away from Flash seems to be gaining momentum. Some arguments focus on Flash’s mouse-biased approach that doesn’t work well for touch-screen devices (ie. how do you do a rollover?). Some argue that Flash’s visual approach doesn’t fit the the web’s push towards semantics. And others argue against the proprietary nature of Flash — and that no single company (ie. Adobe) should maintain control over part of how we experience content. Instead we should design to, and support, the latest open standard: HTML5.

The discussion has been pretty interesting.

Jeffrey Zeldman argues that users don’t want to tweak their browsers and install plug-ins and extensions. “Flash won’t die tomorrow, but plug-in technology is on its way out.” It makes a lot of sense — especially as we move away from traditional computers towards devices like the iPad… even though Flash’s current ubiquity makes that argument a little wobbly.

Michael Pinto compares Flash’s situation to what happened previously with Director:

Then the damn web came along and ruined it all: There was a web version of Director called Shockwave, but due to the overhead of bitmap graphics another program called Flash started to build rapid momentum. Macromedia would acquire Flash and rumor has it that Director is still around but the notion of getting a Lingo gig is history. And now that it’s the year 2010 I’m seeing the same thing slowly start to happen to Flash all over again.

So, what if Flash does die? How will that impact designers who want to create innovative interactive experiences? Does HTML5 give designers the flexibility they need?

We may not know the answer to that yet. HTML5 is an evolving standard. And, as HTML becomes more complex, designers who want to get into the code need to know more and more. It requires designers to get pretty technical.

Zeldman suggests that “Adobe has a brief but golden opportunity to create the tools with which rich HTML5 content is created.” Alternatively, John Gruber asks: What if Flash Were an Open Standard? They’re both great ideas!

Giving designers tools to create rich content is critical to the future of the web. Those tools need to be powerful. But they also need a low cost-of-entry (ie. they should be easy to learn, but become more powerful as you get better at using it). Both Zeldman and Gruber’s ideas support that future.

My only request is that future tools be flexible. For example, designers create experiences with Processing that would be impossible with any other tool. Plus, for all of Processing’s power, it’s also a language that’s (relatively) easy for designers to learn. If we move entirely to open standards, we need to make sure that the creativity, and accessibility (to designers), provided by such custom languages does not disappear.

Allowing for tools that create work and interactions that surprise us is vital. Otherwise we’ll end up with online experiences that all feel the same — and will push designers away from this still evolving medium.

Image at top is from Engadget.