No Flash on the iPad is the Right Choice for Apple

Apple finally announced the Jesus Tablet iPad, launching what they believe to be a new device category. It remains to be seen whether they are correct (although I have my guesses), but the launch of the iPad has rekindled an existing fight between Apple and Adobe.

Apple refused to implement (or allow others to implement) Flash on the iPhone. John Gruber has written about this topic extensively over the past two years. He correctly (though not surprisingly) predicted that the iPad would not support Flash. I say not surprisingly, because all the reasons they had for not supporting Flash on the iPhone still exist for the iPad. OK, one reason: CONTROL. I won't rehash John's arguments, but the summary is, Apple wants to control the experience (and commerce) on the iPhone (iTouch, iPad, etc.), and Flash bypasses that control.

As a newer Apple 'fanboy' (I apprecited Gruber's take: 'There’s a whole class of recent switchers who define “Apple fanboy” as “anyone who’s been an enthusiastic Mac user since before I switched to the Mac”.'), I long avoided Apple because of their demand for control. But after dipping my toe in with iTunes and an Airport Express, I finally gave in and switched to a MacBook Pro and iPhone 3GS (and love them).

I've seen two very different points of view in the past 24 hours regarding Flash on the iPad. When my wife and I were talking about the iPad, I suggested that it could be an alternative to her 13" MacBook, as it does nearly everything she needs. She quickly pointed out that without Flash, it was unappealing to her. (The keyboard is also an issue, but that's a topic for another post).

The second point of view was a post on the Adobe blog by Adrian Ludwig. He pointed out the iPad's lack of Flash, some of the sites that will be unavailable to the iPad users, and that "50 of our partners in the Open Screen Project are working to enable developers and content publishers to deliver to any device". I thought it was a pretty good post from Adobe, pointing out their frustration in a reasonably neutral tone (given their obvious interests). I was a bit surprised by the comments. I didn't do a full tally, but I'd say 90% of the comments were anti-Flash. They complained about the state of Flash on the Mac, and already run Flash blockers on their desktop.

So I see two camps, the general users, who just want the websites to work, and the super users (blog readers) who have a negative perception of Flash and just want it to die. As someone who has built Flash applications, and enjoyed the process and results, I have a biased viewpoint. However, I also have the debug version of the Flash Player installed, so I see first hand how many uncaught exceptions there are in nearly every Flash application I see. There are tons of poorly written Flash applications deployed on the web.

In the end, Apple made the right choice for Apple. I have yet to see a major group of users who are likely iPad buyers in the next 12 months that are upset by the exclusion of Flash. The broader population who may eventually adopt the devices are simply not likely buyers in the short term anyway.

Apple is in a race against Flash. They are gaining huge marketshare in the mobile space, and pushing HTML 5 and the iPhone SDK as the chosen mobile development platforms. As the marketshare continues to grow, the 'Flash Only' sites will be forced to provide mobile or iPhone optimized versions to gain access to growing mobile user base.

We've seen this before. There was a point when web developers optimized their sites for IE 6 exclusively. Now there are websites that actively reject IE6 users, and focus their primary support on Firefox, Safari, and Chrome. This shift occurred because the users demanded it. They were fed up with IE and switched to alternative browsers, and the websites had to adjust or lose the traffic. Apple is attempting to do the same thing with Flash. If they can successfully build a mobile audience without Flash support, websites must respond.

I think HTML 5 and rich applications via plugins (Java FX, Silverlight, Flex) both have their place. Consumer facing high traffic sites should be HTML. The accessibility and SEO trade-offs are simply to great to justify using a plug-in RIA. For applications, whether they are corporate applications, games, or utilities, Flex, Java FX and Silverlight are great alternatives. They provide the benefits of the web deployment model with the power and speed of development of traditional languages.

Looking forward, high level rich languages (Java FX, Silverlight, and Flex) will merge with the increasing functionality of the underlying platform (JavaScript and HTML 5) to create high level languages that 'compile to the browser'. Google's GWT is a first generation example of this, but I believe there is much more to come. Eventually the debate over plug-in architectures will become moot.

The only question is, will it happen fast enough for Apple to avoid a user backlash?

Update: Gruber and Scoble appear to be making the same analogy to the changes Firefox forced on web developers.