Flash Platform Announcements & Impact to RealEyes

Posted on November 18, 2011 at 12:02 pm in Development, Strategic Consulting

The past week has brought a series of announcements from Adobe that has elicited myriad speculation and concern from the Flash Platform and Adobe community.  As a leading Adobe Solutions provider for Flash Platform solutions, RealEyes wants to address these announcements and how we see their impacting our focus in the technological ecosystem.

Before we begin this analysis, from our vantage point, the largest issue with these announcements is the way in which they were communicated—to the public, to partners, everyone.  There was much good news in what Adobe announced; unfortunately, their public relations team chose to focus largely on what was being deprecated, which colored the resulting dialog.

We’d like to take a moment to refocus this conversation for our customers and community.  Contrary to popular debate, Flash is NOT dead.  And here’s why:

Adobe Focus on Mobile Applications

Adobe announced that it would be more aggressively contributing to HTML5, with future Flash Platform development to focus on personal computer and mobile applications.  Great!  Our clients who are developing mobile experiences are universally doing so with the intention of making installable applications.  More Adobe focus in this area will only enhance the experiences that we are able to work with them to deliver.

The Flash Platform is still the best way to develop mobile application experiences intended to be deployed across the major application marketplaces: Apple, Android, and Blackberry.

However, what got the most attention in this announcement was that Adobe is discontinuing development of Flash Player for the mobile browser.  While this got many people up in arms, declaring the general demise of the Flash Player, we at RealEyes can respect this decision and see the validity of it.  For Adobe, the return on investment for this runtime simply wasn’t there, and with the fragmented nature of Android (and a few other issues that contribute to delivering an application to all browser, OS, and mobile hardware configurations) the continued development of the mobile Flash Player would be exponentially complex.

For application developers, the mobile Flash Player was never as good a runtime as the desktop one.

So, how is the discontinuation of mobile Flash Player affecting our clients? Really, it isn’t.

Because mobile device users are more likely to look exclusively toward installable applications for rich media content—and RealEyes’ Flash Platform applications largely deliver rich media content—our customers have been developing applications built using the Flash Platform and relying less on the mobile web.  Mike Chambers does a nice job of discussing the differences in how users consume rich content on mobile devices compared to the desktop, and we agree wholeheartedly that this is the way to go.

Because Flash Player doesn’t have the same ubiquity on mobile devices as it does for desktop browsers RealEyes was already advising our clients to create fallback experiences for their Flash content for mobile browsers.  For most of them we could achieve the same functionality in HTML as in Flash (video being the exception as you’ll see below).  Why not forgo Flash entirely and have a single HTML codebase to support?  Seems like a decision that makes good business sense.

Not that we aren’t sad to see mobile Flash Player go: we are.

If only because we don’t want the web to have missing plugin alerts. Having the Flash Player plugin available to Android and Blackberry mobile browsers was a convenience that offered a great marketing pitch, but, truthfully, delivered very little.  This is due, in large part, to the fact that the majority of the web was design for the desktop and was not meant for (nor is it very functional for) mobile phones – period, full stop.

In truth, we’ve seen just a very few Flash applications developed specifically for the mobile browser.  We at RealEyes have developed just one of these for commercial release. And this application was built before AIR for Android and was always intended to be a stop-gap until this runtime was available.

Now, tablets make a better use case for Flash’s place in the mobile ecosystem; however, the number of tablets that support Flash is under 30% of market share.  Given this and Apple’s seemingly prohibition on Flash, the Flash Player was just never going to achieve the same ubiquity as it has on the desktop for tablets, or for mobile phones for that matter.

Adobe Supports HTML5 Development

As Adobe is a multimedia creation company it will want to be at the forefront of whatever technology is defining exceptional user experiences for multimedia delivery.  And, for a few years now, Adobe’s been looking toward HTML5.  Unfortunately, the announcement from Adobe that contains the information about the discontinuation of the mobile Flash Player makes it sound like Adobe’s just jumping on HTML as a development platform.  That’s just not true.

Even more unfortunate in the present debate is a perception that Steve Job’s thoughts on Flash have somehow won and that this was just fallout from an Apple v. Adobe war.  Not so fast.  Apple and, to some degree Microsoft, have done much to market HTML5 development to the point that its perception overpromises what it can deliver.  Although Adobe has been working to educate its community about the benefits of the Flash Player over HTML5 and was backed by legions of developers, animators, designers, and content creators, they couldn’t overcome the tactics of a such powerful and cunning marketing machines.  While standing its ground on the mobile Flash Player, Adobe was, in many ways, able to achieve what critics said was not possible with Flash Player on mobile devices.

So, if Steve didn’t win, who did?

Well, Adobe is still poised to win and … more importantly so is its community of developers and customers.  Look at tools like Adobe Edge and the new mobile enhancements to Dreamweaver.  Also, with Adobe’s acquisition of PhoneGap, Adobe developers are poised to deliver the best HTML5 experiences out there.  Yeah, it’s not Flash … but that’s OK. While it seems like Adobe’s making a sharp turn toward HTML5, from where we sit, they are more fully committing to a direction that Macromedia, and then Adobe, started in some time ago.  Remember the HTML and Flash being friends video from Adobe MAX last year?

And, with other recent innovations for mobile AIR such as the availability of native extensions, the future of mobile development is exhilarating for any Flash Platform developer.  We’re hopeful that Adobe will use this opportunity to sharpen their focus on native mobile functionality and continue the path of making the Flash Platform the best choice for developing multi-platform mobile applications with a single code base.

However, the perception that Adobe’s making a rash decision is very damaging and something that we’re working with our clients to help them understand.  The reality of the situation is that not much has changed; however, poor communication, horrible messaging, and virtually no community outreach from Adobe regarding this messaging has made the perception the accepted reality in the short term.

And, if that weren’t enough news for one week …

Adobe Really Open Sources Flex

In clarifying its future plans for the Flex SDK, Adobe announced that the Flex SDK will be contributed to an open source foundation.  The good news in this move is that the Flex community is mature enough to take on the governance of this robust framework moving forward.  This wasn’t the case in February of 2008 when Adobe released Flex 3 as open source (Adobe had been planning to open source it since April of 2007).

For several years now, Adobe has been moving towards a more open standard with their development and this decision to contribute the Flex SDK to an open source foundation isn’t something that’s Adobe has done in isolation, and not just to the Flash Platform.  Some other projects that are on this path are:

  • PhoneGap
  • BlazeDS
  • Flex SDK

And, in reading Adobe’s clarification to this open source announcement, we see even more reason to be excited.  They are also open sourcing tools that support Flex including an experimental one (Falcon JS) that cross-compiles MXML and ActionScript to HTML and JavaScript.  Now, that’s exciting!  And, we’re sure that more is on the horizon.  Maybe HTML and Flash can be friends after all.

And, let’s be honest, the original model that Adobe used to open source Flex didn’t go as planned.  While Adobe always said they welcomed contributions from the community to grow and improve the Flex SDK, the process for getting a change accepted was unclear and many community contributions were rejected for any number of reasons (valid or invalid).  Adobe simply did not have the process or the resources to handle the influx of developers who wanted to contribute.  It was a frustrating situation for the Flex development community (and arguably Adobe as well).

So, the vibrant Flex community answered back earlier this year by creating the Spoon Project to better organize and test Flex SDK modifications submitted by the Flex community.  It proved to be an excellent model, drove innovation of the Framework, and was an initial step toward the full open source move that Adobe just announced.

Who’s governing the future of Flex? We are!

In case the nuance in what’s different now versus Adobe’s 2007 decision to open source Flex isn’t apparent, the major difference is that the Flex community will extend the Flex code base without needing Adobe’s permission to do so.  A new governance, following Apache’s well-established community rules, will be formed to determine the future direction of the codebase.

Since our inception RealEyes has been in close contact with Adobe’s Flash Platform team, we’re excited for this change in governance. RealEyes has always been super excited about the Spoon Project, and our Development Manager (Jun Heider) is very active in this community as the Infrastructure Chairman.  We’ve seen that this is truly a community-driven initiative that is supported by Adobe to increase the volume, speed (and maybe even the quality) in which the Flex framework can grow.

We are excited to contribute further to the future of Flex and confident that, like other successful open source communities, the language will continue to evolve.

Also … Flex isn’t all of the Flash Platform

Sadly, many of the announcements that we’ve been talking about, including the open sourcing of Flex, led many to say that Flash is dead. That simply isn’t true.  Let’s talk about what the Flex framework actually is: a particular framework used to structure Flash Platform development.  Do you have to use it to develop Flash Platform applications? No. And, to be honest, RealEyes doesn’t use Flex in every Flash Platform project because sometimes that framework can make applications to “heavy”.  If performance is of paramount concern for a Flash Platform application, Flex often cannot replace pure ActionScript.

Flash and Flex are not going away.  Adobe is still committed to developing tooling to support development for the Flash Platform. Further, Adobe hasn’t open sourced the Flash Player, the most installed piece of software in the history of the internet.  Adobe plans on steadily contributing to the Flex SDK in its open sourced project and we are working with the Flex community to make us contributors as well.

Adobe and Enterprise Applications

In a week of poorly handled communication, probably RealEyes’ largest concern was Adobe’s statement that “In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development.” Ouch.  Big enterprises have invested millions upon millions of dollars in the development and maintenance of Flash Platform applications.  At the very least that statement can erode the confidence that large companies (or companies of any size, really) have when building systems based upon Adobe technology.  Something that we feel is probably a bit of an over-reaction.

Also, without context this statement is very misleading.  Currently, HTML5 does not have full functional parity with the Flash Platform.  A few days after making this statement, Adobe clarified it by indicating what it intended as a timeframe for HTML5 to be able to truly complete with Flash Platform development: three to five years. That timeframe could be heavily extended when considering corporate browser adoption timelines.

There’s no enterprise that can wait three to five years for functionality.

As Adobe stated, “Flex has now, and for many years will continue to have, advantages over HTML5 for enterprise application development – in particular:

  • Flex offers complete feature-level consistency across multiple platforms
  • The Flex component set and programming model makes it extremely productive when building complex application user interfaces
  • ActionScript is a mature language, suitable for large application development
  • Supporting tools (both Adobe’s and third-party) offer a productive environment with respect to code editing, debugging and profiling and automation.

We see all that as being the case and some more:

  • Enterprise clients tend to have slower adoption rates for software, meaning that not all enterprises support the advanced HTML5 features that exist.
  • In particular, the video capabilities in HTML5 are not as robust as what is available in the Flash Platform including multicasting with integrated hardware acceleration and advanced security models.
  • The testing issues for supporting browser fragmentation can be daunting to enterprises, compared with supporting a Flash Platform application that can be deployed across desktop browsers with consistent display and functionality.

RealEyes will continue to recommend Flex and Flash Platform development to our clients where it makes real business sense to do so.  That said, there are reasons to use HTML over (or alongside) the Flash Platform, and we have plenty of clients we support who do that as well.

The Impact to RealEyes

So, what does all of this mean to RealEyes?  In the short term, it has meant a challenge to bring context to Adobe’s announcements and dispel rumors and misinformation to our clients. In the long run, it probably doesn’t mean a lot.

We have already been on a path of technology diversification with continued focus and adoption of HTML5, its supporting technologies, and native mobile development. Many of us are in the technology space because we enjoy the challenge of evolving our skills as the industry grows.  However, for the next few years, we anticipate that the Flash Platform will continue to be our predominant focus.

Our development specialty has been in delivering industry-leading streaming media solutions and multiscreen development. Flash and AIR are still the best solutions for this and will be for a while.  The timeline for that largely depends on Adobe and, as a valued Adobe Solutions Partner, we will continue to support them in as educated and balanced way as possible.

We are actively involved in the future of the Flex framework through the Spoon Project and excited about the potential for future growth for that project.  We are now even more apt to contribute to the betterment of this already robust framework for the benefit of the Flex community.

Finally, RealEyes has always helped our clients to choose the best technology to power a given project and we will continue to do this.  And, as HTML5 becomes a more comprehensive solution, we will likely recommend it more frequently. It is truly about what is right for the current and future on a case by case basis. Our clients and projects will continue to be industry leaders, no matter the technology behind them.

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Now, we can’t see all of the news in a positive light.  And not all of it is positive – certainly not for the 750 Adobe employees who were laid off and their families. However, this degree of restructuring in the fourth quarter isn’t unprecedented for Adobe.  We’ve seen this over the past couple of years.  This year, as in years past, we lost meaningful relationships with Adobe employees that we’ve been happy to collaborate with on community and development projects.  We at RealEyes have close contact with Adobe and tend to focus on how individuals shape the platforms, products, and communities that we work with instead of quarterly earnings and fiscal projections.  While adjusting to this restructuring, we wish all of the affected employees only the best in their next moves and hope that they will continue to make positive contributions to the technical community they have helped to shape.

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John Crosby (72 Posts)

John is a partner at Realeyes Media and has had his fingers in many projects and technologies from Realeyes’ beginning. John has created training curriculum for the Flash Platform and surrounding technologies as well as researched and implemented new processes and tools for management and development teams. Problem solving and providing solutions is where John excels. Aside from the courseware, development and consulting, John has published multiple articles and papers and continues to do so at his blog and on Adobe’s Developer Connection. As a former professional foodie turned keyboard jockey, John spends his time away from the internet as a father, husband, vinophile & productivity monk. Regardless of the subject, John is always on the lookout for tools, ideas and people that make food, code, business – whatever it is – more fun.


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