I remember as a boy shopping with my parents for our first computer that didn’t hook up to a TV. In the stores, there was the “open world” of PC’s and then that odd little section for people who insisted on closed, strange — gasp — Macs. Such a view was more a sign of a general misunderstanding of Macs than anything else, but the reputation has persisted for many. A new product launch from Adobe, however, shows just how wrong that reputation is.
Over the weekend, Adobe, the company best known for producing Acrobat, Photoshop and Flash, released a pre-beta trial of a product called Edge. Edge provides a familiar, Flash-like timeline interface for creating animations that are then saved as standard HTML 5 documents instead of proprietary Flash applets. The capabilities of this app are still basic, but it was a big step for the company.
When Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005, it bought into the Flash ecosystem in the biggest way possible: it took control of the company that owns both the tools to create Flash applets and the plugins necessary to play them. In the years to follow, Adobe has pushed Flash hard, at one point even making virtually all of its site dependent on Flash — even parts that benefited in no conceivable way from Flash tie-ins.
Over most of the web’s existence, Flash has been the easiest, most consistent way to get animation and interactivity to display on a web site. Buying Macromedia, and thus controlling this significant part of the web experience, was a major coup for Adobe. But, then something foiled it. That something was called the “iPhone.”
Apple’s smartphone introduced the notion that browsing normal web sites, and not just mobile ones, was really a practical idea on a phone. The built-in browser, derived as it is from Apple’s open source WebKit framework, could display virtually any site a Mac could, dramatically changing how people browse the web on phones. Yet, for all of its compatibility with desktop-oriented web sites, it had one notable, intentional omission: Flash support.
Edge offers a familiar timeline-driven interface for creating animations.|
From the start, Apple started building in work arounds to mitigate the hole left by the absence of Flash, starting with bundling a YouTube app (and convincing Google to re-encode video to support it). Over the last four years, the iPhone maker has not only refused to support Flash, but publicly advocated its reasons for doing so. “We strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open,” Steve Jobs wrote in an open letter last year.
In doing so, something remarkable has happened. Apple managed to jump on the wave started by the first Web 2.0 apps and drive open standards interactivity forward. “By making its WebKit technology open, Apple has set the standard for mobile web browsers,” Jobs noted. Apple was able to use the desirability of its device to “lobby” for a Flash-less web driven by its aggressive adoption of new HTML 5 interactive capabilities in WebKit. Because Apple pushed not only open standards, but also did so via its open source WebKit core, other browsers, including Google’s Chrome and Android browsers, have actually carried forward Apple’s open web colors.
So long as Flash was the way to create animation rich web sites, Adobe had no reason to risk its cash cow by creating more open web-oriented tools. The Flash Player has helped protect Adobe’s Flash business; nevertheless, its importance was not in itself but how it promoted Adobe’s development tools. But, the world has changed as increasingly few businesses want to ignore the iPhone, iPad and Mac.
Edge shows what happens when the Flash Player spell is broken: Adobe’s main interest isn’t in maintaining Flash dominance, per se, but keeping its tools as the preferred way to create web site interactivity. While Adobe could focus its efforts solely on protecting Flash, it seems to realize it need not do so. Instead, it stands to protect its interests best by creating new tools that capitalize on the fact that so many developers have already learned how to use Flash by helping developers translate those skills to a post-Flash future.
In doing so, Adobe can still “win,” by maintaining a situation where most web developers feel far more comfortable with Adobe products than the alternatives. No one wants to throw away thousands of hours of experience if it can be avoided, and Edge offers to preserve Adobe’s Flash customers’ loyalty in a way similar to how it keeps people coming back to Photoshop: relearning how to do things with a different, perhaps inferior, tool just isn’t worth it. Given the dearth of Flash-like tools for creating HTML 5 apps, Adobe also stands to gain new customers who in time will also become loyal.
This war on Flash is hardly a loss for Adobe in the long term. But, make no mistake: the winners are Apple and — surprise, surprise — open standards. Its war was never about unseating Adobe in the site development market the former company has so little interest in. Rather, Apple realized its own fortunes were best protected by ensuring the web was not controlled by any company. In the coming years, when you pick up your iPad or Blackberry, Droid or TouchPad, you can thank Apple for the newfound openness that ensures sites run well anywhere.
Timothy R. Butler is Editor-in-Chief of Open for Business.