With Apple's launch of the iPad the number of web devices Flash doesn't reach is set to increase. Will this impact the use of Flash by the creatives who are Adobe's core supporters - it's instructive to look at what Flash uniquely provides, and also how did Flash get to the position it is in today.
While many people associate Flash with animated banner adverts (while in fact plenty of animated banners are in fact animated GIF images), Flash didn't start out there - Flash's roots go back to 1996 with the first release "FutureSplash Animator"
There has always been demand from creatives for high quality, interactive experiences - back in 1995 Macromedia Director and the Shockwave format ruled the roost here, with CD ROMs being the key vehicle for delivering interactive digital content. With the rise of the internet the opportunity for Flash opened, and Macromedia (who acquired FutureSplash and re-released it as Flash) allowed an internal competition between Director and Flash, to drive innovation, and ultimately prioritised Flash over Director.
Flash wasn't always as ubiquitous as it is now however - a key point in driving the ubiquity of Flash was the 11 June 1998 deal between Macromedia and Netscape to bundle the Flash Player as part of the Netscape download package. At the height of the "browser wars" between Microsoft and Netscape this was a key deal in delivering a better experience to computer users - and put Macromedia on the path to be a defacto standard.
Merely being there wasn't enough however - Macromedia were able to continually innovate on the Flash Platform enabling people to get more out of their rich web experiences. If we look at the timeline of Flash with key features we see
- 1997 - Flash 3 release transparency and the object library allowing for richer functionality within Flash
- 1999 - Flash 5 improved ActionScript and provided streaming MP3 bringing sound to the web
- 2002 - Flash Player 6 added support for video on the web for the first time - enabling YouTube
- 2004 - Flash Player 7 added Object Oriented programming and rich vector effects
- 2006 - Flash Player 9 new virtual machine for ActionScript with much faster performance, and full screen video
Each release has also brought incremental improvements - such as the move to h.264 video support in 2007, however with any platform the introduction of major new features has slowed down - as the user base has expanded, and the growing number of existing customers ask for new incremental features, rather than spending time and effort on radical, risky innovations.
While there is an ever growing number of new features in Flash Player the adoption of the new features has slowed down - and from the October 2008 release of Flash Player 10, we are still waiting for the 10.1 release.
This comes at a time when creatives are encountering new platforms on mobile - whether iPhone native applications, Android or Blackberry Java applications, or beginning to think about what they could do with the iPad.
Adobe's dilemma is - do they continue to incrementally improve the core Flash Player and Creative Tools used by the large army of creatives that they deliver to - and defend their platform - or make a major bet on a new area - and strike some new "Netscape" type deals to deliver a new wave of creativity to developers?
What should Adobe be thinking about? We can take our lead from the features that are easily accessible in Mobile devices, yet still very hard to do on the web:
- Accelerated 3D - is ubiquitous in desktop PC's now, and is growing fast in mobile phones due to the popularity amongst consumers of iPhone style smartphone experiences
- Location - many smartphones are location aware - applications and services are being built to take advantage of this - many laptops would also benefit from being location aware for the same applications and services
- 3D Video - consumer electronics and the TV industry is betting on a future that includes 3D video, support for 3D video on the web could accelerate the uptake and demand
I await with interest to see if Adobe have an aggressive as well as defensive strategy to address the growing army of web browsers that do not include Flash.