Late last month John Gruber ran a pair of articles on Daring Fireball addressing the issue of the Apple-Adobe Flash-web standards “battle” that has been playing out in blogs, open letters, websites, and device sales.
What struck me, about the second article in particular, is how much of a case of déjà vu I was having (or, for the more Galactica-minded, “all this has happened before, and all this will happen again”). I was a bit surprised that Gruber had not had the same revelation and/or had not seen fit to broadcast it on Daring Fireball.
Flash is the new floppy disk. iOS devices are the new iMacs.
For those who don’t recall, 3½″ floppy disks were (by the 1990s) the ubiquitous method of file transfer between computers. These small disks held all of 1.44 MB of data (about half the size of a single photo taken with an iPhone 4!) and most software shipped on (or, rather, spanning) multiple floppy disks well into the late 1990s. Never mind that CD-ROM drives shipped on nearly every computer at this point (or that many computers had the ability to burn recordable CDs), the Internet (the web, FTP, and email) and local area networks were available for file transfer, or that many large-capacity portable disk formats existed and were far more suitable for storing and transferring files than floppies. The floppy disk was soldiering on, performing tasks that it had never been designed for and was increasingly unsuitable to handle.
Enter the iMac. It is 1998 and Steve Jobs has made a triumphant return to Apple. The iMac dumps a whole host of legacy technologies that were unsuited for modern computing—SCSI ports, ADB (serial) ports, and, most notably, the floppy disk—in favor of new industry standards like FireWire and USB. Prior to the iMac, a computer without a floppy disk was unthinkable. Beginning with the iMac, that very inconceivable thought had been introduced, and it would eventually trigger the extinction of the ill-suited, obsolete floppy.
A decade later, Flash is one of the ubiquitous technologies on the web, competing with HTML and associated technologies as a method of displaying text, images, and video—and even running applications—on the web. Yet Flash, which originated as a development tool and associated player for web animations, has become unsuitable for many of the round-hole tasks its users have tried to force its square peg to perform. Flash is inaccessible to most of the technologies that make the web searchable, mashable, usable. On Mac OS X, Flash is the number one cause of crashes and Flash performance is atrocious. Because Flash is a plug-in, not part of the browser software used to view websites, browser vendors can’t fix bugs and crashes or make improvements to the Flash software. And if you run an operating system other than Mac OS X or Windows, there’s a chance Flash isn’t available at all, which means Flash-only or highly-Flash-dependent websites are completely unavailable or broken. However, alternatives, such as <canvas>, SVG, HTML5 <video>, and various “web applications” specifications, exist for most of the common (mis)uses of Flash on the web. Most alternatives are implemented, or in the process of being implemented, by multiple browser developers, whose products are available for a wide variety of desktop, workstation, and mobile operating systems.
Despite all of Flash’s flaws and limitations, and in spite of the collection of accessible, performant, web-compatible, and widely-available web technologies,1 a web that doesn’t require Flash remained inconceivable to many. Once again, however, Apple has turned that notion on its head. Millions of users browse the web every day on computing devices that not only don’t have Flash installed, but can’t have Flash installed. Once again, all it took was Apple “think[ing] different” and taking a stand against antiquated technologies, and a whole new world of possibilites has opened up. The unthinkable is happening.
Flash is the new floppy disk, and iOS devices are the new iMacs that will unseat Flash from its high horse and drive it into obscurity.
1 It is a bit ridiculous to refer to web technologies as being “web-compatible.” However, as noted above, certain technologies deployed on the web, such as Flash, aren’t compatible with the rest of the web—they can’t be crawled by a search engine, translated by a web translation engine, or have their source displayed by a user’s browser. ↩