mišljenja i zapažanja o društvu i životu u Hrvatskoj

Flash is basically a content delivery platform and one which is supported on a large majority of computers. You all know what kind of content it is about: typically video, some games, advertisements and various minor page decorations or enhancements. Thankfully, this list no longer includes flash-only web sites, a justifiably failed experiment in graphical user interfaces.

To get straight to the point, the key problem with Flash is that it is a content delivery platform under the control of a single third party – Adobe – with effectively no way to get around it. Consider the situation: a significant part of the world digital content is currently created, distributed and reproduced using Flash technology and the only people in the world with a say in how this will work are anonymous board members of a corporation in the USA. Given the choice, who would ever hand over so much power to a board of directors on another continent? Who would want to maintain such a situation?

It is not only a matter of control: there is the issue of quality. When there was effectively one browser and the Web was a light blue icon on a Windows desktop, browser development hit a dead end and it rotted there for a few years until a rival finally appeared. Contrast the situation then with what we have today – IE, Firefox, Chrome, Opera, Safari and a host of mobile browsers – and it is plain to see that modern browsers are under frenetic, continuous reinvention, constantly rethinking what it means to browse the web, what a UI is supposed to look like, how people interact with a page… Flash is stuck in the dead end scenario. There are only two motives for its development: to support new Adobe business models as they are introduced and to be just barely good enough at what it does so as not to revolt people and create too much initiative to push for better alternatives. It appears that they are failing on the second point: Apple, ARM and countless others are far from satisfied. Flash is and has always been a resource hog. A case in point is the existence and development of a thriving collection of Flash blockers. To add insult to injury, Flash is plagued by a host of ergonomics and integration issues. It breaks the basic web paradigm and the tools which support it: browser buttons in a flash web site don’t work as they should, history isn’t updated, standard link colouring is typically not present. Flash content in a web page is a black box: for most practical purposes, the content cannot be indexed or searched for, disabled people can’t use screen reader software, keyboard navigation is completely broken…the list just goes on.

Alternatives… First Macromedia and then Adobe took great care to keep Flash a closed, proprietary technology: Adobe bought Macromedia in 2005, but it was only in 2009 that Adobe finally changed the licence of its SWF specification documentation and made it nominally a public format, opening the door to independent implementations. Before 2009, though, what they did was they let competing teams (Swfdec, Gnash) struggle to reverse engineer the file format, plain and simple. That was the vision Adobe had for interoperability regarding a technology present on over 90% of desktop computers: it is fine to provide documentation for content creators as they increase the leverage Adobe has with content reproduction, but anyone attempting to reproduce content is sentenced to a huge, ridiculous, unnecessary effort investment to decode the files without a single word of documentation – exactly the same as with Microsoft’s Office document formats. This is a malevolent attitude plainly aimed against competing companies, teams and most importantly end users who instead of choice and support of their various platforms, environments and needs, got a monopoly and a deaf ear if Adobe decided to do so.  Flash has non-existent or amateurish support of marginal platforms: the GNU/Linux browser plugin is probably an order of magnitude more resource hungry when reproducing video than a native video player with a similar stream. To add insult to injury, Adobe announced that it would drop support for the Flash plugin on GNU/Linux for all browsers other than Chrome because of a business arrangement with Google. While GNU/Linux has a single digit global market share, it does not change the fact that single digits represent millions of people who have been arbitrarily disconnected from a lot of the worlds content. In my mind, that kind of attitude deserves to be treated the same way Microsoft was treated by the EU when it came to bundling its media player with its OS: a fine of half a billion Euros, at least to begin with.

We do, however, finally see a promising future in front of us. The fastest growing (and undeniably most hyped segment) of IT is mobile computing, involving smartphones and tablets, and in this segment Flash is all but ignored. Apple’s products made a big splash but outright dropped Flash. Apple’s biggest contender is Android and Android’s Flash support boils down to YouTube, which you can easily see for yourself by accessing an arbitrary page with Flash content from a mobile browser. What’s more, YouTube is a Google service and Google is implementing HTML5 support, i.e. breaking Adobe’s hold over its content reproduction. On the other hand, a promising combination of HTML5 and JavaScript is already being applied at mainstream service providers and suggests that it can handle most of what Flash used to provide exclusively. I look forward to watching it evolve and hope to see Flash wane into much deserved obsolescence.

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