NYT : Apple’s Flash Snub Is Content Control Play
Tuesday, February 2, 2010
Web designers — and a fair number of Web users — noticed something missing from Steven P. Jobs’s demonstration of the Apple iPad Wednesday. On some of the Web sites he displayed on the tablet computer’s screen, blank squares appeared where video or animated content would normally be displayed. The holes, observers correctly assumed, meant that the iPad would not display videos, animations or any other features created using Flash, a type of multimedia software made by Adobe. Flash is one of the world’s most ubiquitous applications, appearing on 98% of all computers. YouTube videos run on it. It is what animates millions of graphics and advertisements on Web sites around the world. Adobe says the technology supports nearly 75% of video on the Web and 70% of online gaming sites. But Apple’s support for Flash has been flagging. While Flash is present on nearly every Apple desktop and laptop computer, the company decided that Flash would not be used on the iPhone. Apple has argued that the Flash technology is too slow and unduly taxes laptops and netbooks. The company also has concerns over Flash’s vulnerability to viruses and other malware, as well as the way Flash-based content can voraciously consume battery life. Adobe, unsurprisingly, disagrees — and has its own theory about why Apple remains hostile to Flash. Adrian Ludwig, group manager for the Flash platform product at Adobe, said he believed Apple’s opposition was a way for the company to control its iTunes system. “I think it’s pretty clear that Apple wants to regain control of the content consumers see online and the content Apple offers for their devices,” Mr. Ludwig said.
But concerns over the lack of Flash in the iPad and iPhone may be short-lived. Many online video sites have been experimenting with a new video format, called HTML5. Unlike Flash, which is a downloaded piece of software that can interact with a computer’s operating system, HTML5 works directly in a Web browser. And although this new video format does not work in all browsers, it will allow iPhone and iPad users to enjoy more Web-based video content. In addition, the patents surrounding HTML5 are owned by a group of companies; Apple is a part of that group. YouTube announced this year that it was testing the new format for select videos. In the past, YouTube videos were encoded in Flash, but were re-encoded for the iPhone. The popular video-sharing site Vimeo.com is also experimenting with new platforms, based on comments from its online community. “We received a tremendous amount of feedback from our users saying that they wanted to have HTML5 as an option for their videos,” said Andrew Pile, vice president for product and development at Vimeo, an online video service. Mr. Pile does not see this new format replacing Vimeo’s Flash-video inventory, but will instead offer it as an option for its viewers. Other video sites, including Blip.tv and Flickr.com, Yahoo’s photo and video-sharing Web site, also hope to start experimenting with alternatives to the Flash video platform in the coming year.
But migrating the entire Web to the new format will not be fast, or easy. Flash has all the advantages any entrenched technology enjoys and remains the standard multimedia language for a vast majority of developers and programmers. And while HTML5 may help standardize Web video, it does not necessarily address the needs of other types of online content created in Flash, including animated advertisements and online gaming. Andrew Frank, research vice president at Gartner, believes it is impossible for Apple to maintain a walled garden around the content and advertising people consume on the iPad. Mr. Frank said, “I think we’re a long way from the iPad having enough influence on the advertising market to affect the decisions and process around online display advertising.” But even if the standoff between Apple and Adobe continues, these advances in Web-based video mean that iPhone and iPad users will start to see fewer blank squares online.