Apparently experiencing what Adobe Systems called the "full Web" on mobile devices isn't so important after all.
In a momentous about-face, Adobe Systems is scrapping its high-profile effort to bring its Flash Player software to smartphones and tablets, Jason Perlow at sister site ZDNet reported today. Such a move would mean Adobe's pragmatism won out over ambition.
Adobe did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Wednesday morning it confirmed the news in a blog post.
The browser plug-in is widely used on personal computers but only reached a fraction of the mobile phone market after years of work on Adobe's part. The move, if confirmed, would undermine a selling point many Android phone makers had used in an effort to stand out above Apple's iOS devices, which barred the plug-in.
According to an Adobe e-mail briefing sent to business partners quoted in the ZDNet report, though, the Flash Player technology will live on as a cross-platform programming tool through Adobe's AIR technology for packaging Flash-based apps into standalone apps. The e-mail stated the change in plans this way:
Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer adapt Flash Player for mobile devices to new browser, OS version, or device configurations. Some of our source code licensees may opt to continue working on and releasing their own implementations. We will continue to support the current Android and PlayBook configurations with critical bug fixes and security updates.
Such a decision must be extraordinarily difficult at Adobe. The company's pride was at stake, having mounted a strong defense when Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs lambasted Flash. Adobe and its partner Google argued that having Flash support on mobile would mean people could see the "full Web," including the countless sites with Flash-based animations, online games, and streaming video.
But the move also would make a lot of sense. Adobe increasingly is aiming Flash at higher-end uses: 3D games, premium video, and corporations' in-house apps. That higher-end direction is at odds with the spread of Android to lower-end devices, many of which simply don't have the horsepower to run Flash.
At the same time, Adobe is aggressively if belatedly embracing Web standards such as HTML and CSS.
And as yesterday's announcement that Adobe will lay off 750 employees shows, the company doesn't have infinite resources to pursue an agenda that faces serious headwinds.
Apple wasn't the only major hurdle for Flash Player. Microsoft also declared that IE10 won't support Flash or other plug-ins when running on Windows 8's new Metro interface, saying it was time for "the Web to move forward." Microsoft has its own Flash Player alternative, Silverlight, that's also affected by that change, and ZDNet blogger Mary Jo Foley said yesterday she's heard reports that the forthcoming Silverlight 5 could be the last of the product family.
The reported change to Flash Player's fate is with the mobile version Flash Player, but it raises doubts about the PC version, too.
That's because abandoning Flash for mobile means ditching a big part of Flash Player's cross-platform promise. The holy grail of cross-platform programming is being able to write one piece of software and have it run everywhere--in this case by running atop the Flash Player virtual machine. But the more limited a cross-platform technology's reach is, the less reason there is to use it.
A programmer still will be able to package up a Flash game with the AIR technology, thereby reaching the mobile market, so some of the cross-platform advantages remain. But what of a photographer building a Web site with a Flash-based photo gallery? A financial Web site with a Flash-based tool for displaying stock charts? A Web-based e-mail reader using Flash to let people easily select multiple attachments for a message? With a cancellation of Flash Player for mobile, all these real-world uses of Flash are guaranteed to fail not just with iOS devices, but with all mobile devices.
Adobe developers had their work cut out for them as they tried to squeeze Flash onto mobile phones that, compared to PCs, have feeble processors and very little memory. Adobe was betting that steadily increasing mobile computing power would intercept Flash's computing requirements.
Lots of devices made the Flash Player cut, including smartphones and, perhaps more importantly given their more PC-like screen size, tablets.
But just how far Flash Player could have spread in the mobile market became something of an academic question, because Apple effectively held--and exercised--veto power.
By banning Flash Player from iOS, Apple made Flash Player on mobile a moot point for programmers making sure Web sites worked on mobile devices. Apple is powerful in smartphones with its iPhone line, and dominant in tablets with the iPad.
Even though Android smartphone shipments collectively rival iPhone shipments, the scales of browser usage where Flash Player usage is relevant tip heavily in Apple's favor. According to Net Applications' measurements from October, 62 percent of mobile device users on the Web used Apple's Safari, more than three times Android's 18.7 percent share of usage.
Moving to HTML and Web standards
But Adobe is late to the game, and it doesn't have a standalone browser that it can use to help shape the agenda the way Google, Apple, and Microsoft can. AIR and Edge include a version of the WebKit browser engine that also powers Chrome and Safari, but when it comes down to it, Adobe must persuade partners with browsers to implement its ideas.
So far it's had success rounding up allies--even Apple--but the Web standards chaos is a big change compared to how Adobe controlled Flash Player. Adobe is taking the plunge into a much more uncertain future.
Updated 1:28 a.m. PT and 4:47 a.m. PT with further analysis and with link to report of Silverlight's potential demise. Updated 6:31 a.m. PT with Adobe's confirmation.