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Flash: Misunderstood by Adobe, Apple, the Haters, and the Press

Posted by Bob Warfield on November 11, 2011

Seldom have I seen a technology so widely adopted yet so poorly understood, so polarized between haters and fanboys, and so indifferently managed by its owners.  It may have many other problems, but Flash’s worst problem is how widely it is misunderstood by key parties.

Flash is Misunderstood by Adobe

Adobe misunderstands not just Flash, but perhaps PR in general.  Steve Jobs could not have done more harm to the platform if he had choreographed the recent announcement that Flash would be abandoning Mobile Browsers.  How they could have let it first leak, ensuring the haters had built up a full head of steam, and then failed to have any well choreographed official announcement and discussion is a mystery to me.  All I saw was a long list of Adobe bloggers trying in what looked like a more or less independent way to convey what a good thing the announcement was.  How could they not realize every hater and link baiter in the land would be publishing headlines like, “Steve Jobs Wins” or “Steve’s Last Laugh.”  Adobe is not the first company that needed to de-invest in a product.  Why on Earth did they not find a way to follow the normal policy most companies have to avoid this kind of thing, which is to quietly wind down development while “sunsetting” the product?  Were they really that desparate to shave a few more jobs in their recent layoffs or just that dense?

This PR issue is closely related to Adobe’s misunderstandings about its customers and Flash.  Flash customers are a tribe.  They’re not cogs in the Adobe Machine.  Too often executives at Big Companies like Adobe think they can slice and dice their customers as easily as moving the formulas around on their spreadsheets.  Their knowledge of their customers starts to be limited to their spreadsheets.  They figure if Jack Welch got to be the world’s greatest CEO by only allowing investments in areas where they can be #1 or #2, all they have to do is kill anything that isn’t #1 or #2.  But that’s different from what Welch did because killing those things ignores the idea that there may be an important connection between the less-important-on-the-spreadsheet and the killer-strategic-things.  Just because no formula links the two doesn’t mean there isn’t a link in the Real World.  If you have an audience that’s loyal to Flash and you kill something important to that audience as you did here, even if it was only important for the sake of pride and being able to hold your head up, you lose.

But there are much broader and more strategic issues surrounding Flash that Adobe did not understand.  Chief among those was how rapidly smartphones would become critically important devices on the web.  According to ex-Flash manager Carlos Icaza, half of the Flash team were carrying iPhones in 2007, yet Adobe completely botched the User Experience on these phones until very recently.  Botched how?  By failing to make Flash graphics take proper advantage of whatever native graphics capability was available for the device.  How could it have taken so many years to get something as simple and widely used as video to play well on these devices?   We’ll get to the misunderstanding of the Haters and the Press soon, but doing video well is one of the main reasons Flash got where it is and one of the main things the Haters hated about Flash on Mobile.  Adobe let a Bad UX of epic proportions go on for years, and it just wasn’t that hard to fix or HTML5 wouldn’t have been able to make Flash look so bad there.

Adobe’s other strategic mistake is they are confused about who the Flash user is.  I don’t mean the consumer, but the user or customer that actually pays Adobe money.  Adobe  is a company that sells to Designers.  They like to talk Development Tools, but they are largely Design Tools like Photoshop and Dreamweaver.  The really key aspects of Flash are Developer-focused.  You can’t do much with it that isn’t doable in HTML5 (and even pre-HTML5) without being a developer.  The depth of this misunderstanding can be easily seen by reading blog posts like Jesse Warden’s rant about Flashbuilder.  Flashbuilder is Adobe’s IDE for Flash.  It is the UX by which a developer experiences Flash.  If Adobe had treated its design tools as Warden says they have Flashbuilder, it would be like arguing, “Well, Photoshop has the worst UX in the land, but the bitmaps it produces are enough better than other bitmaps that you should just deal with it.”  But, since Adobe mostly cares about Designers and not Developers, they didn’t understand how bad Flashbuilder was.  After all, the Designers weren’t complaining about it, and the Developers are just the dweebs who do the Designer’s bidding.  In fact, they went out of their way to cater to the workflows Designers prefer in Flash.  They even invested in building a tool called Catalyst to give Designers more power in the Flash world.  What a pity those investments didn’t go to making Flashbuilder the most phenomenal Developer’s UX out there.

There are so many areas where having a Developer’s hat on instead of a Designer’s hat could have made Flash better.  Why, for example, is there no decent Flash equivalent to node.js?  Cold Fusion?  Fail.  I shouldn’t have to buy more stuff to write server Flash.  It should be possible in the same IDE I am writing client Flash in.  Adobe, your mission is to sell gold pans and jeans to the Internet Gold Miners.  Developers are a critical part of that equation and you’re squandering a powerful tool there.

When I mentioned Flash’s customers are a Tribe, this is closely related to the fact that they are Developers.  They may be more Tribe-like than any other group Adobe deals with.  Have you checked the Internet lately to see how often Developers hang out and influence each other?  Have you seen unique properties like Stackoverflow?  Have you seen that the advent of Evangelists for Software started with Developer tools at places like Microsoft and my old alma mater Borland?  Developers are a tribe!

Flash is Misunderstood by Apple

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs stuck a knife in Flash’s side that hurt it badly.  He was articulate about his reasons, and it hurts me to say that he was right, and that being so slow was tragically avoidable by Adobe as I’ve discussed.  They just didn’t get it.  Shame on them.

But even as Steve Jobs was right, he was also wrong.  He was wrong for doing this because he wanted revenge on Adobe’s disloyalty to Apple, as is mentioned in his Biography.  He was wrong for doing this as much to help build his Walled Garden as to ensure better UX on iOS.  Flash was a terrible threat to the Walled Garden.  You can build any application in it and run that app from the browser (or at least you could once Adobe woke up and fixed the performance problems so Flash games like Technarium could flourish on iOS).  The world already wants to bypass the 30% tax that Apple places on any iOS app.  Giving it a powerful tool to do just that was unacceptable.  Flash had to be brought to heel.

But…

If we drag out our dog-eared copy of Mario Puzo’s the Godfather, Steven P. Jobs was short-sighted to have settled for simply killing Flash in mobile browsers.   He should have taken control of it.  He would have been far better off to ban it as he did, and then work hard at getting Adobe to fix the performance problems and to get them agree to letting Apple control which browser apps could be tolerated on iOS.  Then he could have brought them back in true conqueror fashion.  This would’ve opened the door to letting video, richer website UI, and other decidedly free things through while opening the door for Apple to control even browser apps since they’d need sign off from Apple.  As we learned from the Godfather, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Apple also would’ve benefited from a much slower burn on how fast HTML5 is coming to fruition.  It still has a long ways to go to catch Flash.  The best strategy for the Walled Gardens is to fragment the market for things like HTML5.  Maximize the noise and confusion.  Find a way to get even more alternatives into the mix.  These other technologies are all alternate platforms you don’t control.  They’re things that can wrest control away from your platform if they were ever to catch on sufficiently well and managed by the right evil strategic genius.

Flash and Adobe are Misunderstood by Google

It’s ironic that Adobe thinks the most important Flash constituents are Designers and not Developers, while Google, the best Web Monopoly on the Planet only sees Developers and not Designers, and hence has little interest in Adobe or Flash.  Google should have bought Adobe years ago.  What better way to cement their hegemony over the Web than to own many of the key design tools?  What better way to fix their Customer Service and Corporate/Enterprise selling issues than to buy a company that can do both?

Putting that can of worms aside for the moment, how could Google allow Flash browser support on mobile to die?  Don’t they realize this is as much a referendum on Android as it is Flash?  After all, Adobe is effectively saying, “There isn’t enough non-iOS Flash activity on mobile browsers to be worth carrying on”.  Or if you prefer, “iOS is so much more important than Android that even though they’ve treated us shabbily and you have stood by us, we’re going to cave in to them.”  If Google had to make an investment themselves, even a small investment to facilitate the sunsetting, they should have done so.  They could have built Flash into the Android platform.  Google also doesn’t understand the Tribe vs Cog view of Customers else they wouldn’t have done some of the things they have to their own products.

Flash is Misunderstood by the Haters and the Press

Haters gonna Hate, and that’s a misunderstanding all by itself.   I lump them in with the Press, because in many ways, the Press is gonna Press, which is to say, their job isn’t to understand, report fairly, or any of the other reasons we think we read them.  It’s to sell ink.

Still, it is amazing how often the press just doesn’t seem to understand what Flash is.  Take Harry McCracken’s post, “The Long National Nightmare With Flash is Over.”  Harry did his job linkbaiting, but his article is a great introduction to many of the misconceptions of the press and the haters:

  • “Watching video was frequently like going to see a movie at a theater with a projector that keeps breaking down.”  Harry, I get that experience frequently today on my desktop.  I get it even more frequently on my Flash-less iPhone.  How often are these things simply a matter of a lousy mobile network connection?  Yes, Adobe made it much worse by taking so long to fix video, but if you think the non-Flash world really does so much better, we have to agree to disagree.
  • “Bits and pieces of user interfaces didn’t work, and was often painfully obvious that they were designed for mouse input, not fingertips.”  No duh.  And HTML5, which is the write-once run anywhere successor to Flash, is going to fix the fact that the folks using the tools don’t always design for all platforms how?  The fact is, one problem Flash faced, no matter how well it worked, was it exposed the fact that a lot of content is lousy on mobile through no fault of Flash.  Harry, did you never see an HTML page that was impossible on a mobile device, especially a phone?  Have you dealt with browser incompatibilities which are back with a vengeance with HTML5?  Have you landed on a site only to have it tell you they don’t even support your browser, which may have huge market share?  How about that dreaded Android “fragmentation.”  I know you’ve heard of that, you know that these problems are not unique to Flash.  In many ways, Flash was doing the best job of minimizing them until the whole mobile schism started it up again.  More about that in my next post.
  • “Certain things did perform as promised, but I never knew whether they would until I tried, and none of them were exciting enough to make up for all the hassle.”  Harry, did you never really want to access a piece of content, knowing full well it would be lousy, but lousy being better than no access at all?  I have, many times on my iPad.  I’ve gone to sites that would’ve been fine if I could’ve just gotten past a screen or two.  No dice without Flash.
  • “Why, oh why, would a company like RIM triumphantly run pricey TV ads focused on Flash support?”  Well Harry, because there are people who actually like having Flash access.  Pity those poor fools now, I know.
  • “In fact, it ended up benefiting them, because site owners and software developers who couldn’t use Flash ended up using other technologies–HTML5 and native iOS apps–that actually worked.”  This is the big lie:  Don’t worry your pretty little heads, because HTML5 and native iOS always work really well and Flash never really worked at all.
Flash was always a lot more than video and cheezy web site animations, but the press has never gotten that and Adobe has never successfully communicated it.  I’ll say more soon.

Next Post:  How Should Flash Be Understood?

Postscript

Flex Open Sourced

Still trying to parse what this one means.  If Adobe hadn’t made these other announcements and proven themselves very untrustworthy, it would be easy to view this as a great thing to do.  Developers prefer Open Source, so having Flex be Open is a positive.  Where I would be cautious is in evaluating whether or not Adobe is using this as an excuse to reduce their investment in Flex.  Were they to continue making the same investment and Open it as well, you’d have to like that outcome.  The only language we have is this:

This project will be jointly led by some developers from the Flex SDK engineering team along with key developers from the Flex community, including members of the Spoon Project and contributors from enterprise companies currently using Flex. Flex SDK feature development will continue under a new governance model and Adobe will continue to contribute to the Flex SDK.

I have a hard time not reading that as Adobe reducing their investment in Flex and using the Open Source community as their excuse for why it’s okay.  Certainly the comments on that post are uniformly negative.  There is an additional entry that is also troubling:

In the long-term, we believe HTML5 will be the best technology for enterprise application development. We also know that, currently, Flex has clear benefits for large-scale client projects typically associated with desktop application profiles.

Taken together, that looks to me like fair-warning to SaaS companies and Enterprise Developers that Adobe is not interested in helping.  I wonder what this means to companies like Workday and Salesforce that have invested heavily?  It’s really unclear to me how they can reconcile this statement about Rich UI Enterprise Apps and have much room left for the future.  What’s left, just games delivered as apps?  At some stage, they have to decide whether they’ve sunset the whole Flash armada, or whether they will make a stand somewhere.  It’ll take years even if they have sunset for it to truly be done, but the way they’re handling roadmaps and announcements will hasten that sunset.

Mike Chambers on Flash

Probably the most detailed discussion yet from Adobe on why they did what they did. The emphasis is on AIR applications, not browser apps for Flash going forward. He doesn’t say this exactly, but if you follow his logic to its obvious conclusions, and factor in issues like OSX App Store and IE8 not supporting Flash by default, that’s the conclusion.

The comments on this thread are very unhappy, like most of the others. If nothing else, Adobe must be hearing loud and clear that they have, to use Reed Hasting’s expression, “let down their customers.”

How Should We Think of Flash Going Forward?

The second part of my two part series on Flash.

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7 Responses to “Flash: Misunderstood by Adobe, Apple, the Haters, and the Press”

  1. schlafly said

    You act as if Flash is now dead on mobile. But the Adobe announcement said that it will continue to develop Adobe AIR on mobile, and that Adobe has source licensees who may continue to develop and ship improved versions of Flash for mobile devices.

    Maybe Google, Microsoft, and RIM have already taken over development on integrating Flash into their mobile browsers, with with Adobe sources for Flash or with calls into some preinstalled copy of Adobe AIR. Maybe Adobe is just getting out of the mobile browser integration because others were doing it better anyway.

    But I cannot explain why Adobe would let the public believe that Flash is dead, and that the future is in HTML5. Unless I am missing something, I don’t see how HTML5 is a substitute for Flash.

    • Roger, Flash is dead on Mobile browsers.

      Yes, some of them have the option to continue to ship it, but who (other than RIM) has stepped up to announce such support? And if they were going to make such an announcement, why didn’t Adobe choreograph it as a handoff and why wouldn’t the other platform owner be right with them on stage to accept the handoff and talk it up? It’s possible they’re part of the global PR incompetency conspiracy that seems to surround all things Flash, but I am skeptical.

      Now as to Flash being dead, even on mobile for apps, you are correct, it isn’t, and I’ll talk more in my next post about what is still alive and well and why you’re absolutely right that it’s no substitute for Flash. But Adobe sure didn’t do it any favors when it killed Mobile Browser Flash.

      • WaltFrench said

        “Flash is dead on Mobile browsers…who (other than RIM) has stepped up…?”

        Amen. And who actually believes that RIM, desperately, possibly fatally behind in playing Catch-Up with Google, Apple and Microsoft, should or will devote engineering resources to somebody else’s lost cause?

  2. flextex said

    Now that “Flex Is Dead” too
    http://blogs.adobe.com/flex/2011/11/your-questions-about-flex.html
    I think you nailed it that Adobe forgot the developer. “Creative Cloud” focus confirms. HTML5 focus may be good for designers in the future, but not the developer.

  3. Ironic that while explaining how everyone misunderstands Flash you seem to misunderstand Apple. Admittedly we can only infer from signals, but it seems pretty clear that Apple has done nothing whatsoever to fragment or slow HTML5, and that this is a concious effort. They *like* HTML5, alot, and there are multiple iOS features that support web apps very nicely. Much more nicely than on Android or WP7.

    • Joe, we’ll see how long that lasts. I predict it will be directly proportional to how easy it is to bypass the app store with a browser app. Luckily for Apple, HTML5 is not very close to doing that for the majority of apps. Unfortunately for Apple, they have hastened that point in time tremendously. Apple can’t afford to do anything but fiercely protect that revenue stream, so what else are they going to do but start throwing up roadblocks at some point?

      BTW, walk us specifically through those features that make iOS a much better HTML5 platform than Android, just so we’re clear on what they are.

  4. [...] Flash: Misunderstood by Adobe, Apple, the Haters, and the Press [...]

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