Friday, March 2, 2007

Is Flash the new Java?

A decade ago, Netscape decided to kick the giant in the shins and say “we plan to put you out of business.” Of course, Netscape as a product is long since gone, as is nearly all of the economic value it might have created for its shareholders.

[Flash logo]But today, Flash is close to accomplishing what Java never did — a ubiquitous API layer on top of a wide range of platforms. At 3GSM, Adobe issued a contorted press release bragging about the ubiquity of Flash on mobile phones. They have hit 200 million “shipments” (in 2006?), which could mean 20% share on new cellphones, but apparently they don’t think that the exact numbers are flattering enough to be worth sharing.

I have decidedly mixed feelings about Flash. On the one hand, it evokes sentimental memories: before it was released, I was rooting heavily for FutureWave’s Splash because I knew Charlie Jackson, one of the FutureWave founders. (Some of the accounts are misleading — although Jonathan Gay was the technical brains, FutureWave was co-founded by Gay, Michelle (Welsh) Alsip and Charlie, their former Silicon Beach boss).

On the other hand, when I considered last year how Flash was being used on websites, it seemed like a net negative. What I saw was:

  • ads that are 10x as obnoxious as self-looping GIFs;
  • glitzy website intros because the webmaster snowed his boss into thinking that it makes for more effective advertising;
  • some relatively unimportant content (e.g., YouTube);
  • some useful content that can be had otherwise (such as the new Yahoo maps); and
  • some useful content that is not available any other way (e.g. Zillow or quite a few online radio stations.)
So about a year ago, I removed Flash from my primary machine (a PowerBook). Since it’s pre-installed on Mac OS X, I have to do it every time I do an OS upgrade.

I rarely miss it. Most good sites have a non-Flash version of the page; most websites that insist on Flash for the intro can be bypassed to get to the real content. For Yahoo, I either use the original UI (which is much faster over a cable modem and has a more intuitive interface) or just go to the Ajax-based Google. For emergencies, my desktop at home has Flash installed, but I find myself using that less than once a week.

People rant about how DVD scrambling (DeCSS) is a closed standard (controlled by a multivendor trade association) that forces buyers to abide by the seller’s rules. But no one seems to complain that the Flash is a single-vendor standard that forces us to sit through ads and other obnoxious stuff, whether we want to or not. Even PDF is more open than Flash.

Technical capabilities aside, Java would have made a better open platform for users and the rest of the industry. If not for Sun’s enemies, it would have been an open standard, it has multiple implementations, and now Sun has released it under a dual-license strategy.

Steve Jobs claims that the iPhone — no great paragon of openness — can get by without Java or Flash. Can a web-surfing device exist without it? Ajax only requires XHTML and Javascript, so that’s is a start.

Sun and Netscape wanted to make Java a computer platform that spanned Unix, Windows and the Mac, but it turned out that the world didn’t care (since nearly everyone runs Windows). But having a platform that spans PCs, smartphones and maybe even feature phones — if Java or Flash didn’t do it, we’d have to invent something else.

Technorati Tags: , , , ,

1 comment:

WiredCoach said...

He he. Regarding Flash, I've heard many times the comments that essentially are, I love it . . . and I hate it.

Joel, you continue to be really good at clarifying technical stuff.

Regards from your old buddy,

- - Charlie Jackson - -