The Web in a World Without Flash on Mobile Devices

So why is the former Acrobat Evangelist writing about Flash? Because, knowing that I’m a former Adobe employee, people are asking me about the announcement and I just want to send them a link rather than repeat myself endlessly, it’s been a week and my friends won’t shut up about it. I’ll return to blogging about PDF soon. I promise. So… in response to “What’s up with Adobe and Flash?”… here’s my answer.

I’ve no idea.

Seriously, no idea. If you’re looking for some insight and a glimpse of what happened and when, check out Doug Winnie’s article on the subject. That said, with over 30 years in the print and publishing industry, I’ve got some perspective. So here are my thoughts on what the web will look like in a world without Flash on mobile.

It’s going to suck… big time.

It’s going to suck for quite a while and then it’s going to get better. But while we’re in the sucky time, it’s going to really, really suck. I’ve got nothing against HTML5 and I’m not a Flash zealot but here’s the thing, the above statement is not an opinion, it’s a fact. I’ve been here before. I’ve already seen this movie. When a new technology hits big, quality suffers… every time… and mobile hit big a while ago. Get comfortable, my argument builds slowly but it’s got a great finish. Here we go…

When I was growing up, Sprint was selling land lines and their slogan promised sound quality so good “that you could actually hear a pin drop.” Today, the best the cell phone carriers can come up with is that they have “fewer dropped calls”; not “No dropped calls”… “fewer”. Basically, their sales pitch is that we don’t suck as bad as the other guy.But – little by little, it’s getting better. I live in the Bay Area and I can now use an iPhone in every room of my house, that wasn’t possible a year ago. The convenience of having my phone with me at all times rather than having to go to a land line when I want to make a call means I have to tolerate crappy voice quality, like it or not.

Motorola Flip Phone

Staying with cell phones… my first cell phone was one of the huge Motorola Flip Phones or “the shoe phone” as I affectionately called it. I got a piggyback battery for it and with that I could talk as long as I wanted, all day, forget to charge it overnight, and still use it the next day. But all it did was make calls. I still had to carry a pager and my “portable” computer was a Compaq luggable the size of my mother’s sewing machine. It had, I think, a 6 inch monochrome screen; could have been 7.

Today’s smart phones are infinitely more capable than my old Motorola but battery life sucks. I love my phone and my fat fingers are poking at the little screen constantly but here’s the thing, I’ve got little white charging cables all over the place, on my desk, next to the bed, in my painting studio, my boyfriend’s apartment, one in the car and two in my laptop bag. Why two? I lose things. I love the capabilities of these phones but battery life just sucks. But it’s getting better.

So enough gripping about phones, I think I’ve made my point. Now getting back to Adobe.

Before he retired, my father sold printing and as a teenager I worked in the shop and got to learn the old method of Phototypesetting. We’d create galleys of type on strips of paper, cut them up, paste them on boards, photograph them, and then take the film and create a plate for the printing press. The process was long and tedious but the hand crafted columns of exquisite typography were gorgeous. The text on the page was a perfectly even gray with no big gaps between words in justified paragraphs. I know this is hard to believe today but in the past, graphic designers had to actually be aware of what direction the paper was going to be put through the printing press while designing a spread; it true – ask an old guy. Back then, getting something printed properly required someone like my dad and a production manager to shepherd the job through the process… and it was expensive.

Aldus PageMaker 1.0

Then along came Adobe, Apple and Aldus introducing PostScript, the LaserWriter and PageMaker, respectively. When these technologies were introduced, there was a limited type library, printers were 300 dpi (crap compared to a typesetter) and the hyphenation and justification algorithms were atrocious. Typography suffered. Worse still, everyone with a Mac suddenly thought they were graphic designers. Business professionals were publishing documents that looked like ransom notes. “I’ve got 16 fonts and I’m going to use every last one of them damn it!” Graphic design suffered.

It sucked.

But it only sucked for the professionals, people outside of the commercial print market thought it was great… it was cheap and convenient. Over time, the type foundries got on board with Adobe, typography algorithms got better, and the output from the direct-to-plate PostScript printers are now virtually indistinguishable from the old analog methods. It got better, then it got great… but it took about 15 years. Today, with InDesign and the PDF/X standard, I can upload a PDF file to a service bureau in Iowa for printing and be sure it will come back looking exactly like I want without ever having to speak to another human being or do a press check. Digital typesetting, digital imaging and digital printing allow designers to do more now, faster and for less money than they were ever able to do in the past; all thanks to Adobe.

What does all this have to do with Flash?

The one word that distinguishes Adobe from all other companies that create graphics software is “precision.” Adobe has always, and from what I can tell from my history there, will always, be more concerned with precision than anyone else out there. Precision is why Adobe’s PDF tools have stood the test of time when other file formats have fallen by the way side and the clone manufacturers are floundering. Precision is why web developers create entire sites in Flash rather than deal with browser inconsistencies. With PDF and Flash content, a user with IE 6 and a user with the newest version Chrome have exactly the same experience; you’re never going to get that with just HTML and CSS… ever, ok – if you’re really good at CSS, you can, but it’s hard. Two browsers that are based on webkit won’t even render an HTML page in exactly the same way. Competitors to the standards that Adobe created just don’t seem to have the dedication to precision that designers require; rendering a document or a web page and being off by even a single pixel is often simply unacceptable. What Flash delivers is a consistent experience across browsers. As long as there are browser wars, there will be a need for something to provide consistency of display in the various competing browsers; it’s just not going to be the Flash Player, at least not any more.

While HTML5 can do a lot, and I’m encouraged by Adobe being more aggressive about driving the standard, HTML5 just isn’t as capable as Flash. With Adobe pulling Flash Player out of the mobile landscape, web design is now in a race for the bottom. Designers are not going to want to create one site for the desktop using Flash and a separate one for mobile using HTML5, which means they’ll start pulling away from Flash. Without the use of Flash to provide consistency, they’ll limit their designs to the subset set of HTML and CSS that they can get to render consistently across the various desktop and mobile browsers that they’re required to support. That very well still includes early versions of Internet Explorer… seriously.

It’s going to suck.

There is light at the end of the tunnel though. In Adobe’s announcement, they said they were both developing tools for HTML5 and driving the standard forward. In all of this, one thing is certain. Just like with print workflows, Adobe’s dedication to precision means web designers and developers are going to be using Adobe tools to create their content long into the future. Adobe’s the only company I know of that consistently delivers products that consistently provide the level of precision designers need to keep their customers happy. Adobe’s been here before with typography, with PostScript, with page layout, with PDF, I can go on and on. In each case where Adobe’s business was threatened by a new technology, it raised the bar on precision and changed the rules to its advantage.

The end of Flash on mobile isn’t the death of something, it’s the moment of conception of something new – if past is prolog, something fantastic… and it’s going to come from Adobe.

5 Responses to The Web in a World Without Flash on Mobile Devices

  1. michapixel (@michapixel) November 17, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Sorry, but after all those years, you seem to misunderstand what the web is all about: not about precision, it’s about accessibility and openess. That’s what it was designed for. And Adobe is certainly not gonna change it. Nor did PDF. For gods sake!

    • Joel Geraci November 17, 2011 at 3:08 pm #

      I actually agree with you there about the web being about accessibility and openess… for the most part but good design plays a key role. Back when Al Gore invented the internet and all you had was a few “H” tags and it was just about the information. But CSS was invented for a reason; DIVs and the float style have precise size and placement control for a reason. For better or worse, somewhere around 1995 when Internet Explorer was first released, the corporate marketing department hijacked the web… not one in particular, all of them, and all at once. The demand… and I do mean demand… for precision has been on a steady incline ever since.

      I intentionally limited my discussion to what designers need to keep their customers happy. Yes – immediate access to information is what the web is about, I never thought I’d be sitting in my living room with an iPad next to me and the IMDB app running all the time but I have become “that guy”. What apps do on the iPad, what templates do for blogs, what Facebook does… is present information in a specific way within a set of rules that attempts to apply order to chaos. In other words… Design. Usability (read “easy, quick access to information”) relies on good design and good design relies on precision. Graphic designers and UI designers really care about precision. With multiple form factors, rotating screens and varying browser capabilities on mobile devices, precision in constraint-based design is more critical than ever. These days, it’s not engineers who are writing the CSS, it’s artists and designers. If it is an engineer writing the code, they’re doing it based on a spec created in (you guessed it) Photoshop… by a designer.

      If it were just about information and access we’d all be reading the AP news feed rather than the New York Times web site.

  2. Richard Cohn November 20, 2011 at 9:57 pm #

    Hey, Joel, it’s great to see that we’ll still have you blogging. Keep at it.

  3. Kvisoft December 16, 2011 at 8:33 am #

    It seems I have seen the passage elsewhere…

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