Twitter  Quartz found an unlikely inspiration for its relaunched homepage: The email newsletter. nie.mn/1AQXuxD  
Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Gone in a Flash: How Adobe’s abandonment of Flash for mobile devices impacts news orgs

With mobile a growing part of news organizations’ traffic, it’s time to commit to HTML5 for video — and hope its animation tools get better fast.

Jason Perlow at ZDNet broke a pretty big story overnight: Adobe is abandoning development of the mobile version of Flash Player. As the text of the announcement Perlow obtained has it:

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.

The writing’s been on the wall for some time that mobile would be Flash’s undoing. Flash eats battery life and sucks up a lot of CPU power — both things you might take for granted with a desktop or plugged-in laptop, but both significant concerns for anything pocket-sized. Adobe also took a long time coming out with even buggy, slow, and crashy versions of Flash for mobile, none of which ever reached a particularly high level of polish.

And all that’s before even mentioning Steve Jobs and his efforts to keep Flash out of Apple’s mobile platforms. By building a new product category that doesn’t run Flash, Jobs pushed Flash-using websites to create non-Flash equivalents or walk away from the technology altogether.

Adobe’s announcement doesn’t mean Flash is going away — its player for PCs and Macs will still be developed. But it does mean that any web publisher who was holding out for (a) Flash for mobile to get a whole lot better and (b) Apple to realize the error of its ways can now officially abandon hope. That means adopting alternatives.

(An aside: The Steve Jobs bio makes it clear that Jobs’ affections for Adobe had shrunk long before Flash-on-iPhones became an issue. In 1999, Jobs asked Adobe to build a version of Adobe Premiere for the Mac to allow a good video-editing experience. Adobe turned him down, saying the Mac was too puny a market to worry about. Apple responded by releasing Final Cut Pro and iMovie, which became huge forces in the market. “I put Adobe on the map” — by making the Mac the premier platform for desktop publishing and printing with Adobe tech — “and they screwed me,” Walter Isaacson quotes Jobs as saying.)

What’s the impact for news organizations? For their websites, Flash has had three primary uses: video, interactive graphics, and ads.

Video

The selling point of Flash for showing video was its ubiquity: Flash was installed on around 99 percent of computers and provided a common container that dodged the fact that RealPlayer, QuickTime, Windows Media Video, or other formats were not supported on everyone’s machine. Flash was the first technology that, from a publisher’s point of view, allowed web video to just work.

But mobile web traffic — and the universe of iOS apps that don’t support Flash either — have been pushing back that hegemony since January 2007. Many prominent video sites switched to serving HTML5 video to Flash-less devices — YouTube, Vimeo, and the like — but news sites have been laggards. Scanning a selection of American news sites on a laptop without Flash installed, The Wall Street Journal showed its videos fine, but The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News, Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg, Reuters, and CNN all just threw errors. (They fare better on mobile devices, where many of those outlets send only HTML5 video from their mobile sites.) Because some people are still using older browsers that can’t fully deal with HTML5, getting to “it just works” now requires serving both HTML5 and Flash, depending on the device and browser that your user is using.

Why have news sites lagged? In part, perhaps, because they don’t have the scale that video-centric sites do to justify investing in converting to HTML5 — video is still a small part of nearly every news sites’ content. But another factor is that news sites rely heavily on pre-roll and post-roll advertising to monetize their video investments, and while it’s possible to hack together a pre-roll ad with Javascript, baling wire, and duct tape, pre-rolls aren’t built into the HTML5 spec.

But this announcement makes it clear: If mobile’s going to be a bigger part of your business (and it will), you need to start figuring out a non-Flash solution ASAP. And I’m sure there’s no shortage of video platform vendors who will be happy to help you for a fee.

Interactive graphics

Those great, complex interactive graphics and data visualizations you see at the Times and elsewhere are usually built on Flash. Besides its ubiquity, Flash’s other great advantage is the availability of good authoring tools that make it (relatively) easy to construct a graphical space that can move and be manipulated by the user. That’s helped make it the No. 1 choice for data visualization in newsrooms.

HTML5 can’t yet offer tools of a similar caliber, so for development at a newsroom pace, it’ll likely be some time before Flash gets tossed as a tool. Those tools are in development — part of Adobe’s abandonment of Flash is an increased investment in HTML5, and a few basic apps are in the market — but HTML5′s potential for data visualization is, at this point, mostly still potential.

Ads

One thing certain to draw an advertiser’s ire is the knowledge that his ads aren’t being shown to potential customers, and ads are the most prominent use of Flash on most news sites. Most publishers, though, have been smart enough to deal with this upfront with advertisers, having policies like this one from The Boston Globe requiring a fallback image that can be served to readers who don’t have Flash installed. The biggest driver here is news sites’ creation of mobile-optimized websites, which take different ad units than do desktop/laptop sites, and for which no right-thinking ad salesperson has ever allowed Flash ads. Apple’s iAds were an early force for using HTML5 to build an immersive, rich-media, Flash-like experience for mobile ads, but it’s limited to in-app ads and has generally been viewed as something less than a roaring success.

                                   
What to read next
ferguson-protest-night-ap
Mark Coddington    Aug. 22, 2014
Plus: Controversy at Time Inc., more plagiarism allegations, and the rest of the week’s journalism and tech news.
  • Rob

    Good article, but your Jobs-Adobe Premiere anecdote seems off. Adobe made versions of Premiere for the Mac up through version 6.5. In fact, I think it was even Mac only through the first few versions. Final Cut’s success caused Adobe to abandon Macs for Premiere. Perhaps your anecdote is about Macromedia rather than Adobe?

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hey Rob — it’s not my anecdote, it’s from the Steve Jobs bio. But Wikipedia tells me Adobe released Premiere 5.1 in October 1998 and didn’t release 6.0 until January 2001. iMovie was released in October 1999, so it’s entirely plausible that the anecdote could be right — Jobs asked Adobe to release another version of Premiere; Adobe refuses; Apple puts out iMovie; Adobe changes their mind and, 15 months later, puts out another version of Premiere.

  • http://twitter.com/stretchphoto Stretch Ledford

    If you don’t believe Steve Jobs is God, believe that he and God are high-fiving in heaven right now.

  • Dvertino

    Guys… I was playing with Premiere on my old Quadras back in the early 90s. It was a dog, and nearly useless. Avid came out and really changed everything for Mac vid heads. And didn’t Jobs steal away the Premiere guys to build FCP?
    That’s how I remember it anyways. Heh.

  • http://twitter.com/kleinmatic Scott Klein

    My impression is that browser support for html5 video is still problematic. They don’t all agree on a video codec, so in order to switch to non-Flash video our sites will need to do some browser sniffing or similar hackery and to host multiple versions of each video. 

    This is an old link but I don’t think the scene has shifted fundamentally: http://www.quirksmode.org/html5/tests/video.html

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    You’re right Scott — mainly because Firefox doesn’t want to get on the H.264 wagon. You don’t actually have to browser sniff — you can just load up the video tag with an H.264 video AND a Theora (ugh) or WebM video if you want to hit FF.

    So I think it comes down to:

    - Flash-only: Viewable on 95% of desktops/laptops, but essentially 0% of smartphones and tablets (well, some small integer, soon to decline to ~0%)

    - Flash + H.264: Viewable on all the above + iOS devices + Android devices + any Safari users without Flash installed (I’m one of those guys, for battery-life purposes).

    - Flash + H.264 + Theora: Viewable on all the above + Firefox users without Flash installed (+ IE9 users without Flash installed if you use WebM).

    - Flash + H.264 + WebM: Viewable on all the above + Firefox users without Flash installed + IE9 users without Flash installed.

    It’s a mess. I wouldn’t bother going past Step 2 above — all you gain beyond that are people using FF or IE who willfully uninstall Flash, and those people are nerdy enough to know they can switch to Chrome.

    Good info here: http://diveintohtml5.info/video.html

  • ronmac

    If Flash were to disappear tomorrow it wouldn’t be too long before they would be inventing something to take its place. Fact is HTML is a limited platform. It was conceived a couple of decades back as a way of displaying static pages across the internet. I know there have been lots of open source ad-ons to make HTML more “Flash-like” since but this is like taking duct tape to fix a leaky pipe.

  • Aleks

    As your deduction here might just be correct, and all in all makes sense, but I am not sure I would base my facts around Wikipedia…

    However, the reference from the Jobs bio is correct from what I’ve picked up. Good to know one of the worlds most powerfull companies made desicions based on a grudge…

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    You do realize that video (i.e., cinema) is not “saved in” Flash, do you not? And that Flash is merely a player application for video in this context? The underlying video files are encoded (“saved in”) formats like H.264, which any number of applications, including whatever a newspaper gins up itself, can play.

    Hence news orgs do not have to “convert” their video into “HTML5,” which in any event is not a player application.

    Interactive graphics are functionally impossible to produce even in SVG, but if you’re actually talking about some kind of animation that is merely saved as a video file, it too does not need Flash in order for site visitors to watch it.

  • http://joeclark.org/weblogs/ Joe Clark

    Yes, and of course Flash was an unlimited platform.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Hi Joe: You’re right that sites that already use an HTML5-friendly codec don’t need to convert their video. (And I didn’t say they’d have to do.) 

    What they *would* need to change, at a minimum, is their embed codes and their video HTML pages, either to (a) replace Flash embeds with HTML5 video tags, or (b) to add a mechanism to send some browsers/platforms Flash and others the HTML5 video tags.In practice, HTML5 video support requires one or more of H.264, Theora, or WebM, and not every Flash-viewed video out there is in one of those formats. YouTube, for example, didn’t encode its videos in H.264 until the iPhone came out. So, for some publishers whose videos are in something not HTML5-friendly, they would need to convert those videos if they want to move away from Flash.

  • Rob

    Here’s an excerpt from a e-book about the history of digital video editing. Looks like Jobs had asked Adobe to create a stripped down version of Premiere specifically for the iMac. With Windows sales of Premiere growing, Adobe turned him down. http://timelinebook.tumblr.com/

  • Chris

    How long until abondoning something on mobile means abandoning it altogether? I can’t remember the last time I used my desktop to watch/interact with something because I couldn’t do it on my phone…