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Nov. 9, 2011, 8 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Nov. 9, 2011, 8 a.m.
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