Reports of Flash's demise are overstated.

Posted: 19/09/11

An image of Reports of Flash's demise are overstated.

I found it quite interesting how all of the reporting over Microsoft's Windows 8 announcement at the BUILD conference in LA focused around Microsoft banning Flash from their new Metro UI. The UI is a new direction for Microsoft's Windows desktop, borrowing heavily from the trends set by the Window Phone 7 UI, and statement is clear: “we're putting tablet devices at the very heart of our OS strategy". With this statement comes a decision to leave plugins out of the Metro UI mode in Windows 8, that's ALL plugins, not just Flash. So not only will Flash be barred from the Win 8 Metro, but also Silverlight. That's right, Microsoft have banned their own plugin from their own OS. They argue that this is because they want to focus on HTML and JavaScript UIs (often erroneously called HTML5). It's worth pointing out that in classic desktop mode, all plugins will be available to IE10 on Windows 8, and all other web browsers will continue to support existing web standards, preferring to avoid getting embroiled in politics.

To a certain extent I think it's right that Microsoft should be embracing new web standards to improve the look and behaviour of their OS, but I think there's a bigger agenda than this. Metro enables developers to build apps, distributed from a 'store', and targeted specifically to work on Windows 8. This copies what Apple did with iOS Apps for iPhone and later the iPad; distributed from the App Store (with extortionate cuts for them too). Slowly a picture emerges that Windows 8 Metro is really only for tablets, and not for desktops at all. Microsoft want to copy the app model and start making some cash from that, but they strangely seem to have mashed this concept with the desktop OS… which I find puzzling.

While I'm sure a few light home PC users may enjoy fluffy apps on their desktop - “Oooh, I click the box and my Facebook feed updates and in another box I can see my Twitterz" - the reality is that the majority will find this kind feature a bit useless and toggle back to the classic full-fat (less crap) Windows mode. Where Metro definitely comes into its own is on a tablet device: I can get apps by my favourite developers from a nice little app store, and I can line them all up on my home screen for me to see, and the UI is a bit more touch-friendly with fat-fingered hit areas. Sounds a bit like iOS, right? So the primary focus is on building walled gardens for Windows tablets in the same vain as Apple. Brilliant, let's fragment the web even more, and all this in an age where we're having cloud computing and anywhere access shoved down our throats. It's all sounding like hugely contradictory strategy. It's also bad for businesses - why do we have to go back to writing native apps for every single platform again? Aren't IT costs in most businesses excessive enough, without having to multiply them by the number of platforms you want to support?

What I don't get is why Microsoft didn't take the Windows Phone OS and get that working for tablets? Surely that would have been an easier task, and would have been more appropriate to a portable tablet? Windows 8 can be the desktop OS and Win Phone 8 can be the phone/tablet OS. No? What's wrong with Win Phone 7 then that makes it so bad for a slightly bigger form-factor??

After picking through the swathes of misinformation and conjecture, a few things become clear: The announcement is that Microsoft is banning Flash from Windows 8 tablets, not their Windows 8 desktop operating system. Good for them! All I'll say is creating a device that comes with the same restrictions as the iPad, but simply isn't as desirable as the iPad will only end one way. In addition to the PR disaster they've created over Windows 8 - congratulations on the press coverage, commiserations on the lack of any distinct message - it becomes apparent that the biggest news out of all of this is that Microsoft has given up on Silverlight. Having slowly achieved 70% runtime penetration in developed markets (compared to 98% Flash), only 0.3%[source] of sites are running Silverlight (compared to 26% Flash[source]). Despite huge investment in projects that promoted adoption of Silverlight, the install rate has just been too slow and, after 4 years, Microsoft has become resigned to the fact that Silverlight will always be second place to Flash Player. High profile jumpers from the Silverlight runtime also didn't help convince would-be adopters and publishers that it was a credible platform. If you are to believe what an ex-Product Manager on the Silverlight team has to say then Silverlight is dead. I think Silverlight, while good fun to develop on, simply missed the boat. While Microsoft focused their energies on Silverlight for the browser, Adobe had already done the browser and the desktop, and was working on securing places for the Flash and AIR runtimes on mobile devices, TVs and set-top boxes. Maybe Microsoft came to the realisation that Silverlight would always be a few steps behind Flash, in part due to the 7 year head start Flash had. Before I am flamed, I'll quickly state that what I wouldn't want you to read from this is that Silverlight developers are dead. In fact, due to Microsoft stating clearly that XAML/WPF will be a key player in Windows 8, these developers could find their careers (and salaries) skyrocket. Sadly, these developers won't be building cross-platform apps anymore, if they limit their skills to XAML/C#. I for one will certainly be giving Metro development a try.

Whatever doom lays in store for Silverlight, one thing is clear: Flash is not dead. In spite of the doom mongers on the Internet, I won't be losing sleep about impending irrelevance. Flash Player 12 and AIR 3 both emphasise Adobe's commitment to the Flash Platform. I'm also of the belief that there isn't yet a credible successor to browser plugin technologies like Flash Player and Silverlight. Think about premium web video or collaboration applications and you'll know what I'm getting at. HTML, JavaScript and CSS is all well and good - I write plenty of that too - but it isn't yet a substitute for the kind of applications I've been building over the past few years. I'll be clear, there's moving things around on screen and then there's applications. When it does become as good and consistent across browsers, I'll probably build some applications with mark-up and script without a client plugin, but I won't be spending time porting over old applications for no perceivable gain - other than to tell everyone I built it in HTML5. I'm sure a lot of businesses will share this view too, particularly when the world is on its knees economically. Because of these two points, Flash will continue to play a big part in the Internet for the foreseeable future.

Keywords for this post: microsoft, apple, adobe, win 8, metro, tablet, pc, plugin, air, flash, html5