By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, February 7, 2010; G05
With most other companies, this would have looked like a sloppy oversight: Two weeks ago, a presenter showing off a new computer allowed the audience to see that it couldn't display a Web page's Adobe Flash content.
But that person was Apple chief executive Steve Jobs and the device was the new iPad -- and there was no chance that an operation as detail-obsessed as Apple let this display of incompatibility happen by accident.
The generic blue-brick icon that appeared on the iPad's screen in place of the New York Times' usual Flash menu was Apple's way of saying "We don't need Flash. You don't either."
That's a bolder statement than you might think. Adobe brags that Flash is installed on 99 percent of the developed world's Internet-enabled computers and plays some 75 percent of the video viewed online. A Web without Flash would constitute a major rewiring of the Internet.
Yet Apple's shutting Flash out of the iPad seems to have given a lot of disgruntled Flash users permission to dream about that.
If you've never wondered how your Web browser plays a YouTube or Hulu video, pops up a Google Maps Street View panorama or displays the animated menu on washingtonpost.com's home page, Flash does all those things. In each case, a Web site publishes a Flash file that the Flash plug-in on your computer plays in a browser window.
Flash earned its success by doing this job better than competitors. Unlike Microsoft's Windows Media Player, it runs on Mac OS X and Linux computers as well as Windows PCs. Unlike RealNetworks' RealPlayer, Flash downloads haven't tried to tart up your computer with unrelated software from other companies. The Flash Player is a far smaller download than Apple's QuickTime.
But Adobe's technology has been abused to create such aesthetic offenses as pointless site-intro videos, gaudy interactive interfaces and pushy animated ads. Relying on one company's product seems odd when such Web ingredients as HTML coding and JPEG images are open, free standards. And the Flash Player itself can be a memory and processor hog and requires frequent security fixes to boot.
Those last traits led Apple to leave Flash out of the iPhone and iPod Touch (the YouTube program on those devices plays videos converted to a non-Flash format). They also explain Flash's absence from many other smartphones -- although some run a stripped-down Flash Lite player that only handles simple Flash content, while an upcoming mobile version of Flash should run on Android, BlackBerry and other non-Apple smartphones.
Apple's upcoming iPad, however, looks much more like a "real" computer than a smartphone. And if it sells as well as initial forecasts project -- adding to the 75 million people who, Jobs said, have bought an iPhone or an iPod Touch -- a nontrivial chunk of the Web audience would be leading a Flash-free existence.
Web developers could keep creating sites that don't work for those people, or they could upgrade to a new, more capable version of the Web's basic language called HTML5. The hope among Flash foes is that they'll go with Plan B.
I wouldn't mind seeing that happen myself. But that will involve much more cooperation than the computing industry seems capable of.
First, not all browsers speak HTML5 fluently. Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8 lags behind current releases of Mozilla Firefox, Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome -- while its obsolete IE 6, still used by a fifth of the Web, is outright hopeless.
Second, even if you could upgrade everybody to an HTML5-friendly browser, you'd still need to settle on a video format for those pages. But the industry remains divided between two competing options.
One format, h.264, offers good quality and is free to use in many cases. But since it's tied up with numerous patents, Web publishers and browser developers have to pay in other situations, and even allowed free uses may require royalties eventually (this standard's owners just agreed to push that timetable back to 2016).
The other format, Theora, has no known patents covering it and is free to use. But it's not as efficient as its commercial competitor.
Among those two possible Flash replacements, Firefox plays only Theora, Safari plays only h.264, Chrome handles both and IE supports neither.
So compatibility-minded Web developers would have to post copies of the clip in h.264, Theora and Flash.
But just because replacing Flash for video may be difficult doesn't mean we can't retire it from other uses: It's past time we ushered the Flash site intro and the animated menu off to the junkyard.
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