How to Judge the Battle Between Apple and Adobe Regarding Flash

Dave Winer argues that the absence of Flash on the iPad “isn’t working”:

I see new Flash content several times every day when I catch up on the news with my iPad. This isn’t stuff that’s going away, it’s new stuff that creative people are publishing. New stuff, not legacy stuff.

In other words, they know we can’t see it on the iPad and they went ahead anyway.

He’s right that Apple hasn’t won this battle, but I think he’s wrong that they’re losing. It’s still far too early to tell.

Here’s how I see this battle between Apple and Adobe. For Adobe, losing would be a large-scale abandonment of Flash by web producers — sites that previously used Flash abandoning it, and new sites never using it in the first place. For Apple, losing would be if the absence of Flash on iOS devices led to people choosing competing devices that do support Flash — i.e. if the absence of Flash for iOS hurt sales of iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads.

I think it’s fair to say that iOS is the leading driver of H.264 HTML5 video on the web. Apple has a web page listing “iPad-ready websites”, and it includes a lot of big-name sites. But — and this is a big but — I don’t think any of these sites has abandoned Flash. They all offer iOS-supported content as an alternative to Flash. That’s not good news for Adobe, since, previously, all of these sites required Flash, but it’s not a disaster, either. From the perspective of desktop (Mac and Windows) computers, I don’t think there’s been much of a decrease in the use of Flash since 2007. From the perspective of iPhone users, though, there’s a lot less “missing content” now than there was in 2007. But, as Winer points out, there’s still a lot of Flash content that has no iOS-compatible alternative.

But is Apple being hurt by this? The only competing devices that support Flash are Android 2.2 phones, which are only just now available to consumers. It’s far too soon to judge whether Flash compatibility leads to would-be iPhone buyers choosing Android phones instead. (It’s also too soon to know just how many Android users will bother to install Flash Player — it’s a Market download, not installed by default, on some Android phones.) Yes, lots of people are buying Android phones — but I don’t think very many are doing so because of Flash. We shall see. And there are still no competing devices for the iPod Touch or iPad that support Flash.1

Before the iPhone, Flash’s advantage was that it was installed on every major web-browsing computer by default. Now, there is a major web browsing OS where Flash is not supported at all. There is no alternative with market share that approaches Flash, though — that’s why we’re seeing HTML5 video as an alternative to, rather than a replacement for, Flash. If Adobe loses this battle, Flash’s decline is going to be long and slow.

Consider: is there more pressure on Apple to add Flash support to iOS, or on websites with Flash-only content to produce iOS-compatible alternatives? Such pressure — both on Apple and website publishers — is best measured not by complaints on the web, but by sales of iPhones, iPods, and iPads. The more they sell, the less likely Apple is to cave on Flash support, and the more likely it is for websites to stop publishing Flash-only content.

  1. Arguably, “netbooks” running Windows — which are thus Flash-compatible — are iPad competitors, and I suppose there’s some number of people who are buying a netbook instead of an iPad, but would have bought an iPad if the iPad had Flash. But I don’t think that number is very large. And I think most netbook buyers see them as cheap, small, lightweight laptop PCs, not as iPad rivals. ↩︎