The fuss about Flash on the iPad continues, with bloggers mostly taking Steve Jobs to task for not allowing the popular browser plugin onto iPhone OS. Initially the big concern centered around Flash video, but we're seeing more and more video sites offering HTML5 video as an alternative. It's conceivable Flash video will be a non-issue by the time the iPad hits mainstream status. And of course, the more Flash-free iPads Apple sells, the more incentive site developers have to offer an alternative format.
But Flash is used for a lot more than just delivering video. What about Flash applications such as online games? I was reading IDG's Ian Lamont's personal blog last night, in particular a post called Steve Jobs: Sorry kids, no Webkinz or Curious George games on the iPad for you!. In it, Lamont talks about how many kids play online social games like Webkinz and Club Penguin, both of which require Flash and so both of which won't work on the iPad. In as far as he takes it, I agree with Lamont; kids seem very comfortable with touch interfaces and this is a big market to be leaving out in the cold. However, unlike Flash video, there's no quick fix here, and that includes Job's caving on the Flash issue. Enabling Flash under iPhone OS wouldn't solve the problem. Your typical Flash-based game expects a mouse, a mouse cursor, and often at least some keyboard input. The concept of a mouse cursor is one that gets forgotten all too often. Many Flash programs offer pop-up information via hovering oven a bit of the UI, and an action via clicking. With no cursor, how does one hover? Tap on a bit of the UI and it registers as a click. How do you put your finger on a UI component without clicking it? And for games that require key presses it gets uglier. A virtual keyboard will work for some types of games, but tapping a virtual space bar isn't quite the same as pounding a physical one. None of these are insurmountable problems, but they're problems that are going to be unique to touchscreen-only devices. Sure, if Apple allowed Flash on the iPhone OS, a developer could create a version of Webkinz that would work nicely on an iPad. But that means developing a custom version; if they're willing to do that anyway, why not build a new version that doesn't require Flash now? Or even build a Webkins App? It'll be very interesting to see what the Flash experience is like once Flash 10.1 for Android arrives. Will Flash-based games really be playable on an Android phone? What about an Android tablet? And I'm not asking if they'll run; I'm asking if they'll be playable: if playing the game is an enjoyable experience. We'll see. I believe Flash apps will need to be re-written to take advantage of touch interfaces if they're going to shine. I get why everyone is mad at Apple over this Flash thing; it's inconvenient for us not to have Flash on our iPads. But let's not forget that Flash is owned by Adobe, and they're not some warm, fuzzy company greeting us with open arms. Have you priced CS5 recently? Flash lives in its own walled garden. Sure, anyone can get in...just as long as they're willing to pay the hefty entrance fee (or pirate a copy of Flash). It's time we moved beyond Flash to something that's more open, and our best shot at that right now is HTML5. Job's methods are certainly ham-fisted, but his goal of driving the adoption of alternatives to proprietary Flash technology is a positive one. As long as we need to re-code our web applications to take advantage of touch anyway, let's do it right, and that means ditching Flash and embracing something not controlled by a single company.