In case you haven’t heard, Steve Jobs has been waging an increasingly wounding war for years on Adobe’s Flash platform. It all began with Apple’s initial release of the iPhone, which was conspicuously lacking Flash support. At the time, hardcore techies poked fun at Apple’s iPhone ads that promoted it as the smartphone that finally offered “all the parts of the Internet.” The phone’s lack of support for Flash (and Java) even prompted Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority to label the ads as misleading and insist that Apple stop airing the ads in the UK.
While some hardcore iPhone naysayers continue to cite its lack of Flash support as a major shortcoming of the device, many users stopped caring the minute Google began offering a customized version of YouTube for the iPhone. More recently, Google has gone a step further, experimenting with the emerging HTML5 standard and its support for embedded video without the need for third-party plug-ins like Flash. Some predict this experiment is a key step in a larger plan at Google to abandon Flash completely.
Today, Adobe has even more to worry about than being locked out of the massive iPhone audience and the potential loss of visibility on YouTube.com. With iPads currently flying off the shelves and Jobs making increasingly catty comments about Flash to the press, geeks everywhere are quick to proclaim that Apple is driving another nail in Flash’s coffin. Adding insult to injury are the big-name online video providers following Google’s lead. ABC has already created the ABC Player for iPad and rumors abound that Hulu will eventually release a similar application.
So why does any of this matter to instructional-design professionals? While Flash won’t die out overnight, its waning popularity is a very immediate concern for anyone involved in the development and distribution of instructional media. Obviously, anyone who specializes in Flash development has to wonder if it’s wise to continue to tie his or her fortune to a platform that might be obsolete in five to ten years. Similarly, anyone who creates content that might rely on Flash for distribution might need to re-examine how they deliver content to students. This is particularly true if you want students to access that content on an iPod Touch, an iPhone, or an iPad.
This is all very bad news for Flash developers. However, it’s really a loss for software developers everywhere. Flash might not be perfect, but it is beloved by a cultish following of developers for one key reason: it keeps things simple. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Simple? Isn’t this the same tool that brought the world useless animated introductions with spinning logos and the never-before-needed “skip intro” button? Yes, it’s true. Flash allowed some awful people to do some awful things, but Flash doesn’t kill users. Designers do. When used for good, Flash has simplified life for many programmers by allowing them to create sophisticated applications that look and function consistently across all major browsers on all major operating systems.
Without Flash, designing a Web site that looks tolerably consistent in Internet Explorer versions 6 through 8 can be a major headache, let alone trying to make that same site play nice with Firefox and Safari. And for the real masochist, you can try to accommodate Chrome and Opera users too. Now, add to these hassles all of the variables that come with designing for mobile devices—seemingly infinite variations in screen sizes, unpredictable data connections, and controls that range from numeric keypads to full QWERTY keyboards to touch screens where every link needs to be big enough for a grown man’s fat, sausage-like index finger to click without clicking three other items in the process.
Flash promised to spare developers many of these heartaches by letting us build once and deploy to any browser and even create a desktop version any user could download and run via Adobe’s AIR runtime environment. And with CS5, we finally thought we were getting somewhere. We could finally create a single app that could run on the Web, on the desktop, and on any iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad. Unfortunately, it seems Apple isn’t too keen on Flash developers sullying its beloved App Store with inferior code converted with an inferior compiler. So for now, it seems developers and anyone else with a vested interest in mobile learning are still stuck with a difficult decision: stick with Flash and hope for a cease fire, or try to play catch up with developers who’ve spent years mastering programming for Mac operating systems. I, for one, am keeping option three on the table: abandon technology altogether and start working on a Ph.D. in history. Because no matter how many iPads he sells, Steve Jobs probably won’t force me to relearn the events that lead up to the Treaty of Versailles.