Google, Apple, Microsoft and HTML 5 aim to make Adobe's browser plug-ins irrelevant.
Adobe's Flash technology has long played a major role in delivering compelling graphics online, but a shadow now hangs over its future as powerful technology companies--Apple, Google, and Microsoft--and open source organizations like Mozilla work to make Flash unnecessary.
At least, that's the way some view the situation, although as one might expect, Adobe sees things differently.
In the case of Microsoft, it's a matter of wanting to see its own technology and tools, from Silverlight to Expression, gain market share. Toward that end, and to blunt the adoption of open source development tools, Microsoft recently launched WebsiteSpark, a program that offers Web developers free Microsoft development software for three years.
Microsoft also has committed to participating more actively in the HTML 5 standards debate. HTML 5 includes tags that let Web sites present audio, video, and rich graphics without a plug-in technology like Flash.
Meanwhile, Apple--which competes against Adobe with a number of its professional media applications--has stymied Adobe's mobile ambitions by refusing to allow Flash on the iPhone. Although Adobe's CEO has confirmed that his company is working to develop a version of Flash that meets Apple's restrictions on interpreted code and API access, Flash's absence from the iPhone has hurt. The device's unprecedented success has proved that game makers, for example, don't need Flash, at least on the iPhone.
For its part, Google is declaring that "the Web has won" and has been evangelizing the possibilities of HTML 5. It has developed a version of YouTube that, unlike the live version, can display video using HTML 5 technology rather than Flash. It also has been building hardware-accelerated 3-D graphics capabilities into its Chrome browser and has backed the WebGL spec for "enabling hardware-accelerated 3-D graphics in Web pages without the need for browser plug-ins."
Flash, of course, is the browser plug-in that's being referred to.
Adrian Ludwig, group manager for Flash platform product marketing, acknowledges that a certain portion of the development community sees HTML 5 as a threat to Flash but says Adobe takes a long view. "We think it's going to take a long time for anything to be standardized," Ludwig says, suggesting it could be five to 10 years before HTML 5 stabilizes.
Meanwhile, Flash is evolving. Recently, Adobe launched Flash Platform Services to provide a venue for promoting, measuring, and monetizing Flash applications on social networks, desktops, and mobile devices. Viewed in conjunction with Adobe's recently announced acquisition of Web metrics company Omniture, it's clear that Adobe's vision involves empowerment on the server side--think content management--at least as much as advances on the client side.
Flash isn't in any immediate danger, says Andrew Crow, senior experience designer with online design firm Adaptive Path. "I know that a lot of developers are extremely excited about HTML 5 and the new capabilities that will be available," he says. "But people still use Flash and will continue to use Flash for a while because it does provide some options that browser-based interaction does not."
Perhaps Adobe's real problem is that it's caught between the open source and the closed source worlds. Flash, for example, is mostly open source, but not completely. "It's as open as we can make it," says Ludwig. Unfortunately, being in the middle of things can be dangerous. "We tend to get hit in the crossfire a little bit," he adds.
For now, IT groups should sit tight and keep an eye on HTML 5. It's too early to write off Flash, but Adobe will need to keep up with developments or risk being left in the dust.