Monday, 5 April 2010

Google Vs Apple and the future of Flash

Google, the worlds largest search engine with 66% market share in 2009, is currently involved in a fight against Apple, "the worlds most admired company", which could decide the future of HTML5 and the Flash platform.

If you haven't heard about this before then here’s a quick run down:
Apple has controversially decided to not include Flash on the iPhone and more recently the iPad and is instead supporting the new video technologies being introduced in HTML5
Google is indifferent providing the Flash platform on its Android OS.

In more recent news Google has decided to bundle its Chrome browser with a version of Flash, making it pre-installed on any computer that uses Chrome as a browser.

Flash and OSX

I think it is important to understand that Flash hasn't been the most co-operative with Apple, although admittedly they have released Flash for OSX, it's performance is appalling. I ran a test of playing a video on YouTube using Flash or using HTML5 (you can opt in for the HTML5 trial here! You need to be using Chrome or Safari as your browser) and the results speak for them selves. Flash used almost 49% CPU whereas HTML5 and the H.264 codec in safari used but 22% and this is playing a single video.

Sometimes on particularly flashy Flash enabled sites CPU usage can soar to almost 100%, and that’s on my Unibody MacBook Pro! It's got to the point where I have decided to install a flash blocker that only enables flash content to load and display when I tell it to! And frankly for a technology that is used widely around the web, not only for video but also for games and content delivery, is not acceptable.

The windows install of Flash is slightly more efficient (I don't have a Windows machine at hand to test) however I have heard that even on Windows it is still a resource hog.

So can Apple's decision to remove Flash be commended?

The problem is, although it’s great that some websites like YouTube and ABC are supporting HTML5 by adding alternate video sources, there is a massive proportion of web content out there that relies on Flash. For example, MegaVideo which hosts an unbelievable amount of online television and MiniClip which has a plethora of casual games are both powered by Flash and therefore all this content is lost on the iPad and iPhone.

Despite this I still feel that it is great move by Apple and hopefully maybe the catalyst required to really kick-start the transition to HTML5 and other open technologies. It is a risky strategy, not enabling a technology that many users rely on when browsing the Internet and I think that it has been duly noted that a company at the forefront of technology has declined to support Flash.

This hasn't gone without much Internet hate! Indeed it appears to have but a considerable number of people of Apple's latest product the iPad. But all in all, I think it’s a step in the right direction.

Where does Google stand?

Now in my opinion, here's where the real controversy comes in. Google has announced that they are planning to bundle and improve the proprietary flash player plugin with Chromium (their operating system) and its browser Chrome. The Chromium blog recently posted an article about its integration with Flash stating:
When users download Chrome, they will also receive the latest version of Adobe Flash Player. There will be no need to install Flash Player separately.
 Although it’s commendable that Google is supporting a technology that in their words is
loosely specified, limited in capability and varies across browsers and operating systems.
this completely goes against everything people have come to expect from the technology giant. Google is renowned for promoting open source projects and sticking to open standards and specifications, indeed even their mantra "Don't be Evil" explicitly demonstrates their attitude against private and closed technologies.

So what is Google doing supporting Flash!

Well it could be for a variety of reasons, Google may honestly just be trying to help improve web development by improving the quality of the Flash plugin but why would they want to do this? It serves them no benefit. At least by supporting open standard technologies they get the good press and thanks of hundreds of people, but the comments on the Chromium blog post announcing the Flash updates showed unrest and disappointment at Google’s decision.

Alternatively, they could be trying to support a technology that their competitors (one of whom who has recently released a new product without certain features...) do not. It gives them the opportunity to expand their market and advertise their superiority over Apple in their continued support and more importantly development of Flash.

If the latter is the case then I am disappointed! It is not the Google I have come to know and love.

Where does that leave us?

Although I admire and support most of what Google is trying to achieve, I think that in this instance they have made a bad decision. Flash is a closed standard technology monopolised by a single company, Adobe. Google should leave them alone, allow Flash to depreciate (if its own creators cannot sort out the technology why should Google pick up the pieces) and allow better standards like HTML5 to emerge.

Although admittedly HTML5 is not complete yet, there are many features already implemented that allow it to be fully interactive and emulate the effects of Flash, without being so resource intensive, and without requiring additional tools to do so. E.g. the <canvas> tag (if you want an example of awesomely interactive HTML5 can be check out this link where someone has made a Quake 2 port that runs your the browser: Google Quake 2 Port).

As I previously mentioned, I commend Apple's decision to neglect Flash but I have doubts as to the reason behind this move. Personally I think that the reason behind their decision is to extend their control on applications developed for the iPhone and iPad, what’s the point limiting the App Store if similar applications are available online but that’s a different story altogether.

So is the future of Flash in the balance, I don't think so quite yet but in a few years time, I expect that the popularity of the technology will have decreased considerably the benefits of HTML5 and open standards will be shining through. Until then, I think I might buy an iPad.

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