“Flash is dead” or how to create a PR disaster

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

Just under two years ago, I wrote an article questioning the wisdom of demands for Flash on mobile devices. At the time, everyone seemed to want Flash everywhere and were demanding it for the iPhone. Also at the time, HTML5 was languishing in unpopular backwaters of the internet. When the news broke today that Adobe were scrapping future development of Flash on mobile devices, I immediately thought of that article and felt happy that Adobe had finally seen sense on the subject. That happiness has ebbed during the day though, to be replaced by a degree of concern.

The news didn’t come from Adobe directly via a press release that spoke of the importance of AIR on mobiles and how Adobe was therefore shifting its focus away from the browser on mobile devices. It instead came from stories about a leaked email Adobe sent to its Mobile Flash partners to inform them of its decision to abandon Flash in mobile browsers. This was seized on by the technology media and gloating stories of Flash’s demise started springing up. Adobe did, many hours later, issue a proper statement on the subject, but by then the damage was done.

If you read through Adobe’s official statement, you’ll notice a very different story to the “Flash is dead” headlines that proceeded it. Development of the mobile player will cease after the next release: 11.1. As Android 4 has already been released, 11.1 presumably will be available for Android 4 and so will be around on Android for a while yet. Furthermore, Adobe will “allow our source code licensees to continue working on and release their own implementations.” In other words, Google and RIM will be free to get further versions of the player working on their own devices if they so wish. Google are now making their own phones through their purchase of Motorola’s mobile phone arm. It’s not unreasonable therefore to see Google utilising continuing updates to the browser-based flash player on Motorola devices as a major differentiator between them and other Android phone makers. All of this has been lost though beneath the mass of sensationalist and negative headlines around the subject.

Today’s revelations are – at best – a total PR disaster for Adobe. They should have issued a press release clearly stating their intent. Instead, an email was leaked and rumours spread that Adobe had abandoned Flash on mobile whilst Adobe slept. Adobe are driving forward their AIR for mobile solutions and the desktop player. How long will that last though? Given the way the news was handled, especially coming just a day after Adobe laid off 9% of their workforce, I think people can be forgiven for thinking “what next?” AIR for Linux was abandoned not so long ago. Now Flash in mobile browsers is to be abandoned. Will Flash in Linux browsers be next? This abandonment creates a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Flash as a whole. There is a great danger that the way Adobe are handling things, they will simply sow the seeds of Flash’s demise themselves. For if people do not feel confident in the future of Flash, they will start to abandon it. With less people using it, it becomes a weaker business proposition for Adobe, who’ll likely further cut the number of staff working on it, further weakening confidence. This could lead to a downward spiral to oblivion.

Is Flash dying? I’d like to think that the answer is “no”. It’s changing: the days of using flash to enhance websites is coming to a close as HTML5 is shaping up to be a good alternative (though it has a very long way to go yet.) Flash instead is branching out into 3D gaming and both desktop and mobile application development. It could still have a great future ahead of it. There is a caveat though. In many cases, it isn’t developers who will decide whether the next project uses Flash: it will be “men in suits”, who will find it easier to understand “Flash is dead” articles than the more complex reality. Adobe has the opportunity to speak to such people; to reassure them of Flash’s future. If today is anything to go by though, they risk throwing that opportunity away. Philip Kerman summed this up beautifully: “the best part of the flash is dead thing is looking at how adobe can take a tough PR situation and make it worse than anyone could imagine”.