Will Adobe re-invent itself in time?

Jarred Cinman, Software Director at Cambrient
Apple’s iPad raises an underlying problematic technology issue, specifically pertaining to Adobe Flash, competing with newer versions of HTML, JavaScript and CCS, and its inability to run on multiple devices that include touch functionality.

Yet no-one adequately brought this hot topic out into the open, until Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, recently announced in a letter that the technology will never be supported on the Apple platform, and that it has come of age in the new era of mobility that demands cross-platform portability.

Open Web technologies, such as HTML and JavaScript, are not just a threat to proprietary Web technologies such as Adobe, but to other Rich Internet Applications as well, like Adobe Air and Microsoft’s Silverlight, yet it is not all cut and dried, and the transition to HTML 5 as the defacto standard will certainly not happen overnight.

HTML 5, currently under development as the next major revision of the HTML standard, is an open standard for structuring and presenting content on the Internet, which incorporates features like video playback and drag-and-drop that have been previously dependent on third-party browser plug-ins.

That said, millions of Web sites today depend on Flash and are used as business-critical tools. According to Gartner, around 97 percent of Internet enabled devices use Flash and 70 percent of the Top 100 Web sites use Flash.

But the fact remains that Apple has never been able to reliably support Flash, Adobe’s improvement of the platform has also been sluggish and Apple does certainly not want to be reliant on technology that is not up to scratch for its devices.

It is perhaps a technology that has had its day. Adobe Flash has brought in a new era of user experiences on the Web. It evolved as an animation and design tool into a more programming environment, whereas HTML and JavaScript, traditionally only programming tools, have matured to allow for a more creative environment – two different development communities with very different skill sets and mindsets.

Judging by the uptake of the iPad worldwide and the company’s overwhelming support from its user community for its devices, the Apple platform could wield significant influence on organisations’ decisions about their Web presence and how marketing agencies craft their campaigns for customers if Adobe Flash animations and video will not be visible to the target audiences they want to reach.

Is the writing on the wall for Adobe Flash? I believe not yet, but the company would either have to reinvent itself amidst the dynamic shift in technological advances to stay ahead, seemingly spearheaded by Apple. For Adobe to transform its application the company would need hardware level access – something that will never happen if Apple has its way. What the landscape will be like in five years from now is anyone’s guess, but marketing agencies are in an interesting predicament.

Firstly, designers are generally not programmers and visa versa, and agencies are poorly positioned to make the transition into the new environment that is emerging. Most agencies also have groups of heavy-weight Flash developers, and with much uncertainty about the longevity of Adobe Flash, it would mean up-skilling staff or letting them go.

That said, the most skilled Flash Actionscript programmers may make the transition to another scripting environment more easily than their designer cousins.

In South Africa, the iPhone, although only appealing to a very niche market, has sold particularly well, with over a hundred thousand units shipped. The iPad might not make such a big impression on the market, but if it does, it will essentially push Adobe’s Flash to the side to make way for newer, more dynamic cross-platform technology that can provide a consistent user experience on various devices, which cannot be done with a hard coded front-end interface.

My prediction is that Adobe will release a new tool that, in an environment similar to Flash, would allow designers to work with HTML 5, CSS 3 and JavaScript, but how practical that will be is yet to be seen. How well the company executes its new strategy to stay relevant will ultimately determine its survival.

Most importantly is the impact that a shift away from Flash will have on agencies and businesses. Currently Adobe Flash, Flex and Air provide superior design capabilities that are extremely difficult to execute in other environments, especially in HTML 5.

This ultimately leads to the dilemma for businesses and agencies going forward. Should they stick with Flash to make their Web sites functional and pretty, but then risk having to build a second interface for non-Flash browsers? Or do they just build one site and skip the flashy stuff?

Jarred Cinman, Software Director at Cambrient