Savior of the Universe

Following a link from Michael Tsai (who’s been my go-to blogger recently on the OS X sandboxing controversy), I read this post by Jeff LaMarche on Adobe’s announcement of the end of mobile Flash. The key passage is this:

I missed a huge factor in the demise of Flash. I assumed the performance issues they were having back then were simply technical hurdles that would be overcome by Adobe’s engineers before long. In the end, the lack of a monoculture was certainly a significant factor in the demise of mobile Flash, but the real nail in the coffin was that Adobe never even got mobile Flash working demonstrably well on a single model on a single platform, let alone working well on the “billions of mobile phones” they were shooting for with the Flash Consortium. I completely overestimated Adobe’s ability to deliver, technically.

Michael then comments “It would be interesting to know why they weren’t able to deliver.”

I think I know part of the answer.

From January of 2005 until December of 2010, my home computer was a 12″ iBook G4. In the early years, I spent many pleasant hours on YouTube, looking at old music videos and concert movies. The videos ran smoothly.

From about 2008 on, though, YouTube was worthless to me. It started with stuttering video playback as the audio went on normally. Then both audio and video were jumpy. Finally, it was rare that even jumpy playback was possible—even with videos I know I’d watched just a couple of years earlier.

Think about that: a video I’d watched comfortably in 2005 was stuttery and unwatchable in 2008 on the same hardware.

(There are two obvious jokes here: “How did I get here?” and [Not the] same as it ever was.” I can’t choose which to go with, and it’s probably a mistake to use a Talking Heads lyric in a post with a Queen-derived title anyway, so I’m just going to let it pass.)

Adobe was riding the Moore’s Law train, putting out less efficient (albeit probably more general) code with each release and trusting the ever-more-capable chips inside our computers to more than make up for the inefficiencies. Mobile derailed that strategy.

I’m no hardware expert, but I’d guess that smartphone processors are at least half a decade behind personal computer processors. So even if a smartphone is “equipped” with Flash, the user experience is going to be much like my experience on my iBook G4—no experience at all.

Adobe’s decision to stop mobile Flash development is a recognition that it can’t turn the clock back. It’s let too many—wait for it—days go by.

5 Responses to “Savior of the Universe”

  1. Carl says:

    From January of 2005 until December of 2010, my home computer was a 12″ iBook G4. In the early years, I spent many pleasant hours on YouTube, looking at old music videos and concert movies. The videos ran smoothly.

    From about 2008 on, though…

    2010 should be 2008, no?

  2. Carl says:

    Err, 2007. Heh. Correct a mistake → make a mistake. It’s the law of conservation of entropy.

  3. Dr. Drang says:

    No, Carl, I kept using that iBook until I got a MacBook Air in December of last year. Flash video (hence YouTube) started playing poorly on it in about 2008. If I’d gotten rid of the iBook in 2007, how would I know how badly Flash worked on it?

  4. Carl says:

    OK, I was misinterpreting the paragraph. I thought that was a list of the dates it worked fine, not the dates you used it. My brain fart!

  5. James says:

    Adobe bought Macromedia who invented Flash. The code in Flash has always been complete crap and Flash didn’t really take off until it ended the media player wars. It wasn’t until Flash could play streaming media that it really took off. The fact that Flash was enormously buggy and prone to security problems was over shadowed by the fact that is was so useful for media playing. Flash has memory leaks and poor CPU management, and more security holes than swiss cheese. The Mac port is particularly bad. Since iOS is really a stripped down OSX, demos made to Apple would fail Apples standards immediately. I bet internal Apple engineers ripped it apart and showed Jobs just how crappy it was. Even Flash on those Droids that offer it find it runs horribly. Adobe gave up. The benefits or cartoon animation and fancy GUIs are not enough to save Flash. HTML5 can handle the streaming and even much of the fancy GUI features. CSS3 can do the rest.

    Adobe would have to come up with a functional specification for expected behavior following the same API and then completely rewrite it making older Flash apps partly incompatible. Basically reinvent it to be less of a CPU hog and highly secure. This will likely never happen at Adobe because the cost would be enormous. Adobe doesn’t have a Steve Jobs type visionary with the power to make it happen by putting together an elite team of software engineers and driving them crazy until they had an insanely great product. Since other tech is already replacing Flash it doesn’t make sense to redo Flash.

    Whenever I hear someone say they bought a Droid device because it runs Flash, I cringe. Many who have done so in the past have now switched to iOS and found it much better than Android. Who cares if you cannot play those FaceBook flash games? There are many of them ported to iOS and if Apple can finally cut a deal with FaceBook, hook into the FaceBook API’s for the collaborative / competitive friend gaming experience. It was Jobs and Zuckerberg who could not agree.