A respected colleague presented me the following hypothesis: If the iPad is intended as a media consumption device, then it should offer Flash, since so much online media is available in Flash. The recent announcement by NBC Universal and Time Warner that they will not be converting their media libraries to HTML5, preferring instead to remain in Flash format, increases the intensity of the Adobe & Flash vs. Apple & HTML5 debate, thereby prolonging the fight and ultimately hurting consumers. With a full mobile version of Flash beginning to see the light of day, can Jobs’ argument sway big media companies (or, more importantly, will consumers voting with their wallets sway them)? This article will explore, in three parts, this case for Flash on the iPad, as well as other iOS devices.
[Update (6/26/10): Links between articles are fixed.]
Part One: Should the iPad have Flash?
The iPad, as a media consumption device, needs to have access to the broadest set of media possible. This includes content currently encoded in Flash, so my colleague’s reasoning goes, and the iPad therefore needs to have Flash. Given the longer battery life of the iPad and its beefier processor, Flash could be successfully implemented with only a moderate drain on resources. In a “my way or the highway” move, NBC Universal and Time Warner have both announced publicly that they do not intend to undertake the cost and effort of converting their libraries from Flash to an iPhone-friendly HTML5 format.
- Verdict: Yes
Rumors swirl of an iOS-based settop box to be announced under the moniker of AppleTV, though it failed to materialize at the recent WWDC. This new device, much like the iPad, would lose many of the constraints of a mobile handset, chief among them limited battery power. With no power/time constraint, this new AppleTV could put more processing power into decoding and playing Flash video. Without multitouch interactivity, other Flash interaction issues also become moot—Flash would be limited to playing back video, since the box would likely be controlled via a multitouch remote interface on an iDevice. Support for Flash on an iPhone-OS settop box makes a great deal of sense, as it would be used exclusively for media consumption.
- Verdict: Yes
Does making this distinction among iOS devices make any sense? This would effectively create a have and have-not class distinction between Flash-enabled and Flashless devices running the same iOS. And that is bad, at least from Apple’s point of view, because it breaks the user experience. What remains to be seen is if users really do value Apple’s simplicity. Given past performance, the answer seems to be yes, meaning the overall impact of a two-tier iPhone platform would be negative.
- Verdict: No
Revisiting the article that got my colleague started in the first place brings up an interesting point: NBC has had online tantrums before, only to quickly change their tune later. NBC made quite a show of pulling out of the iTunes store in 2007, only to come back shortly thereafter. Time Warner, for its part, seems to have very little grasp of how to manage new technology. For further reference, see AOL, merger and later spinoff of! ABC offers nearly all their content in an iPhone native app, with CBS and Fox hedging their bets offering at least some content in iPhone format. Even Google is fielding an HTML5 version of YouTube (which rarely stutters or freezes, unlike its Flash counterpart). The sad irony is that media companies have few qualms asking consumers to fork out extra cash to change formats (VHS-to-DVD, DVD-to-BluRay), but balk when the tables are turned.
NBC is hinging its Flash hopes on its star pupil Hulu. The only problem: Hulu is a failed experiment. Online full-length TV shows do not generate sufficient revenue, so media companies want to lock up services like Hulu and Fancast with cable subscriptions in a concept called TV Everywhere. Users buy cable and get the added “benefit” of viewing online. Unfortunately, many users are reaching the conclusion that paying for the stand-up-comic-staple 900 channels is not worth it for the 10 or so they watch regularly. Services like Netflix and Hulu offer much cheaper alternatives, and users seem to be heading in that direction. Steve Jobs is usually at the forefront of destructive technology, which leads to questions about the iAd platform. With its more engaging ads, will it be able to offer up a replacement to current underperforming models for streaming TV? If that is the case, HTML5 makes more financial sense than Flash for all involved.
- Verdict: No