Apple’s Rivals Lose When Adobe Trashes Flash

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Adobe’s abandonment of Mobile Flash will affect Google, RIM and Microsoft in different ways, says Nicholas Kolakowski

Adobe announced plans to stop investing in Flash for mobile browsing, neatly upending the tablet market.

For months, tablet manufacturers—desperate for a competitive differentiator from Apple’s iPad—touted their device’s support for Flash as a way to access “the full Web.” Advertisements and television spots highlighted this Flash support as a major feature, giving it equal weight as processing power or camera megapixels.

Playbook issues

Research In Motion (RIM) has decided to stick with Flash for its PlayBook tablet. “Earlier today, Adobe announced plans to stop investing in Flash for mobile browsing, and focus more efforts on HTML5,” Dan Dodge, president and CEO of QNX, wrote in a statement posted on RIM’s corporate blog on 9 November. “As an Adobe source-code licensee, we will continue to work on and release our own implementations, and are looking forward to including Flash 11.1 for the BlackBerry PlayBook.”

The PlayBook’s browser supports both Flash and HTML5, Dodge added. “We are pleased that Adobe will focus its efforts on next-generation Flash-based applications delivered via AIR and BlackBerry App World as well as the great opportunities that HTML5 presents for our developers.”

RIM’s Flash announcement comes at a delicate moment for the company’s mobile efforts. On November 9, Google announced that it will no longer support its Gmail App for BlackBerry, instead choosing to focus on improving Gmail in the mobile Web browser. That means no further maintenance help for Gmail applications already installed on BlackBerry devices, and presumably no updates once RIM releases its upcoming BBX operating system for mobile phones and tablets. Whatever Google’s intentions in withdrawing support for the application, it deprives RIM devices of another potential selling point.

BBX will presumably arrive sometime in the next few quarters, appearing on a line of “superphones” that RIM hopes will prove capable of competing toe-to-toe against Google Android devices and Apple’s iPhone. RIM will also release a long-awaited software update to the PlayBook in February 2012, supposedly with an integrated email application, a “new video store,” and better tethering between the tablet and a user’s BlackBerry.

Will continuing Flash support help RIM’s PlayBook sales during this “transition period”? Certainly, the tablet has proven an anemic contender on store shelves so far. But with hopes for its tablet’s survival pinned on public perception of the PlayBook as a robust and business-ready device, capable of handling most if not all productivity tasks, RIM in many ways has no choice but to devote resources to Flash.

“Competitive differentiator”

For Android tablet manufacturers, the Adobe decision robs them of a significant selling point. For now, most continue to promote Flash support on their Websites. “Browse without limitations,” suggests Samsung’s corporate Web page for the Galaxy Tab. “Thousands of top Websites use rich Flash applications, so whether you’re browsing the Web or viewing online multimedia content, you’ll be able to see it all.”

Time will tell whether those companies end up deleting all mentions of Flash from their materials, but for the moment, it remains as a “competitive differentiator.”

Microsoft was already ahead of the curve in terms of tablet Flash support. According to a September post on the official Building Windows 8 blog, the desktop version of the company’s Internet Explorer 10 will fully support plug-ins and extensions, but the Metro-style browser (meant for Windows 8 on tablets) will be “plug-in free.

That bifurcation in browsers stems from Windows 8’s two user-interface modes: a touch-centric one for tablets (based on a set of colourful tiles), alongside a more traditional desktop. “Running Metro style IE plug-in-free improves battery life as well as security, reliability and privacy for consumers,” Dean Hachamovitch, head of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer team, wrote in the blog’s posting. “Plug-ins were important early on in the Web’s history. But the Web has come a long way since then with HTML5.”

At the time, Adobe felt Microsoft’s decision was worth a response.

“We expect Windows desktop to be extremely popular for years to come (including Windows 8 desktop) and that it will support Flash just fine,” executive Danny Winokur wrote in a 15 September posting on Adobe’s corporate blog. “We expect Flash-based apps will come to Metro via Adobe AIR, much the same way they are on Android, iOS and BlackBerry Tablet OS today.”

In the intervening months, though, the game has significantly changed. However much Adobe’s decision will affect how these mobility-centric companies build and market their future products, one thing’s for certain: deceased Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who famously derided Flash and forbade it from his company’s mobile products, is laughing his head off somewhere.

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