When Steve Jobs, the Apple chief executive, demonstrated web browsing on its latest gadget – the iPad – last month, the video player on the New York Times homepage did not appear. Instead, there was a small blue icon indicating that Flash, the multimedia software made by Adobe, was not installed.
Critics seized on the absence of Flash – a crucial tool for displaying video and interactive content – as a fatal flaw of the iPad. Flash is already missing from the iPhone and iPod touch, Apple’s multi-function pocket-sized mobile devices, but its omission from the iPad, which is optimised for web browsing, would be an enormous handicap.
A war of words has since broken out between Flash’s supporters and detractors. Advocates, including Adobe, say Flash is integral to the internet and its ubiquity is a testament to its success.
But critics, reportedly including a passionate Mr Jobs, say Flash is flawed and cumbersome. They say it is time to rewrite the web using HTML5, a new version of the programming language that will enable websites to stream video and display rich graphics without Flash.
“It’s a futures battle,” said Al Hilwa, programme director for applications development software at IDC. “Standards always change, and we’re comparing a future idea of a product with what we have right now.”
Analysts say that right now, for better or worse, we have Flash. Adobe’s software is deeply enmeshed in the web. More than 98 per cent of computers have Flash installed and most of the main websites use it to power their video, games and interactive graphics.
However, at a recent Apple staff meeting, Mr Jobs is reported to have called Adobe lazy for not working harder on Flash’s flaws and also called on media executives to abandon Flash. Apple declined to comment.
Perhaps adding to Mr Jobs’ frustration is the fact that Adobe has been slower to optimise Flash for Apple products. In an interview with the Financial Times, Kevin Lynch, Adobe chief technology officer, acknowledged as much. “CPU [the processor carrying out the computers functions usage on the Mac is higher than on Windows,” he said. “That’s an area we are working on.”
But HTML5 is not ready yet. “It’s a standard that has to be agreed upon and that will take another three to five years,” said Mr Hilwa.
Even when it is ready, rewriting millions of sites will take years. “Until developers can write in HTML5 and have it work in multiple browsers, they’ll be loath to throw away Flash investments,” said Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst at Forrester Research.
Meanwhile, Adobe is aggressively pushing Flash into the booming smartphone market. Last week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Adobe said it would be rolling out Flash on the majority of smartphone operating systems.
“We have an incredible focus on bringing flash to smartphone screens and tablets,” said Mr Lynch.
With Flash deployed on most other smartphones, Apple, usually a technology pioneer, risks being left behind. “You don’t want to be selling the one phone that has a gaping hole that can’t access most websites,” said Mr Hilwa.