Do we really need Flash?

A lot has changed since the iPhone was released 3.5 years ago, but there still is no support for Flash on it or the iPad. The iPad in particular has taken a lot of heat for this as its larger screen means that people expect a more complete web browsing experience. Still, the web has come a long way in those years, and  Flash has lost quite a bit of its position in those years, so is it still strictly necessary to have it on a tablet?

Obviously the need for Flash will vary from person to person depending on what web pages you’re likely to visit. If you spend all day playing flash games you will need Flash support, but then again you’re likely to find most games available in a well stocked app store. Flash does use a lot of power and so that solution will certainly allow you to play for longer than you would if using Flash. Some people even say the massive difference in battery life between the iPad (12 hours) and the Galaxy Tab (7 hours) is due to the Galaxy Tab supporting Flash although simple matters of battery size and efficiency has more to do with that.

Personally I am often amazed by how similar the Internet looks on the iPad compared to on a computer, as there really aren’t many sites that break completely if your browser doesn’t support Flash. HTML5 and other alternative methods for creating “fancy” content has made Flash redundant in many cases, and I think that the lack of Flash on iOS has helped accelerate the growth of these standards. Most major video sites support h.264 streaming now as an alternative to Flash, which means you won’t get those “Flash required” notices as often as you used to. Ad companies have also moved to formats that are supported by everyone so you don’t risk losing out on any incredible offers when using a Flashless browser either (I’m sure you are relieved to hear that…). That mostly leaves games as I’ve already mentioned, and sites that use Flash for UI elements. Personally I hate such sites even on a PC because they are often slow both to load and use and they break certain features in a browser such as clicking the mouse wheel to open a link (doesn’t work on Flash elements) and CTRL+T top open a new tab (disabled when interacting with Flash elements. I don’t use any such sites myself, but as I said, it all depends on what you yourself do on the Internet.

Flash is also something of a menace on Windows tablets, especially those based on netbook hardware (such as netbook tablets and UMPCs). The chipsets used in those devices are often designed to play back h.264 video using hardware decoding in the graphics chip (DXVA, DirectX Video Acceleration) which means that my Viliv S5 which is at times almost too slow to open notepad will still play 720p h.264 video like it was no big deal (which incidentally looks awesome on a 4.8″ 1024×600 screen). Flash is supposed to support this, but as with everything Flash it doesn’t really work in practice. The result is a very peculiar situation where you can play back all the 720p h.264 video you want, but if you try watching a low resolution YouTube clip embedded on a web page the device will commit virtual suicide. Given the alternatives to Flash that exist, I’m personally glad that Apple has taken a stance against it as they are one of few companies who could actually put enough pressure on the Internet that it would change, and that benefits everyone- not only iOS users. I’m guessing that in 5 years time, we’ll look back at Flash as a curiosity of the past.

However it’s not only Flash that Apple has left behind, Java has also been left out of iOS. This used to be a much bigger deal for me since my online banking service uses Java for authentication. No Java, no authentication. It’s still an issue when I have to authenticate when paying with a credit card (which incidentally is an extremely pointless system since it only works on sites form within this country, no international sites) but my bank came out with an iOS app that let you access all the online services from the app. This seems to be happening with a lot of services that normally require heave Flash use or Java support, for instance WordPress itself which this site uses. Having everything optimized for a specific device is extra work, of course, but the benefit is not only that it works but that it often ends up being easier to use than the original web based version. While there’s a lot to be said for web based apps, I personally prefer the native apps because they work better.

The point of this article was not to give you a definite yes or no answer to whether we need Flash, but rather to look at the different aspects of the situation. There are a lot of people who blatantly hate something without looking at the implications of it all, and the same goes for Flash. While Apple is more than a little arrogant in refusing to support Flash and that might be a dealbreaker for some or a  minor annoyance to others, there are definitely positive things happening on the net because of it. So while we might still need Flash, the need for it is certainly diminishing by the minute.

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Andreas Ødegård

Andreas Ødegård is more interested in aftermarket (and user created) software and hardware than chasing the latest gadgets. His day job as a teacher keeps him interested in education tech and takes up most of his time.