Adobe’s Flash/AIR Messaging Nightmare

Update: Mike Chambers posted an explanation and clarification on where Adobe is headed with Flash and AIR. Update 2: TechCrunch picks up (part of) the narrative.

I published an old post with my thoughts on the “Flash is Dead” thing that pops up routinely in media circles after anything happens to shake things up (like an Apple ban on Flash, or Adobe dropping a supported platform, etc.) yesterday. I optimistically highlighted in that piece the promise that AIR technology represents – it’s even in the title “Flash and AIR, Nothing But Opportunity“. I really believe the technology represents, and could fulfill all the promise those of us down in the weeds perceive. I also believe that Adobe’s Flash Platform engineers and evangelists also see that promise, and would like to see it fulfilled.

Yesterday Adobe unceremoniously dropped support for an entire class of platforms. No more Flash Player in mobile browsers. It’s not a terrible technical decision – working in AIR and native app land offers a ton more flexibility. It even makes business sense. Browser makers are increasingly hostile to Flash – Apple has never let it in the door on iOS (and never will), and Microsoft announced plans to kill off plugins even on the desktop in Windows 8 Metro interface. Browsers have become hostile territory for Flash, so it makes sense to move emphasis in the two directions the industry is headed – app store apps with AIR (which no one knows about) and HTML5 for browsers. In an important way, this does mean Flash is dead – it’s not going to be in the browser going forward. It really is out of Adobe’s control.

But there’s a problem. The longer Adobe’s bumbles the messaging, the harder it is to say for sure whether there is a lack of commitment to their platform (including AIR), or if it is truly just a PR problem. This kind of announcement had an easy to predict effect on Flash’s brand, yet there was no attempt to get out in front of that narrative that would show they are committed to the larger “Flash Platform” of which AIR is an important part going forward. In the non-technical parts of the industry – the media, managers, and creative side of production teams – they all heard Adobe Flash is out of mobile – use HTML5. It’s even worse in client land, where the term “HTML5 app” is used regularly along with “app store” – this news was so harmful to them, that clients with existing Flash content, which can be ported to the app space easily with AIR, are really freaking out. I can tell them about AIR all I want, but it’s hard for me to counteract all the media buzz (repetition is reality – brain science).

But what if they got the right message. This kind of move could represent a real intent on the part of Adobe’s leadership to get out of the Flash Platform altogether, and maybe out of the platform space entirely, and focus instead only on tooling to produce for the platform commons that HTML5 represents. Look at the kinds of decisions they’ve made recently. Adobe has essentially dropped internal support for their “Flash Platform” on every system platform they can, by either straight up dumping it (Linux, mobile flash, TV), or by farming out porting and support to partners like RIM.

On the other hand, Adobe and Flash evangelists and engineers seem committed to the “Flash Platform” which in an un-articulated narrative (narrative – it’s how we think – more brain science), really means AIR in app stores (mobile and desktop), but I’m not sure I’m getting the same message from the real decision makers at Adobe. I don’t know if it’s intent, or just plain old bad PR judgement, but it feels like I’m standing on the greasy platform, and it’s getting pretty tough to hold my balance. Some folks are already sliding off.

I think they are in it for the long haul, and they’ve even built some of their own apps on the little known Flash based mobile app technology that is AIR. But guessing someone’s intent is problematic – that only makes the PR problem clearer. I shouldn’t have to guess.

It boils down to this. I know technology, and I know the Flash Platform. I know it has merit and potential. But if people can’t tell if the decision makers at Adobe are serious about supporting it into the future, it’s going to be a tough haul to convince anyone to build anything on that platform. I already know a few platforms, including HTML, learning a new one isn’t scary, but I really prefer Flash and AIR because of it’s potential and even it’s legacy, which has value (despite the tar Steve Jobs dumped on it). If Adobe can’t or won’t make it clear that they are committed to AIR and the Flash Platform, I’ll have to find an alternative – and the decision won’t be mine. At this point, we need a clear unambiguous statement of intent from Adobe – are you committed to the Flash Platform and AIR, or not? A public roadmap wouldn’t hurt either.

5 thoughts on “Adobe’s Flash/AIR Messaging Nightmare”

  1. Hey Touvan,
    you are right in everything you say, I also had to fight the misconception that Adobe is stopping support for mobile apps – quite the contrary is true!
    As I understand, Lee Brimelow already gave exactly the commitment for AIR on mobile platforms you ask for, see last paragraph of his recent post: http://www.leebrimelow.com/?p=3151

  2. Yeah, the more I read the more it should be clear that they intend to support the platform going forward. I just wish they’d promote it more aggressively. The managers and clients I talk to really don’t get what AIR even is, never mind that it can handle all the legacy Flash content they may have laying around, on actual mobile devices.

    Adobe really needs to make a play to increase awareness of this valuable platform.

    My optimism on the platform hasn’t changed – I still think AIR represents a ton of opportunity.

  3. The “Flash Platform” is now no more or less alive than the “Lotus Notes Platform”. I.e. it has market share and solves business problems and its vendor will keep revving it as long as they can make a buck so doing so if this niche technology is something you can use for a project, great.

    But what Adobe has just conceded puts the nail in the coffin that the “Flash Platform” could be considered as an alternative to the “Web Platform”. What Adobe whiffed on was not realizing this years earlier and shifting focus of Flash (and PDF) to be complementary extensions to, rather than competitors for the Open Web. Now it’s too late. The Open Web has moved on, and past. And since Adobe is (belatedly) shifting investments to solutions for the Web, chances are that Flash’s niche for video and animations will narrow sooner rather than later. And since Adobe never succeeded in getting substantial enterprise developer market share with Flex/AIR, and even Microsoft is now going to HTML/JS for desktop apps and RIAs in Win 8, that part of Adobe’s work could well fold up its tent a lot sooner. I.e. it’s a loss-maker for Adobe, and Adobe’s tools will increasingly (necessarily) be about making HTML5 RIAs. I mean, from a branding POV (and to continue to save face lest the somnolent Adobe Board wake up to the magnitude of mismanagement) they may rebrand PhoneGap as “AIR 4.0″, they may even put some Flash integration in there, but it won’t be AIR per se.

  4. I honestly don’t think this was a bad decision – I just think they really REALLY flubbed the PR. They essentially didn’t bother with messaging at all, then made a move which validates their competitors’ narrative about Flash. It’s a colossal blunder.

    On the tech side, the reality is, Flash has always been in hostile territory when it comes to web browsers, they just had a multi-year opportunity to grab market share while IE sat on it’s hands. But browser makers essentially all want out from the problems that come with plugin architectures in general, including Google lately – and they are using the migration to mobile web as an opportunity. Basically, its not personal (except in Firefox’s case), but the landscape is hostile toward plugins, and Flash is the plugin vanguard.

    The big picture though, is that Apps and middleware are the new future for the lucrative, expanding (compared with the desktop) mobile market – Adobe just didn’t commit to that fast enough. The decisions they made last week show they are now committed. They had such a comfortable position in the “browser era” (see previous post) can you really blame them for almost missing it?

    It wasn’t exactly the clearest crystal ball reading (predicting the future never is), but they banked on the browser continuing to be THE web platforms going forward, as it had been for the last half decade. The big problem is, it will be! On the desktop. On the mobile web it will be apps.

    Why did this PR problem erupt? Adobe simply didn’t explain any of that split or the new reality in a cohesive digestible narrative, and instead made moves which allowed their competitor’s anti-brand attributes to stick. That was their only mistake, and it was mammoth.

    I’m hoping they can still make the sell though (still waiting). I really want to be able to continue to use their AIR platform for mobile apps – there’s really nothing else out there quite like it. But they are going to have to make a move pretty soon.

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