Adobe the toolmaker listens to its customers, kills Flash for Mobile

Tools built for old paradigms rarely fit new situations. Mobile app development is still searching for its Pulaski Tool.

It almost seemed anti-climactic when Adobe announced on November 9 it was going to reverse its strategy of making Flash a development standard for mobile devices. Adobe didn’t make the decision as a memorial to Steve Jobs, who railed against the use of Flash in Apple’s mobile iOS; they gave up because Adobe is a toolmaker, and its customers, the tool users, don’t want it.

Apple was not alone in saying Flash was a non-started in mobile applications. Microsoft, Google, and Facebook all joined Apple in coming down in favor of using HTML5 instead of Flash to develop mobile apps. As Business Insider noted when it published the news, “When’s the last time those four companies agreed on anything?”

There were good reasons it was time to say good-bye to Flash for mobile. Flash was a browser-based platform, but apps have become the way to work on a mobile device, bypassing the browser. In computer technology, old paradigms rarely fit new situations. HTML5 has become almost universally supported in mobile browsers, and there is just too much fragmentation for Adobe to be all things to all smartphones (let alone the next-generation super-phones we’ll start seeing in 2012).

The announcement was a reboot, not a funeral. Adobe said it would:

  • Enable Flash native apps to work directly with Adobe AIR
  • Discontinue Flash Player for Mobile devices, supporting but not extending the forthcoming Flash Player 11.1
  • Continue to develop Flash for desktop use
  • Increase investment on supporting HTML5
  • Support Flash in advanced gaming and premium video.

Toolmakers are followers, not leaders

The Pulaski Took, invented by US Forest Service supervisor Ed Pulaski.

At the heart of this is a bit of confusion at Adobe, confusion we hope has been blown away like morning fog. Adobe is a toolmaker. Its job is to serve the innovators who do magical things with its products. In this regard it is not much different than companies who make shovels, hoes, and axes—the smart ones regularly take a look at what their customers do, and respond accordingly.

For generations in the Western United States forest firefighters were equipped with a shovel and an axe. But carrying both was an annoyance, and most only took one or the other. When The Big Burn (Idaho, 1910) killed 87 people including 78 firefighters, US Forest Service supervisor Ed Pulaski decided a new tool was needed to make firefighters more effective. He re-designed an old tool that combined the best qualities of an axe and an adze and told tool makers to get busy. Today the Pulaski Tool is mandatory issue to all forest firefighters in the US. Pulaski never patented the tool, never made a dime off it. But his innovation revolutionized forest firefighting.

Adobe Flash is the shovel of mobile development; HTML5 is the axe. The rapidly growing mobile development community has been using all kinds of tools originally developed for desktop, looking for a best fit. Adobe has taken a step in the right direction by acknowledging Flash is not the one tool that can become standard issue. But the lesson of The Big Burn is not yet complete; a Pulaski Tool of mobile app development, one combining ease of use with addressable power, is still needed.