WebKit versus Flash

The brief backstory: Apple won’t support Adobe’s Flash on the iPhone or iPad, nor will it even accept apps built using Adobe’s just-released converter that turns Flash documents into native iPhone apps.

There are a lot of arguments floating around the tech media about whether and why Apple or Adobe is in the right. Here’s my take.

Flash was created to fill a huge void left by early HTML standards: no support for animation and video. Adobe (really, Macromedia) created the free Flash player along with several paid developer tools so that web developers could create content with animation and video.

Meanwhile, the web standards organization (W3C) has slowly labored to add those same features to HTML in a way that everyone can agree on. And now, after many years, “HTML5” has essentially caught up with Flash. It supports animation and video, without needing a plugin. And crucially, Apple has spearheaded the WebKit project: an efficient, open-source, cross-platform web browser that can actually interpret HTML5, thus bringing W3C’s theoretical work into the real world.

In other words, WebKit does the same things as Flash.

From a high-level perspective at least, WebKit and Flash are both simply cross-platform interpreters of rich internet content. (They even use the same scripting language.) The iPhone already has WebKit built-in, working well, displaying rich content quickly and using a minimum of battery power. Why include a second, redundant interpreter?

There are various arguments about whether WebKit or Flash is better. Which one is more efficient, more secure, more “open”, more compatible, more available, easier to develop for. But the bottom line is that Apple and the open source community have done a great job with WebKit, even though Flash started out with such a big lead. WebKit even has important features that Flash lacks, like decent support for multi-touch devices.

Flash still has important advantages. It has an excellent suite of developer tools maintained by Adobe. (This also happens to be the only way Adobe actually makes money from Flash.) And it has all those web developers already trained on how to use these tools.

But the most important selling point of Flash may be that it’s a cross-platform solution. It works across operating systems, across browsers. All of a sudden, Apple is in a position to break that position. The iPhone is popular enough that if Flash doesn’t run on it, Flash is no longer truly cross-platform. If you want your rich web content to reach everyone, you now need to use other technologies. And once you’re using HTML5, why go back? HTML5 will only become more ubiquitous over time, like HTML 4 before it.

The only way for Flash to really compete would be to jump ahead of the HTML standards again, offering functionality you can’t get in mainstream web browsers. But it’s unclear what those features might be, and it’s unclear why Apple wouldn’t just add those same features to WebKit. Indeed, it seems more likely that Apple (along with the open source community) will continue to push WebKit and the HTML5 standard above and beyond Flash.

Overall, I agree with Steve Jobs’ conclusion:

New open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too). Perhaps Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind.

Though they will probably not admit it for some time, I suspect that Adobe has already started following this advice.

Update: Just weeks later, Adobe Delivers HTML5 Support in Dreamweaver CS5.

Update 2: (Oct, 2010) Adobe has now previewed a prototype tool for choreographing HTML5 animations. “We’re really excited about HTML5 and all of the creative capabilities it offers.”

Update 3: (Nov, 2011) Adobe has announced that they will discontinue their efforts to develop Flash Player for mobile devices. Instead, they will focus on their tools for exporting Flash-based native apps to the mobile app stores. (Apple now permits such apps.)

Campaign Finance Reform vindication

Dear [American History high school teacher],

When I took US History with you in 2000-2001, we each wrote an essay on a presidential election issue of our choice. One of the things that stuck with me after all these years was how surprised you were that I was interested in something as technical and specialized-seeming as campaign finance reform. I told you it was only the most important issue of anything being discussed.

You said, “What about health care? What about the military? What about education reform? Issues that affect real people?”

I said, “How are we going to get anywhere on those important issues if special interests with plenty of money continue to buy the elections?”

You weren’t convinced.

Well, today MoveOn.org, one of the largest progressive advocacy groups in the country, has announced that campaign finance reform is the focus of their “most important campaign ever,” designed to “end the stranglehold that big corporations and lobbyists have on our democracy.”

Granted, they are as guilty of using dramatic language as anyone, but their commitment to the issue is real. Here is MoveOn’s explanation for why it has taken so long for campaign finance reform to resonate with Americans:

Change this big will require an honest-to-God people’s movement, and this is the right moment for it. There is overwhelming voter anger right now, and the number of people who believe that lobbyists and special interests hold sway is literally without precedent.

Are you still not convinced? Or am I the visionary I thought I was?

Or is it still too early to tell?


Update: I did in fact send this email, and my high school teacher replied:

Reminds me of my graduate research paper in 1967 when I wrote about John Muir setting the presecent for preservation and my professor said it was a minor issue.  Isn’t it great when you can stick it to the man! Well good for you for being a visionary and it’s still a topic I am clueless about so we need people like you who are dedicated.  Too bad I could not take credit for inspiring you but thanks for letting me know.  I don’t teach US anymore but basically about Africa.  I just returned two days ago from three weeks in Kazakhstan on an educational exchange.  Life goes on and good luck to you.

Solar thermal power

I have a feeling that this article about eSolar (a solar thermal energy start-up) is important.

We looked at all of the renewable technologies that can be deployed at scale, and they were all variations of solar thermal.

Solar thermal power plants consist of a central tower surrounded by mirrors. The mirrors are arranged to reflect sunlight towards the top of the tower, where the sunlight heats water. The boiling water in the tower drives a steam turbine, which generates electricity. In a sense, this approach is just like nuclear fission power plants — nuclear energy (in this case, from fusion in the sun) boils water, which drives a turbine.

The advantage of solar thermal over photovoltaics (“solar panels”) is that the components are much easier to manufacture. The parts are commodities: mirrors, water, and decades-old turbine technology. By contrast, solar panels are relatively expensive, high-tech components.

On the other hand, since the sun moves across the sky during the course of a day, the angles of solar thermal mirrors have to be constantly, precisely adjusted via motors so that the reflected sunlight continues to hit the tower. Solar panels are significantly cheaper to install because they don’t need motors or precise alignment.

eSolar has lowered installation costs by using sensors and software to automatically aim the mirrors at the tower (rather than precisely surveying the position of each individual mirror).

When we place the mirrors, they’re not surveyed at all: we open our shipping container, we unfold our stuff, and we place it in the ground. The guys can be drunk when they place the rows; it really doesn’t matter. Our tolerance is plus or minus a foot.

That’s a nice visual: drunken men scattering reflectors helter-skelter across the desert. It remains to be seen whether eSolar can actually keep costs as low as they claim. But I had not realized that solar thermal was such a strong competitor to solar panels. Solar panels will continue to be the most practical in rooftop installations and the like. But when it comes to producing renewable energy at scale, those mirrors and motors are starting to sound like a good bet.

Space age

If you look at the sky on a clear night without much light pollution, it’s pretty amazing how many satellites you see orbiting the earth. They travel at many different speeds, smoothly traversing the constellations. And I suspect there are hundreds (thousands?) more satellites that are too small to see with the naked eye.

This used to be the stuff of science fiction… I’m relatively young, but I remember there being far less movement in the night sky when I was a kid. It seems we have truly entered the space age, after all.

Swimming pool analogy

Ken Case put it well: “Saying the iPad is just a big iPod Touch is like saying a swimming pool is just a big bathtub.”

Describing these things as “just bigger” is true in a very literal sense, but completely fails to capture the qualitatively new possibilities opened up by the larger versions.