Sterve Jobs’ war on Adobe Flash is getting silly. As reported by Valleywag, he went on a bit of an anti-Flash tirade during a meeting with editors of The Wall Street Journal. Jobs reportedly said that allowing Flash on the iPad would cut battery life from 10 hours to 1.5 and that replacing Flash to display Web video would be “trivial.”
Unfortunately, Jobs’ reported comments, which are consistent with increasingly shrill Apple attacks on Flash, bear at best a tenuous relationship to reality.
There’s no question that Flash stresses systems, especially mobile devices. Adobe is a addressing this in its new Flash Player 10.1. But Flash works most efficiently, in terms of both performance and power consumption, on systems that use graphics hardware rather than the CPU to decode the video. New processor-graphics packages such as the NVIDIA Next Generation Tegra and Qualcomm Snapdragon have this ability built in, but the iPad apparently does not. (Flash also performs relatively poorly on Macs because of poor support in OS X for graphics hardware decoding.)
Jobs’ promotion of h.264 video as an alternative to Flash is also misleading because they are very different things. Computer video consists of two pieces, the actual encoding and the wrapper, which, in effect, tells the system how to play the encoded content. h.264 is a codec, that is, an algorithm for encoding and decoding video. Flash, on the other hand, is a wrapper. It can use a variety of codecs for its content, though h.264 is becoming the dominant one for Web video.
HTML 5, a still unfinished standard for the rendering of Web content, could make Flash (as well as Windows Media and Quicktime) obsolete by giving browsers the ability to decode video directly, eliminating the need for wrappers. But moving the Web from its current wrappers-plus-codecs approach to HTML 5 won’t be trivial and it won’t be fast. Currently, only the latest versions of Firefox and Apple’s Safari provide support for HTML 5 video, and they do it in ways that are incompatible with each other. HTML 5 video content on the Web consists of a handful of demos.
There’s also a myth around that Flash is somehow proprietary while h.264 is open. It’s true that Flash is the property of one company, Adobe, which supplies free Flash players and makes money selling the authoring software. h.264, which is actually part of the MPEG-4 standard, is wrapped up in patents owned by a bunch of companies and enforced by a patent pool body, MPEG LA. So far, MPEG LA has taken a rather tolerant approach to h.264 licensing, but that could change at any time and h.264 could get a lot more expensive. It’s tempting to say that this will never happen, but those with long memories will remember the mess in the late 1990s that resulted when Unisys and CompuServe began enforcing the patents that protected the GIF graphics format.