Monthly Archives: April 2010

Latest Dispatches from the Flash Wars

Normally, I’m fairly agnostic on the politics of the technology field. One of the great things about a free market in general, and technology in particular is that the political issues have a way of sorting themselves out without bystanders needing to become partisans fighting for one side or the other. On everything from “network neutrality” to the age-old “Macs vs. PCs” battle, we can all pretty much just vote with our wallets (and our coding efforts). Shouting about such issues or writing strong forum posts never seems to matter as much as the underlying business cases. The tech world largely goes on its way whether we bother to fight the political battles directly or not.

All that said, there are some very interesting developments happening as regards Flash, and it is definitely making me rethink, if not our platform development efforts, at least how we might want to prepare for our own efforts in the future.

It started with Apple’s seemingly inexplicable lack of support for Flash on the iPhone (and later the iPad). In practical terms, this meant that our web sites (which use Flash in a minor way) would display blank “Plug-in not available” icons where such Flash content should have gone. It was nothing critical, though, and we simply coded around it for the iPhone and hoped that Apple would resolve whatever issues they had with Adobe in time for the iPad.

Now, however, it seems that the bad blood between Adobe and Apple has turned into a full-on conflict. Starting with some snarky blog posts between the evangelists of both camps, Steve Jobs at Apple kicked the conflict into high gear this week with his “Thoughts on Flash” open letter in which he took several pages to lay out six reasons why Apple and Flash have parted company, seemingly for good.

This in turn came on the heels of Apple’s announcement that apps made with cross-compilers (like the one in Adobe’s new CS5 suite) would not be accepted in the iPhone/iPad App Store. This effectively killed Adobe’s promising effort to to easily allow Flash developers to package their applications into iPhone apps the day it was born.

Adobe fired back in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and later with a kind of retaliation by immediately ceasing development of their Mac Flash products, making Flash on Mac OS X an also-ran to Windows in the desktop world.

Interestingly, Microsoft also piled on Adobe, albeit subtly, in stating not so much their antipathy for Adobe as their belief that “open standards” (HTML5) are the future of the web, and that Internet Explorer 9 will only have built-in video support for H.264 video. Although it seems unlikely that a release of IE9 will appear without Flash video support in some manner, it can’t have been a great week over at Adobe.

Android, for its part, gleefully embraces both technologies.

Regardless of the technical merits of the discussion, what it really means is that Flash isn’t coming to products like the iPhone or iPad ever unless something very dramatic changes in the business of either Apple or Adobe.

While I don’t really have a dog in this race, I–like most web developers–want be able to make sure the stuff we create can be viewed well on as many devices as possible. Despite Apple’s claims to the contrary, HTML5 isn’t an easy replacement for much of the type of interfaces we’ve seen in Flash. At a minimum, they’d need to be completely rethought and re-coded. More likely, completely alternative designs–often less…well, “flashy” ones–would have to be developed in their place.

So yes, although we don’t use a lot of Flash in our daily life, it’s looking like we’ll be spending some efforts in the days ahead to see what the alternatives might be for the sort of work we currently use Flash for. It looks like this is one argument the squabbling kids aren’t going to be sorting out any time soon. They’re effectively taking their toys and moving to separate playgrounds. Those of us who used to play with these guys will either have to pick a side, or spend a lot of extra work to make sure that we can operate well in both camps.

Welcome to the Flash Wars.

Fix your Crummy AT&T Reception: $150

If you’ve got a speedy, reliable internet connection at work or home, you have a real shot at fixing your lousy AT&T network reception. We’re talking a full five bars and a rock solid connection whenever you’re near your home or office.

But it comes with a price, specifically $150.

For the past week I’ve been using an AT&T “Microcell” (a.k.a. a “femtocell“) hooked to my home network. It’s a small box that looks a bit like a router and acts like as own personal cell tower. Basically, whenever you’re within 40 feet of it, it’ll scoop up all your calls and route them over your internet connection instead of AT&T’s network.

Setup wise, it was pretty straightforward: just bring the box home from the store, hook its internet connection into your router, and turn it on. There’s a web page you go to to register the cell phones that are allowed to use it (up to ten numbers), and then you just wait a bit for it to be activated on AT&T’s network. Once that happens, your iPhone or other AT&T device will show “AT&T M-Cell” for the currently connected network, and you’re good to go.

The experience so far is just as promised, with nary a dropped call or glitchy connection since it was activated. In short, it just works.

The rub comes on the price itself: you’re basically shelling out $150 to fix a network which AT&T really ought to have fixed themselves. Although some rebate schemes are available if you sign up for AT&T DSL, I was happy with my present (cable) internet connection, so I got tagged for the full amount. Plus, you’re really doing AT&T a favor by shipping all your cell traffic off of their network, freeing up bandwidth. It’d be nice if we at least got a rebate or a nice card in the mail to thank us.

Another point of confusion is that AT&T offers the MicroCell both as a standalone, and in conjunction with an “unlimited calling” plan for another $19.99 a month which lets folks burn unlimited minutes while connected to the MicroCell. In theory, this is useful for people on minimal calling plans who nevertheless make a lot of calls from home–but paying a monthly charge to get the unlimited ability to push data over my own network connection would be too much to contemplate. Besides, it’s a moot issue thanks for the mandatory unlimited calling plan that came with my iPhone.

So what’s the bottom line? I bought it, and I’m happy to have had the chance to do so.

If you’re in the same sort of  “1-bar/no-bars” network location I live in, this is an easy, effective way to take a big point of pain out of your personal communications life. I’m obviously not in love with having had to drop the additional cash in order to fix things, but it’s one of those choices which may be a little unpleasant, but is a lot better than the alternatives of either giving up my iPhone or living with a third of my calls dropping mid-conversation.