Blogs & Comment

When Apple no longer controls the tablet market, how will it kill Flash?

Apple is losing market share. Meanwhile, all the other tablets have something in common that Apple’s product lacks: the ability to run Flash.

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The tablet war matters. It matters that Apple has competition. It matters whether or not one company is dictating a market, and even if you don’t own a tablet, or ever plan to buy one, it matters to you.

Flash is a prime example of why. Apple has decided it’s a no-go on their iPads, iPods and iPhones, which was, to be sure, a very controversial decision. So much so that last year Steve Jobs felt the need to publish an open letter explaining why Apple and Flash can’t tango. Like its predecessor, the iPad 2—released about a year after the open letter—still doesn’t run Flash. In the words of Stephen Colbert, the speedier iPad 2 will “not run Flash nine times faster.” Apple argues Flash runs poorly on their operating systems and, furthermore, is not optimized for touch-based technology. Some have debated that last point.

But, like it or hate it, Flash is a big chunk of the Internet, and its popularity arose organically. The other tablets are taking the Internet for what it is. Android tablets and the PlayBook can run Flash, and so can the HP TouchPad, which hits shelves July 1st in the U.S. (and on the 15th in Canada).

Canadian Business contributor Peter Nowak wrote a pretty positive review for HP’s latest, though he did point out its Flash capabilities are lacking. It runs Flash, but as he told me in a phone conversation earlier today, in his experience about half the time it crashes. Meanwhile, “the Playbook didn’t crash, but it bogged down.”

Of course, Adobe is hard at work on optimizing Flash on tablets, so one would hope this won’t always be the case. Nonetheless, says Peter, “I don’t think anyone should make it a selling point until it properly works.” Fair enough. But at least these companies are taking the Internet for what it is; meanwhile—and this is why the tablet war matters to you—Apple is hoping the Internet will bend in its favour, in large part from the pressure its putting on, for example, Flash, by selling a popular product that won’t support it. It could. But it won’t.

Apple is instead championing HTML5 as its replacement, but I’ve yet to see the equivalent of, say, Farmville in HTML5. Plus there are browser compatibility issues with HTML5, and true to its name, Flash is quick for creation. But yes, HTML5 is open—as in, you don’t need a specific program to work with it, like you do with Flash. Nonetheless, Flash has many advantages and capabilities still out of HTML5’s reach. 

And yet if tablets aren’t able to adopt it well enough, it could mean trouble. After all, Steve Jobs thinks PCs are a relic of the past. That may or may not be true, but either way Adobe wants to have forward momentum, which is something tablets are monopolizing.

But who’s monopolizing tablets? Apple, yes—but that’s changing, quickly. In fact, in the last quarter of 2010, Android tablets accounted for 22% of global tablet shipments with Apple at 75%—down from 95%. And now Apple has to contend with the PlayBook (which shipped about 500,000 in Q1) and the HP TouchPad—two major hitters that are bound to make a visible impact on the market share. Admittedly, 500,000 is only 10% of what Apple shipped in Q1 (5 million, which was lower than expectations). But there’s something to be said for power in numbers, and as a collective all of these other tablets have something in common that Apple’s product lacks: the ability to run Flash. And Apple is losing market share to them. 

Assuming Adobe can pull it off, here’s an interesting hypothetical situation: Let’s say a year from now half of the market is controlled by tablets that do a good job running Flash. Half of the market—again, hypothetically—can run the entire Internet well. And one tablet can’t. What’s Apple’s next move then?

“It will be a cold day in hell before Jobs admits he was wrong,” says Peter. Yeah, probably.