Flash Player Demise on Desktop Inevitable, but Years Away, Say Analysts

Adobe is transitioning from Flash plug-in to HTML5 for desktop browsers, too

Adobe's decision to stop Flash Player development for mobile browsers will likely be repeated for browsers on the desktop, just not anytime soon, analysts said today.

"They're not getting out the Flash business," said Ray Valdes, an analyst with Gartner. "But clearly they see that the future is HTML5."

Valdes and others reacted today to confirmation from Adobe that it will halt development of Flash Player for mobile browsers, and hints that the company may repeat that in the future for Flash on the desktop.

"We will continue to leverage our experience with Flash to accelerate our work with the W3C and WebKit to bring similar capabilities to HTML5 as quickly as possible," said Danny Winokur, the Adobe executive in charge of interactive development, in a Wednesday blog post . He was referring to the World Wide Web Consortium standards body and WebKit, the open-source browser engine that powers Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome. "And we will design new features in Flash for a smooth transition to HTML5 as the standards evolve."

Winokur committed Adobe to supporting Flash Player at least as far as version 12, which does not have a release date. Adobe has shipped a new version of Flash Player every one-to-three years -- the stretch between Flash Player 10 and 11 was three years -- and just delivered version 11 last month.

Adobe's move to ditch Flash Player for mobile browsers was smart, said analysts. And the same logic holds for the plug-in on desktop browsers.

"As the market moves to HTML5, the Flash [Player] runtime will have to transition, too," said Al Hilwa, an analyst at IDC. "And that's exactly what they're doing, trying to transition from Flash to HTML5. But transition is always disruptive."

Keeping Flash Player alive on the desktop will "work for a while," said Valdes, but eventually it too will be supplanted by HTML5, the loose collection of standards that let browsers render the kind of sophisticated content now relegated to Flash.

"Flash Player won't go away anytime soon," argued Valdes. "But HTML5 is the future of the Web."

That future will be years down the road, Valdes and Hilwa predicted.

Looking at the trend lines and the accelerated pace of HTML5 adoption by browsers and websites, Hilwa estimated that it will take until 2015 before 90% of desktop browsers are HTML5-capable.

"On the desktop, the need for a Flash browser plug-in continues," said Hilwa. "I see it continuing until 2014 or 2015, depending on how Windows 8 takes off and how touch-based interfaces compete against traditional desktop interfaces."

Microsoft, for one, has already said it will block the Flash Player plug-in from being installed on the touch edition of Internet Explorer 10 (IE10) within next year's Windows 8.

Valdes didn't peg a specific year as the end of Flash Player on the desktop, but agreed that it would be some time before Adobe called it quits there as it has this week in the mobile browser market.

Neither analyst agreed with some commentators who saw Adobe's decision as the eminent death of Flash.

"Oh, that's very premature," said Hilwa. "But nothing lives forever. What we're seeing is simply the adoption of HTML5 accelerating the pace that we find Flash unnecessary."

Still, it's no surprise that some are positively giddy about the demise of Flash on mobile, and signs of the same on the desktop: Flash has been a security nightmare.

So far this year, Adobe has patched Flash Player eight different times, most recently seven weeks ago when it quashed six bugs /a>, including one that was being exploited by criminals at the time.

Several of 2011's updates were emergency, or "out-of-band," fixes rushed to users because attacks were already under way.

Adobe updated Flash five times in 2010 to counter security threats.

But the inevitable passing of Flash Player won't materially impact Adobe, not if it plays its cards right.

"What isn't often mentioned is that Adobe doesn't have a large revenue stream directly from Flash Player," said Valdes. "And Adobe's well-positioned to take advantage of HTML5. It's the number one vendor of commercial HTML5 tools today. So I see this as a good opportunity to provide these tools, and rationalize what's now a very fragmented market."

Hilwa agreed.

"This transition will continue for some time, and Adobe's taking a bold step by taking its ecosystem to HTML5," said Hilwa. "If they leverage what they've done properly, they could put themselves on the HTML5 map."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer , on Google+ or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com .

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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