Hey Adobe, Thanks for Seeing the (Flash) Light

Adobe's decision to switch to HTML5 deserves plaudits, as the company's doing something Apple probably wouldn't.

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Maybe you don’t know what Adobe Flash is, or maybe you don’t care. That’s probably as it should be. The best-working tech is purpose built. No one but the matchstick maker cares how the matchstick works—all you need’s the match to light when you strike it. My own experience of Flash is limited to clicking those “get” buttons and reinstalling it ever few months when I subject one of my computers to a rebuild. For the most part, it just works, and whether what I’m watching’s encoded in Flash or some other format, I couldn’t say, because there’s never been reason to check.

So when the news came down yesterday that Adobe was packing mobile Flash onto a funeral boat and sending it out to sea, most readers probably shrugged. Would your mobile phones still play videos? Video games? Of course they would. And besides, mobile Flash isn’t dead yet. There’s still the possibility, however dim, of third-party development—Adobe says developers may “opt to continue working on and releasing their own implementations.” And we’re talking about a transitional process here, as Adobe moves over to new web standard HTML5 and bolsters its own alternative Air platform. That process is going to take time.

(MORE: Mobile Flash Abandoned for HTML5: Adobe Surrenders, Apple Wins?)

“For more than a decade, Flash has enabled the richest content to be created and deployed on the web by reaching beyond what browsers could do. It has repeatedly served as a blueprint for standardizing new technologies in HTML,” wrote Adobe interactive development manager Danny Winokur in a blog post yesterday. “However, HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms.”

The shift to HTML5 to juggle “rich media” content is arguably as bold for Adobe, at this point, as Apple’s shift to Intel processors was years ago, though for different reasons: Apple was shifting horses within its proprietary architecture, where Adobe’s trading horse tracks entirely.

If you have an iOS device, you can’t view Flash developed content because Apple doesn’t support it. In fact Apple, for all Steve Jobs’ blather about “open systems,” is probably the World’s Most Proprietary Tech Manufacturer. It favors open standards, sure, but only if they don’t conflict with Apple’s own hermetically sealed ones.

Given that, the fact that Apple accounts for a huge slice of both the phone and tablet market, as well as Adobe’s own stake in the middleware game, switching horses this late in the game is a big deal. It’s also a great deal for us, the folks who actually have to use this stuff day in, day out. Instead of fussing over which platform supports what, now we’ll in theory have access to everything hassle-free, at least as far as “rich media” is concerned. HTML5 lets developers stick stuff directly into a web page, so in other words, “Look ma, no plugins!” What’s more, you can view HTML5 content offline.

In that sense Adobe deserves our plaudits, for doing something I’d wager Steve Jobs never would have (whatever his claims about the web), had Cupertino been the proprietor of Flash and not the folks from San Jose. Granted, the web was already moving away from Flash and toward non-proprietary formats like HTML5 (and I expect we may see Flash for desktops follow the mobile version off the plank at some point), but it takes guts to do the right thing when your marketing team can claim your middleware tool accounts for roughly three-quarters of encoded videos online.

MORE: Adobe: OS X Lion Is Buggy, Adobe Reader ‘Not Compatible’

Matt Peckham is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @mattpeckham or on Facebook. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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