So Adobe has abandoned mobile Flash. I explained back in March how implementing Flash on mobile devices is technically very challenging and that Steve Jobs wasn’t (just) playing industry politics in starting what became called Flash Wars. Adobe’s capitulation means that tablets and smartphones can’t have a ‘full web’ experience. It also means that the next generation of internet connected TVs can’t have that either – all the Flash implementations were derived from Adobe’s mobile Flash project – and that’s going to have a major impact on how future TV will develop.
The TV industry is struggling with the web: people can watch a huge range of video on their PCs and quite naturally want that choice on TV too. The industry has attempted to meet this so far by adapting set-top boxes to play out content from a few popular sites (e.g. YouTube and Netflix) but this hasn’t worked out well: the technical and commercial effort to add each source is high and the result is disappointing for end users because the choice of video comes nowhere near that of the desktop PC. This is why it’s increasingly common to see a cheap media PC with HDMI and a wireless keyboard/mouse connected to a TV and a regular browser used to access web sites (the content availability trumps the awkwardness of the user experience). Google TV has been designed in part to tap into this trend by including Flash in its browser, and other set-top box makers have been adopting Android with similar goals – a strategy that has now been stopped dead in its tracks by the end of Flash on these devices.
Now that Flash is no more, what does this mean for the web-on-TV strategy for the TV industry? Firstly, we can expect much more focus on HTML5 video: a lot of streaming video sites already support HTML5 video (e.g. Vimeo and YouTube) and these might work on some connected TV hardware. It’s not trivial however: HTML5 doesn’t define a common video encoding standard (unlike Flash) and there are quite a few patent licensing issues to work through (something that Adobe already resolved with Flash). In most cases the streaming web sites are made to work with the iPad and this supports H.264 Main Profile video, so any TV device that can do the same should be able to show video. However, there is one other major feature that Flash supports: DRM. There is no DRM in HTML5 video yet DRM is required to appease content licensing lawyers – no DRM, no valuable content (both Hulu and YouTube explained why they are sticking to Flash for streaming). For mobile devices like the iPad the DRM issue has been side-stepped by the adoption of the ‘channel as an app’ model: a native device app that implements DRM over a set of suitably-encoded content licensed to a particular source. So there is a Hulu app, a Netflix app, an iPlayer app and so on. This is already working today for iPads and iPhones, despite making a less than ideal user experience (there is no common playback or interaction experience across apps, no common watch-later queue, no cross-content discovery or recommendation system: everything is contained within content ‘silos’). But for connected TVs this approach has a problem: there is no large and viable ecosystem for apps. For example, Apple TV (at present) isn’t open to iOS apps, and Google TV’s imminent re-launch isn’t going to be running in sufficient volume to motivate content owners to write apps for it. This results in a Catch-22: without a lot of good content, there is no reason for a user to buy a connected TV, and without a large and viable ecosystem there is no motive to develop content apps.
Flash on TV was a route to breaking the content/users Catch-22: by tapping in to existing web video content. Now that Flash is gone, the TV industry is likely to go through a period of upheaval while a viable large-scale app framework emerges. There are already a large number of next-generation set-top box designs based on Android and targeted at cable and satellite TV operators. Android of course has a viable large-scale app ecosystem for mobile devices and without an alternative the industry will by default converge on this OEM-agnostic way to get content on a connected TV device.
One last thing: we have to talk about Apple. Because Apple makes hardware targeted at consumers and not operators it will find it hard to enter the TV market without the willing consent of the TV industry. At present it’s hard to see that consent being given (a topic I covered before). This means that the main beneficiary of Adobe’s capitulation in the Flash Wars is not Apple, but Google: it may have just lost Flash for its Google TV, but it has just gained a major advantage in the set-top box space.