January 30 2010

Microsoft’s iPad Problem

A lot of the current hand-wringing regarding the iPad seems to concern its lack of Flash support. A vocal crowd of people with a vested interest in Flash’s ubiquity are beside themselves at the concept of a Flash-less browser gaining widespread adoption (even though this actually happened about 18 months ago). To me their incredulity resembles the first stage of the Kübler-Ross grieving process — denial — and pretty soon we’ll start seeing the other stages too (arguably we already have).

On the other side of the fence, HTML5 advocates are beginning to sound optimistic about what the future holds. A week ago the mobile space looked like it might be the battleground to decide HTML5’s future, but a general web built entirely around open standards is now beginning to seem even more credible. However, the fight HTML5 was engaged in wasn’t simply against Flash, but sandboxed runtime plugins in general, and there’s another significant player here: Microsoft Silverlight.

Silverlight was born from the realisation that Microsoft’s war for the web wasn’t really in the browser space, but — with the rise of Rich Internet Applications — the plugin sandbox they were beginning to reside within. It’s no coincidence that Microsoft chose to restart their work on Internet Explorer around the same time as Silverlight came into being; the former platform was now just the bootstrap for the latter, and the competition subtly shifted from Mozilla, Apple and Opera to Adobe.

But there are three significant reasons for Microsoft to be deeply concerned about the success of the iPad. Firstly, Silverlight — a plugin with very low market penetration — is as good as dead. Web-facing businesses may take a little time to realise they can’t use Flash to underpin their sites, but only the near-suicidally imprudent would hinge their future on Silverlight now.

Secondly, and presupposing the former, in order not to risk utter irrelevance, Microsoft will be forced to support HTML5’s key features: <video> and <canvas>, as well as a far wider-reaching interpretation of the CSS spec than they’ve so far managed. If their browser doesn’t work with the popular sites on the web (and with Google finally putting Internet Explorer 6 on notice, this is a genuine threat) then their entire OS platform is in jeopardy.

Finally — and this one might be the hardest for them to choke back — they’ll have to support H.264 natively, something which would undermine their own WMV HD codec’s adoption and in turn their machinations within the music and movie industries.

Whilst the stakes for Adobe may seem high, as a company which builds tools enabling creatives, there will always be a market for them to build the tools these creatives work with; for Microsoft the stakes are far higher. This isn’t just about browsers, plugins or video codecs. It’s about their continued relevance as a maker of computing platforms.