Adobe’s announcement yesterday that it is canceling development of the Flash Player for mobile devices is the most compelling evidence yet that the Flash platform’s days are numbered. If you’re a Web developer and still clinging to Flash, let this be your wakeup call.

For a growing segment of the market, smartphones and tablets are already the primary means of accessing online information services. If your Web content can’t reach customers via their mobile devices, you might as well pack it in.

By that standard, Flash was a poor choice even before Adobe threw in the towel. Windows Mobile and iOS devices never supported it. Android devices and two tablets with marginal market share — HP’s TouchPad and RIM’s BlackBerry PlayBook — did, but mobile Flash Player performed poorly, so users would often configure their browsers to download Flash content only when specifically requested.

Technically, Flash content is still available on mobile devices via Adobe AIR, a technology that allows developers to bundle HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Flash resources as stand-alone apps. But although AIR apps for Android perform better than in-browser content, they’ve never been particularly popular with mobile developers. The Android Market recently broke the 100,000-app mark, yet a search for “Adobe AIR” yields fewer than 2,000 results.

Meanwhile, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all been busy building vertically integrated developer ecosystems, each of which combines a mobile platform with an SDK, developer tools, and a sales channel to bring apps to market. Adobe has nothing similar to offer Flash developers.

Time for Adobe to trade Flash for HTML5
So if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. For years, Adobe has tried to position Flash as a superior solution for rich, interactive Web content. Yet with the advent of HTML5, even Flash on the desktop seems like one plug-in too many. Adobe’s best bet now is to quietly deprecate Flash and put all its chips on open Web standards.

Fortunately for Adobe shareholders, that seems to be exactly what Adobe is doing. Work on Flash Player 11 for desktop systems continues, but Adobe’s press release says it plans to position Flash “where it can have most impact for the industry” — meaning games and streaming video. Furthermore, new Flash features will be “designed for a smooth transition to HTML5 as the standards evolve.”

But if Adobe deemphasizes Flash in favor of HTML5 — a content format it can’t control — won’t its market position suffer? Some, maybe. Remember, though: Flash Player is a free download. Adobe monetizes the platform by selling content-creation tools — something it can still do for HTML5.

In fact, Adobe already has a thriving Web development tools business. Dreamweaver has matured from an easy-to-use Web layout program to a quality IDE for HTML and PHP development. And who knows how many images on the Web were created using Photoshop or Fireworks?

The opportunity for Adobe now lies in filling the gaps in today’s IDEs, code editors, and graphics software with new tools that can help designers and developers more easily take advantage of the multimedia capabilities of HTML5. That’s something Adobe is uniquely positioned to do, given its experience developing Flash.

But is Adobe out of its HTML element?
Here’s the problem, though: When Adobe says HTML5 can’t do everything Flash can do, it’s actually correct — and not just for games and high-end multimedia, either.

Earlier this year, Adobe Labs previewed Wallaby, a utility for converting Flash content to JavaScript and HTML5. Or make that some Flash content — it works with only the latest Flash file format, and it can’t convert any ActionScript-based interactivity, not even for simple controls like buttons. What’s more, the output is only viewable in WebKit-based browsers, you can forget about Firefox and IE. Competing Flash-to-HTML5 converters from Google and SourceTec aren’t much better, which suggests that translating content from Flash to Web standards isn’t as easy as it sounds.

What about creating multimedia HTML5 content from scratch? Adobe has an app for that, too. Called Adobe Edge, it’s the closest thing to a Web standards-based version of the Flash Professional authoring environment yet created — which is to say not very close. You can use it to create simple animations using HTML5 and jQuery Easing behaviors, but its UI is clunky and awkward and its output works properly only in WebKit (again). It’s not improving very quickly, either; the ability to loop an animation wasn’t added until the third preview release.

Simply put, these tools aren’t ready for professional use. To be fair, Adobe never said they were. But they’re not even close to being ready, and that’s bad. Because, intentionally or not, Adobe this week sent a clear message to developers that they should begin phasing out investment in the Flash platform not just for mobile but for the desktop, too — where HTML5 is now entrenched and AIR is widely available, after all. Meanwhile, Adobe has no HTML5 tools on offer to take Flash Professional’s place.

Don’t hold your breath that Adobe will have the go-to toolset for HTML5
Adobe has taken other steps to maintain its presence in the Web development world. In October, it purchased Typekit, a hosted service that provides high-quality typefaces for use on Web pages. And in this week’s press conference, it said it would “more aggressively contribute to HTML5,” citing its recent CSS shaders proposal to the W3C as one example. Still, these seem like token efforts. Either technology might catch on, or it might not.

If Adobe really wants its brand to be as important to tomorrow’s Web designers as it was to yesterday’s print designers, it can’t afford to wait around. Beginning today, it should spare no expense to develop Dreamweaver, Edge, and whatever other tools it can dream up to take the headaches out of Web development — because, Lord knows, Web standards aren’t getting any less complicated.

Unfortunately, however, it sounds like Adobe is going to drop the ball. In this week’s meeting with financial analysts, the company said its emphasis is not on building great tools but on subscription pricing, Web-based content creation software, and — most important of all — growing its digital marketing, advertising, and analytics businesses.

That’s right: Adobe wants to be Google. It’s too bad because Web developers could really use an Adobe right now.

This article, “Will Adobe’s HTML5 strategy really help developers?,” originally appeared at InfoWorld.com.

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