I’ve already published my interview with Ian Hickson, the spec’s main editor. This time it’s the turn of Paul Gubbay, the vice president of engineering for design and web at Adobe. That means he oversees product development for Flash, Dreamweaver, InDesign and Illustrator, among others.
What does HTML5 mean to you?
“If you think about it from a philosophical point of view, it means the ability to do a few things that you couldn’t do before in the HTML world. There’s the promise of being able to do more interactivity, the promise of doing more applications — but the real catalyst for all of this is multi-screen. It’s the ability to get reach, get to these different kinds of screens like mobile, and I’d include tablets as well, and tomorrow even TVs. ”
“When they think of the bucket term HTML5, there are definitely things you can point to that are HTML5. But it’s not always what’s in the spec these days, but what’s in WebKit — that’s what’s driving mobile.”
What do you mean?
“Cross-browser compatibility has always been the number one issue you’ll find for anyone doing web development — and we’re just talking desktop browsers. Take it to mobile, and you’ve got an entirely new level, and then of course, each mobile manufacturer has a different way of implementing WebKit. But the majority of them ARE using WebKit. The nuances will get sorted as time goes on, but this is what creates such compelling opportunities for companies like Adobe.”
Apple’s attitude towards Flash and HTML5 is well-documented. Is Steve Jobs right when he says that “Adobe should focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future”?
“We have to be realists about what’s happening. Flash is amazing technology, and it’s always been a blueprint for where HTML could go. If you think about it, the HTML has not moved very much for a long time — at least at the spec level. Ajax is the first move that happened a little while ago, and now finally the spec, and WebKit and mobile devices are changing things again: it’s a new world to some extent. But Flash has always played a key role.”
“Flash is a plug-in: if you can do the things in HTML, then you certainly wouldn’t do them in a plug-in, so Flash has to keep growing and breaking boundaries. But we’ve got to be realists that there are certain things people have traditionally done in Flash, and as HTML starts catching up we need to make sure that our customers can be successful there.”
In the long term, what can Flash do that HTML can’t?
“You might see HTML5 in the beginning for iOS and Flash for other places — especially now that Flash is starting to move into mobile devices, and over the next few months you’ll see a lot more of that — depending on budgets you might see different ways companies might go.”
What do you mean?
“When you think about premium video and DRM, then Flash has got tons of capabilities. But as soon as you start getting into lower-end video, then I think definitely HTML5 video is going to pick up there.”
A lot of your problems seem to have stemmed from the rise of WebKit as the rendering engine of choice for mobile and some leading-edge browsers. Do you think that was always part of Apple’s plan?
“Who could, a year or two ago, have foreseen a lot of this stuff? I don’t even think Apple necessarily foresaw a lot of this stuff: they made some really good bets and then as things became successful in certain ways, they capitalised on those and it directed itself organically. I wouldn’t take away from anything they’ve done, but I think it’s hard to see how these things work out.”
“One thing that WebKit had an early focus on was about it being easier to take it, adopt it and integrate it into other things. AIR, for instance, uses WebKit. There ended up being a lot more reasons why it was easier to integrate WebKit [than others]. DreamWeaver has a live preview mode that integrates WebKit because it was easier. Obviously Chrome is built on WebKit.”
“I don’t know if that was by design as they were building WebKit and so it made it easier from that perspective. But when you really look at what really drives it, it comes down to the iPhone and the incredible innovation that happened at that time. They proved for the first time that browsing devices on mobile devices really could be valuable, and they were so far ahead of everyone else that it quickly became the one everyone wants, and it’s easier to embed, and it’s open source. It made too much sense on paper.”
So you don’t think Flash and HTML are intrinsically opposed?
“Adobe led the way with Flash because there was nobody else doing anything. An awful lot of effort, thought and detail has gone into the Flash platform and made it was it is today — which is, in many ways, light years ahead of HTML, not in terms so much, but in terms of frameworks and libraries and tooling and support.”
“A lot of people talk about Canvas, but really it’s just a black box with some APIs to do some drawing. It reminds me of Flash 1.0. It’s true that you can do anything in there, and it’s not a plug-in, but — my God, the kinds of library you’ll have to write. Will it happen over time? It could very well… but it’s going to take time.”
What mistakes has Adobe made? Could you have moved to support HTML5 faster? Would that have killed the Adobe versus Apple headlines?
“A least a couple of years ago, or even a year ago, we wouldn’t have thought that HTML5 would have become so predominantly important to people as quickly as it did. The funny thing is that I don’t think a lot of people know exactly what it means when they say HTML5, but I don’t think that most people could have guessed how fast that would become important. Businesses for the most part don’t care how that technical stuff is done, but because of all the light that Apple has shed on this, you’ve got business people asking how it would pay out.”
“The reality in today’s world is that it’s about reach, target and what’s supported. So while the spec is important, and plays an important role, what we’re seeing is that a lot of browser vendors are pushing ahead of the spec to try and move things forward. Because WebKit has a very large footprint on mobile devices, what you put in WebKit hits the things that you care about.”
Adobe can help make or break a technology like HTML5 by supporting it across its creative products. How do you decide which horses to back?
“We look at the spec, we also look at what our customers need to do. No, we would not wait 10 years to do something until the spec is ratified when our customers are clearly using stuff today. We try to take a three to five year outlook and look backwards as we think about things we’re doing.”
“I think where our effort has to go is to let them know that we’re going to be here for them no matter what. We are the company that they can count on to figure all that stuff out.”
“For a while in the beginning, just being honest, it would be easy to see Adobe being Flash and taking a stance — especially when being attacked — that we’re just thinking about how Flash plays in this world. But our customers need to know that we are a company around helping you build the best content in the world. Whatever the technology is to make that happen, we’ll find the right way. If HTML5 is important in that, good. But believe me there will be areas where it doesn’t do what you need to get done.”