Column S04E01: A Flashback through the Net

Usually, I try to keep my personal life separate from this column so as not to bore you dear readers with my sad life story. This week, however, you need to know a little of my personal history in order to properly contextualize the opinion I will be offering a little later on. I hate Research in Motion (RIM). RIM makes BlackBerrys. I used a BlackBerry for three years. I hated that BlackBerry for all three of those years. Quod erat demonstrandum: I hate RIM.

Despite this bastion of hatred I feel toward RIM, however, I must confess … I am seriously considering purchasing the newly announced BlackBerry Z10 when it launches. One would be well within his or her rights to demand a reason why I would do such a thing given my hatred for RIM, and I’ll tell you right now: It’s not the fact that the Z10 represents a new direction for the BlackBerry brand. It’s not due to the slick new OS. It’s certainly not due to the pitiable 4.2” screen. The sole reason I am interested in the BlackBerry Z10 is that it is the only phone on the current market that offers native support for Adobe’s Flash platform. That should give you some sense of how highly I value Flash in my web-browsing experience.

For those of you who don’t know what Flash is, the honest truth is, you really do know what it is. If you’ve ever browsed YouTube, watched a streaming sport game from ESPN, or spent an idle hour playing a tower defense game on the Internet, you’ve used Flash. This is not to say that you’ve used Flash for its intended purpose. Macromedia Flash, as it was once known, was originally an animation studio meant to provide professional-level tools to aspiring animators at an affordable price. Why in the world, then, do we use it on a daily basis to watch videos that are most often live-action, distinctly not animated? Let’s take a little peek into the Internet’s inner workings to find out.

The Internet, aside from being a series of tubes, is mostly made up of content written and delivered in the format of HyperText Markup Language (HTML). HTML is essentially a fancy text document that tells your web browser how to display the website’s content onscreen. For instance, if I were to write THE ENCLOSED, your web browser would show “THE ENCLOSED”  displayed in red text. HTML works very well for simple things like writing out text, making links, and organizing content into tables. When it comes to multimedia, however, HTML hits a cringeworthy snag. While the syntax of HTML is defined as an international standard, the interpretation of HTML is left up to the discretion of an individual browser. To understand how ridiculous this is, imagine an example in which you enter 1+1 into three calculators. One calculator returns the expected 2, another returns 10, and the third returns an error. You see, one of the calculators was in base 10, the second was running in base two, and the third one expected an input in Reverse Polish Notation; furthermore, none of them told you how it was going to interpret your input. The same sort of thing applies to HTML: You can write whatever you want, but you may not receive what you expect depending on the configuration of the browser, especially when it’s related to displaying images and videos in HTML5, the latest revision of the language.

Thus, the reason we all use Flash in our daily lives is that it provides a standard way to interpret “rich content”—that is, pictures, music, and video. Instead of having to worry about whether a user’s browser will play back your favorite remix of “Gangnam Style,” YouTube simply sticks the video in a Flash wrapper, and—voila!—Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Safari can coexist in harmony. One plus one will always equal two. The only problem is that Flash is inefficient—it’s essentially a small OS on top of a bigger OS. The calculator has to download another calculator to add up one plus one. Why go through this inefficiency then? Well, until all calculators agree that one plus one equals two (in the general case), you’ll never get a consistent experience otherwise. If different browsers can fight over things as simple as how to color text on a page, imagine how they’ll clash when they have to play back a video.

So if we, as users, don’t want to be bothered by horrendous glitches while watching our online videos, we have three options: 1) Force the whole world to use one browser. If that ever happens, I will leave and colonize a new planet. 2) Force all browsers to interpret HTML in a standard way. This is by far the most rational course of action, but it’s about as likely to happen as option number one. So we’re stuck with: 3) Use a bloated wrapper to make sure that our videos play the same way no matter where we’re watching them. Despite the immature denials such as those of the late, great Steve Jobs, smartphones are definitely capable of running Flash videos just as computers can. So, according to my way of thinking, until we can get all calculators to agree that one plus one equals two, it’s worth a little extra bloating to be able to exercise our right to spaz out to “Gangnam Style” wherever we are. Therefore, right on, RIM. Keep fighting the good fight. Now, if you’ll excuse me … I’ve got to find some more BlackBerrys to smash.

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