avatar

Adobe’s Flash Announcement: A Tipping Point for Mobile Learning in 2012?

No Flash LogoLast week Adobe announced that they are ending further development of their popular Flash plugin technology for use in mobile device browsers, noting:

“HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively.  This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms. We are excited about this, and will continue our work with key players in the HTML community, including Google, Apple, Microsoft and RIM, to drive HTML5 innovation they can use to advance their mobile browsers.”

You can learn further details from the coverage by Wired, Forbes, Wall Street Journal, The New York Times’ Bits Blog, Mashable, and from the FAQ at Steve Howard’s blog.

HTML5 LogoThe issue of Flash vs. HTML5 had long been a hot issue in the mobile technology field, as Apple steadfastly refused to support Flash on their iPhone and iPad devices (see the Forbes article for the detailed essay Steve Jobs wrote giving his reasons). Even with the passing of Mr. Jobs, their stance seemed highly unlikely to change. Meanwhile Adobe — along with many other software makers — have been developing tools support (see their Adobe Edge preview) for HTML5, which can replace Flash in some respects today, with potential for more in the future. So the fact that Adobe has made this decision is not a surprise to me, only the exact timing was.

There will be many ramifications of this announcement. Focusing on talent management software in general, it would seem likely that if an existing Flash-based applications or interface is desired for mobile browser deployment, it will now need to be redeveloped in HTML5. Creating native mobile applications remains a viable option of course, with much to recommend it in many circumstances. But if the mobile browser is to be used, it seems HTML5 is the ticket, not Flash. And the same will be true for content developed in Flash — and here e-Learning content is an interesting case to consider.

e-Learning Content and Mobile Devices

The Flash Player’s popularity in business was undeniable, with it often said that 98% of enterprises relied on the Flash Player. As a result, a large amount of e-Learning content in the past ten years has been developed using Flash – whether through proprietary approaches or via the use of the popular “Rapid e-Learning” development tools such as Articulate Presenter, Adobe Captivate, and others. This was true of both custom-developed e-Learning courses and off-the-shelf e-Learning course libraries (both of which I know first hand from my 11 years with working with Element K.) An entire industry of Flash-centered authoring tools, components, job roles, etc. evolved in the past decade, and collectively countless e-Learning courses and other content were created and deployed. The very existence of all of these tools, content, and support meant a lot of key industry players had firm stakes in the ground, making it difficult to move in a new direction.

As mobile devices became more popular – first smartphones and then tablets – this reliance on Flash became a major problem. Initially, the devices weren’t capable enough to support the full Flash plug-in, and early attempts at using Flash Lite were largely disappointing. The iPhone changed smartphones forever, but as noted earlier it didn’t support Flash on principle. As a result, instructional designers, developers, and others were largely left unable to easily leverage existing e-Learning content for delivery on mobile devices.

Many would argue that has been a good thing, and to some extent I would agree. The environment and use cases for using mobile devices for learning and performance support are quite different than what e-Learning courses and content were usually intended for (employees using desktop or laptop PCs in the office or at home.) If organizations could have easily ported their backlog of Flash-based e-Learning courses, they would have been providing a lot of mobile learning content quickly, but the user experience would have been poor, especially on smartphones due to the much smaller screen size and user interface differences. Further, doing so would have at least partially missed the mark for what mobile learning can and should be: supporting people while they are mobile, while they have “stolen moments” of time, with learning opportunities and performance support content.

That said, being able to leverage modified Flash development tools and employee skillsets has clearly slowed the development of mobile learning content and initiatives. Therefore, I think this announcement from Adobe that they are killing off further Flash development for mobile browsers will actually greatly enhance mobile learning prospects, and quickly.

A Tipping Point for Mobile Learning?

One of the things that holds back business development is a high level of uncertainty: of risks, of costs, of the future in general. We see this in the current economy, where there is a great deal of uncertainty coming from all angles including regulation, taxation, consumer demand, and more. This is one reason that many corporations today, even those with record profits and who are sitting on relatively large amounts of cash, are so reluctant to spend on capital investments, to expand and hire more workers, or to take other risks in the market.

Similarly, many organizations were stymied by the issue of Flash support for mobile devices. After the initial excitement of mobile learning’s potential wore off, they realized the various challenges they faced – and while there have been several, the uncertainty surrounding both the quality of Flash support for non-Apple devices and the unlikely future Flash support on Apple devices, made progress in mobile learning slow.

That key uncertainty has now evaporated. Authoring tool providers, off-the-shelf content providers, and custom content developers will almost certainly rally around HTML5. I think it is a safe bet that the morning this news hit the street, a host of meetings were called to discuss moving forward, or moving forward faster, with various mobile learning initiatives.

Tipping Point CurveI think what we are likely to see is a “tipping point” in the evolution of mobile learning. Such a tipping point will set off a chain reaction starting with HTML5-based courses and performance support content becoming as reliable and future-proof as other mobile learning formats have been, such as MP3 for audio and MP4 for video. For authoring tool providers, supporting HTML5 output will quickly move from being innovative to being table stakes. Ditto for off-the-shelf content providers, who will no longer have the uncertainties that kept them from committing significant resources to mass-scale mobile learning content creation. This increased content availability will coincide with – or perhaps drive – greater delivery platform support. This has long been a “chicken and egg” problem for the industry, since mobile learning and support content didn’t exist in large quantities, at least not compared to traditional e-Learning content.

2012 – Finally the Year of Mobile Learning?

Will progress in both mobile learning content and delivery, coupled with continued explosive growth in both smartphone and tablet use by organizations, and ever-increasing education of L&D professionals of the benefits and use cases for mobile learning, finally making 2012 the “Year of Mobile Learning?”

Don’t get me wrong: there have been many successes in mobile learning in the past 5+ years, the past 3 years especially (enough to warrant entire conferences such as mLearnCon from the eLearningGuild.) I personally was involved in enabling a successful mobile learning program for the sales team at Element K in 2010-11, which included courses transformed from Flash to video format, recordings of weekly team meetings, podcasts of subject matter expert interviews, and performance support materials – all provided to a range of devices including iPhone, Blackberry, and Android smartphones, plus the iPad. And I’ve talked with many people involved in other such efforts – innovative thinkers from niche platform providers, custom content development outfits, and organizations that have pursued mobile learning with their own internal L&D talent.

Rather, what I am noting is that mobile learning has not yet reached widespread adoption – making those annual predictions of the “Year of Mobile Learning” fall flat. I’ll admit that there are many reasons for the slow, gradual pace  of development of mobile learning – see the recent, detailed article “If Mobile Learning and Support are Wonderful, Why aren’t They Everywhere?” by the always insightful Allison Rosset at eLearn Magazine. But at a certain point, when the industry has experienced gradual improvement and development along multiple dimensions over several years (it has), and when several barriers have been reduced or eliminated (they have), then all that is needed is the elimination of one major uncertainty factor for a tipping point to be reached and things to really take off.

What do you think? We always look forward to reader comments!

Written by Thomas Stone

 


Link to original post