WebGL and TuneKit, Not Flash, the Future for iPhone?

More than 2 years post-iPhone launch, no news on Flash ever coming to the iPhone, yet Apple is pressing ahead with technologies like H.264 video (YouTube App's been using it since day one), HTML 5 and CSS animation (iPhone Safari supported them first), HTTP Live Streaming, and now WebGL for hardware accelerated 3D-graphics, and TuneKit, the framework behind the new iTunes LP rich media content.

Read on to find out what they are, how they work, and why they might make plugins like Flash increasingly unnecessary...

Says developer blog Wolfire:

WebGL is basically an initiative to bring 3D graphics into web browsers natively, without having to download any plugins. This is achieved by adding a few things to HTML5, namely, defining a JavaScript binding to OpenGL ES 2.0 and letting you draw things into a 3D context of the canvas element.

This would bring 3D-gaming (or any 3D application) right into the browser with hardware acceleration, with no plugin like Flash needed to hog your memory, heat up your processor, or crash the browser. (Browsers can do all of those things well enough without the extra help). In addition to WebKit (which is the foundation of Apple's Safari, Google's Chrome, Palm's Web, BlackBerry's just-purchased Torch Mobile, and some Nokia devices), Firefox and Opera are also supporting it. Internet Explorer? Shrug.

TuneKit is the foundation behind iTunes 9's new iTunes LP and iTunes Extras formats, according to AppleInsider:

Similar to Apple's use of the SproutCore JavaScript framework to build its MobileMe web apps, TuneKit provides media developers with a familiar JavaScript framework for creating interactive bonus materials. TuneKit, like SproutCore, proves that a proprietary middleware runtime plugin such as Adobe Flash or Microsoft Silverlight is simply unnecessary to deliver this kind of interactive media content, thanks in part to rapid advances in JavaScript rendering engine optimization.

Like TiPb, they couldn't help but notice the 720p nature of the current iTunes LP and iTunes Extras formats seem destined for the Apple TV, and we're keeping the oft-rumored iTablet on that list as well.

Adobe Flash on the other hand, still hasn't produced an optimized version for Mac OS X, never mind iPhone OS X, according to Apple is the number one cause of browser crashes, continues to experience security threats (though Javascript is no angel here either), and is under increasing privacy scrutiny due to Flash cookies. (If you've never checked, here's the page on Adobe's site that shows which websites are storing information about you in the Flash plugin).

Since, at the end of the day, users don't care about Flash or WebKit/browser technology, they just want their videos and games, things like WebGL and TuneKit could very well replace large amounts of Flash (and competing formats like SilverLight) on the web, especially the mobile web.

And personally I'm fine with that. A series of cutting edge, specific, highly optimized technologies are sometimes better than aging, overextended architectures anyway (feel free to insert iTunes jokes here).

Have something to say about this story? Leave a comment! Need help with something else? Ask in our forums!

Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

WebGL and TuneKit, Not Flash, the Future for iPhone?


So they want to replace bloated, proprietary and widely misused software with their own proprietary, bloated and (they hope) soon to be widely misused software while inconveniencing their customers during the transition.
No one would care except Apple won't permit plugins for Mobile Safari in the app store and won't let you get them from anywhere else.

Shollomon: none of those things appear to be Apple proprietary. They use open web standards, or technology Apple is open sourcing.
Remember, just because Mobile Safari renders web pages well doesn't mean it has desktop-class computing behind it, and Flash burns up MacBooks enough that the idea of plugin that melts people's iPhones shouldn't sound like a "good thing" to anyone at this point. (Though perhaps this will all scare Adobe into making a great mobile version of Flash as part of their open screen project).

While commenters so far clearly dislike flash, with some good reasons. The fact is that there are sites I want to visit on my phone that I can't because the browser is incomplete. There hasn't been a browser on the market in over ten years that hasn't supported the flash plugin. Apple owes it to their customers to work with Adobe to get this on our phones.

You are, of course, correct that HTML 5 Video and some of the other stuff is not proprietary, but TuneKit, while you don't have to license it to use it, has such strong hooks into iTunes and it appears you have to use iTunes to get the most out of it. Even worse than Flash.
Again. There are zero issues here if Apple would compete instead of locking down the iPhone to iTunes/App Store.

This reminds me of when Microsoft tried to squeeze out other browsers by forcing Internet Explorer on us via Windows.
Go ahead fanboys, call me stupid...

Firefox, Opera, WebKit all supporting these new technologies, it actually looks like the opposite of that for once. We'll see if Microsoft joins in, or tries to leverage Silverlight instead.
Also makes me wonder if Adobe will launch their own browser eventually...

This does make the lack of flash or attempt to use it make more sense in hindsight. A few years down the road it will be remembered as genius if it all works out well. APPL WIN!

Unless I am reading the articles wrong, they say Firefox and Opera are behind WebGL, and they say nothing about other browsers supporting TuneKit.
Of course, if TuneKit is just a vanilla js library, other modern browsers will likely support it automatically, though, if it is just a vanilla js library, it will be more of a convenience for developers than any new features to bring it to par with Flash. If it has hooks into iTunes and leverages a single external program to do the heavy lifting, that it seems more akin to an ActiveX plugin than an open standard.

@Fassy: Sorry, was referring to WebGL as the multi-platform supported tech.
TuneKit, in my mind, is just another example of rich internet content without plugins. Sure, this one links to iTunes, but it could link to anything, even embedded the new video container (if they ever figure out a standard)
Like with Google's WebApps, it shows a potential. (Though Javascript remains an exploit rich target, like Flash).

"This does make the lack of flash or attempt to use it make more sense in hindsight. A few years down the road it will be remembered as genius if it all works out well. APPL WIN!"
Flash is coming to Blackberry, Windows Mobile, Android, and Symbian... do you notice the ONLY major smartphone vendor not on that list? GENIUS...
The other day I actually had to purchase a remote desktop application and login to my PC via 3G just to see a website I needed to get some information from. GENIUS...
Many websites, rightly or wrongly, prevent you from accessing them if you don't have Flash. So on my iPhone I just get a popup saying I can't view the website. GENIUS...
If me not having access to websites I want for 7 years is "genius" then I'd rather Apple be the biggest morons in the world and join the 99.9% of other browsers that support Flash.
Also, if it's so genius not to support Flash, I suggest Apple remove it immediately from desktop Safari... let's see how well that goes over.

No worries -- believe me, I am all for open standards everywhere you can find them.
However, if TuneKit does leverage iTunes (or any other resident non-browser application), that sounds an awful lot like a plugin to me. Specifically, it sounds like an Apple version of ActiveX for Safari. TuneKit, as described here, communicates with non-browser applications to provide extra functionality the browser itself does not have. If other applications can also be embedded via TuneKit -- that sounds a lot like a plugin architecture. Since the applications leveraged are apparently native code that may or may not be resident on a given client platform, that sounds anything but open to me.

I've not had a single instance where I have found the lack of flash on the iPhone to be a problem.
Rene is right. My MacBook, with a C2D processor and 4GB of RAM - nearly dies when it runs flash, I'd hate to see how my iPhone would cope!

A couple of points here... First, TuneKit is not some proprietary technology like ActiveX. It's a Javascript framework. In short, it's Javascript with the hard stuff already written for you in order to create interactive animations, etc. This sort of thing is the future and demonstrates why Apple, Google, Mozilla, etc. have been investing much effort on improving their browser's Javascript performance.
As for Flash on the desktop... as others have mentioned, there is much legacy content (unfortunately) in Flash. However, even without optimized Flash plug-ins, desktop Macs are sufficiently powerful enough to handle them. However, on mobile devices, that's another story. Not only is the performance not there yet, but the battery drain will be substantial for those who go down that path.
We are still a few years away from a real alternative to Flash, but the writing is certainly on the wall. Apple isn't missing out by skipping Flash at this point in time.

I have to say as an Mcse I have spent the last 30 years working on computers of 1 sort or another and the only OS I am going to support privately is some form of Linnux. I will not buy another computer with any shape of microshaft on it nor will I buy anything apple related. When my service requirements are up with At&t look for my post on utube for the many ways I can take to destroy my iPhone. I might go back to blackberry or maybe google or get rid of the Phone service alltogether. Apple & MS Suck

I understand javascript's role in the front end of TuneKit. However, every article examining iTunes LP, its only available showcase, contain lines such as this:
"iTunes LP only works via a computer equipped with iTunes 9" (taken from http://tinyurl.com/kmco9x )
If the content requires a non-browser application, or if the heavy lifting relies not on the browser itself, but on a separate application, that is a plugin and not an open browser-based solution. Period.
Like I said above, if TuneKit is just a vanilla js library designed to run solely in a browser, this ActiveX analogy does not apply.
As a standards bigot myself, I would be happy if this analogy is wrong, and my skepticism be unfounded. However, I have yet to find any documentation of the library or the format to date.

It's funny. Apple isn't Arcos. It must deliver and ship millions of units. Flash would provide poor battery life / slow performance on the iPhone. In addition it would put Apple in the hands of Adobe.
Even now, the number one crash-causing item on my computer is FLASH.
Who would develop for iPhone if you could just load a flash object? No, the exclusion of flash has allowed thousands of developers to develop in Cocoa to the benefit of Apple. Those same developers will/can go on to write Mac software. They are using Macs. This has benefitted Apple tremendously.
What Apple is doing is providing a way for the entire Non-Microsoft community a way to move away from proprietary technologies. They are giving developers an open source way to use flash like features on the iPhone, Mac & Linux.
Make no mistake. Apple is at war with Flash and is trying to kill it.
Not in the interest of locking people into Mac, but in the interest of freeing them from Microsoft & Adobe by using open source code & technologies that any company can use and optimize for their platform. Apple will optimize them for the iPhone to provide a great experience for iPhone users. Everyone else will use it because of the optimization that Apple has done.
The future of Mobile is Webkit. The future of mobile is HTML 5, WebGL.
Why? These other mobiles that are "getting" Flash are adding it as a marketing gimic, not as a real tool. They do not have nor will they ever have market share anywhere near the iPhone. Even if they have flash, it will not work well, will kill their batteries, and isn't designed for mobiles.
The thing people don't realize is that Apple, because of the volume of it's iPod / iPhone markets can build products that no one else can touch. Even if someone could build as good a device as Apple does, they cannot do it for the price Apple can. Even if they could build a more expensive device than Apple that was better, they could not sell it to more people than the iPhone.
Like it or not, Apple is king and will remain for the foreseeable future....
Want a portable mp3 player? iPod. The highest capacity, highest quality, best value mp3 player is the iPod.
Want to play games on your mp3 player? iPod
Want lots of accessory options for your mp3 player? iPod
Want to use Nike+? iPod
Want high quality movies to go? iPod
Want to buy music and rent movies anywhere without a computer? iPod
Want lots of cool apps to play and impress people? iPod
Want car stereo integration? iPod
Want an industrial class OS? iPod / Android
Again, I will say it, even if another company can deliver all the functionality of the iPod/iPhone in another device, it will be of lower quality or cost more because they don't have the buying power or manufacturing experience of Apple.

Will Webgl or Tunekit play a website with flash properly?
If the answer is no nobody will care

"These other mobiles that are “getting” Flash are adding it as a marketing gimic, not as a real tool. They do not have nor will they ever have market share anywhere near the iPhone"
What does apple have… 30% market share… I'm no math wiz but doesn't that leave 70% for these other guys?

It seems that Apple mostly doesn't want Flash because of the same reasons it doesn't want emulators, runtimes and so: because they mean being able to download and play with content it can't control. So it is a walled garden thing.
About WebGL: I've read some criticism regarding it being too low level, implying too much overhead to produce the simplest 3D things

Anything that gets rid of that horrid Flash will be the next big thing. and by "anything", I mean anything decent, so Silverlight is excluded.

It's a sad fact that Flash has established itself as a standard and very many websites use it. If you have a browser that doesn't support it, you are missing out.
The newer Android phones and Nokia Linux based phones all support Flash for this reason.
The only reason that the iPhone doesn't is because of Apple's restrictive and monopolistic practices. Wake up and move to an open platform as you are sleepwalking into your entire life being owned by Apple. This is the same as Microsoft tried to do to us before Linux came along and gave us an alternative and forced MS to change their ways.

Even though the iPhone has only 30% Marketshare, approixmately 66% of all mobile browsing is done from the iPhone/iPod.
66% isn't trivial, it is domination. That leaves the competitors exactly - NOWHERE
Consider that the only true rivals to iPhone: Android & RIM are both using WebKit! No, the war with Flash is on and Apple is winning.
Read up on the following juicy tidbits.
State of WebKit and the Internethttp://farukat.es/journal/2009/08/311-age-of-webkit
WebKit on Smartphoneshttp://www.cloudfour.com/448/webkit-the-dominant-smartphone-platform/
WebKit on RIMhttp://gigaom.com/2009/08/24/webkit-mobil/
iPhone Browser sharehttp://www.theiphoneblog.com/2009/03/02/iphone-mobile-browser-share-67/
If companies plan to target Internet users on mobile devices, it's time to drop Flash and start targeting WebKit as the baseline common denominator.

Flash still beats any other interactive movie file out there. That's why Flash is still around.
Apple needs to humble itself and realize it can't make Flash go away.

The amount if flash content on the Internet is growing exponentially,
not shrinking. The average user is not a guru. They only know that their phone doesn't work in these sites. The onus is on Apple and Adobe to find a resolution. The world won't adapt to accomodate the iPhone.