Risking iPhone coverage overexposure, today we ponder one of the most interesting questions about the future of Flash, iPhone and web standards. Despite assurances by Uncle Walt that Apple and Adobe are hard at work on a Flash Player for iPhone, plenty of naysayers, skeptics, and player-haters have voiced strong speculations that Flash will never appear on the iPhone for strategic, practical and technical reasons. A quick scan of comments on various iPhone related entries across the web reveals an almost universal plea amongst everyday users indicating that a dearly missed feature from Mobile Safari is the presence of a mainstream multimedia plugin. In fact, the world’s most popular piece of software in history, is well known to be absent from iPhone.1
Mobilizing the Means of Production
Those who have written about why iPhone should not have a Flash Player don’t mask their agendas. These voices are usually programmers and developers who have always been hostile to Flash, mostly because it threatens their grip on the means of production, by bringing software and interface design to the masses. Indeed, we’ve seen the worst and the best of the web, as a result. Furthermore, because Flash has always been a mainstream, populist, albeit proprietary media format, it has been deployed for reach and ease of creation, rather than robust performance. When imagining a Flash Player for iPhone, its high-octane thirst for processor cycles does not bode well for battery life.
Monopolizing Web Standards
A Muted Voice
I Want My MTV
Certainly, the most common deployment of Flash Player on the web recently is for web video. It was almost shocking to watch the FLV video format surpass RealPlayer, Windows Media and QuickTime as the most important, influential web video format, in what seemed like a matter of months, with much thanks to YouTube and others. A recent Adobe Flash Player 9 public beta featured H.264 video support, which seems part of its strategy to preserve the dominance of Flash video, especially as Apple and Google migrate towards this non-Flash based video standard. However, until the myriad of embedded SWF FLV players on perhaps billions of web pages get updated to auto-detect the client and deliver the appropriate video by codec, the web will still appear to be littered with missing plugins on Mobile Safari.
Assumptions and Speculations
Let’s proceed with the assumption that Walt Mossberg was correct, and indeed, Apple and Adobe have reached an agreement to release Flash Player iPhone in some manifestation, at some time. Of course, he could be blindly speculating like the rest of us, just running on the fact that it feels crazy for Flash not to be there. But, let’s hope he’s as well-connected and respected as they say he is.5 There are several scenarios for the future of Flash iPhone, which should only contribute to the over-saturated discourse by further complicating the biased opinions with an understanding of Adobe’s perspective, previously, and conveniently left out of the discussion.
In this scenario, Adobe compiles the current version of the desktop Flash Player 9 for the ARM processor of iPhone. This scenario would allow all of the existing web-based Flash content to function within Mobile Safari. Authors who create content in ActionScript 3 would enjoy a noticeable improvement of performance and energy efficiency on the iPhone, since this type of content would play in the more recent Flash Virtual Machine, a marked improvement over previous runtime environments, across Windows, Mac OS X and Linux. However, the vast majority of Flash content on the web right now was created in ActionScript 1.0 and 2.0, and so does not take advantage of the improvements to the runtime. Indeed, the skeptics are correct when they assume that running web pages with Flash content, even animated banners, would put an unfortunate drain on the battery.However, what’s crucially missing from a simple straight-on port of Flash Player 9 for iPhone is a substantial confrontation with the multi-touch interface. This is likely the deal-breaker for this scenario. Although, ActionScript and Flash button symbols might offer some means of developing and designing for the iPhone’s multi-touch interface, it’s more than likely that despite the best efforts of Flash coders, the existing means to respond to mouse-based interactions will fall short of the requirements needed to respond to multi-touch. Gestures like pinch, tap-zoom, and flick are difficult to imagine as ActionScript events. Indeed, Adobe probably needs to reckon with the reality that ActionScript needs a true multi-touch API. This could be one of the many reasons why we can only assume that iPhone Flash is in development now, and may be for quite some time, especially based on Apple’s delay in releasing an official iPhone SDK.
Probability: Very Low
Flash Player 10
Looking into 2008, perhaps third or fourth quarter, we have to assume that Adobe will continue to release improved versions of the Flash Player. Version 10 is likely to provide Adobe with the required release cycle needed to fully contend with Apple’s native iPhone application API and SDK release schedule. It’s much more likely that ActionScript libraries will be written that allow true response to the multi-touch gestures, such as pinching, flicking and zoom-tapping. It’s really difficult to imagine a Flash Player on iPhone without this crucial ActionScript API.Furthermore, this allows Adobe to potentially release new versions of the Flash and Flex authoring tools that will compile in Flash Player 10, and subsequently, support a runtime environment that is tuned to the needs of the ARM architecture and precious battery life. It’s been frustrating to read the Flash iPhone haters and their blatant neglect for Adobe’s expertise in the area of building a Flash Player for mobile devices. There has simply been no mention of the possibility of Flash Lite for iPhone.
Flash Lite is a very special version of the Flash Player for mobile devices, such as Symbian Series 60, Windows Mobile and others. It is not the Flash Player that typically sits in an embedded browser, like the vast majority of Flash content out there. Instead, Flash Lite content exists as standalone, full-screen, mobile applications, or more appropriate mobile media implementations such as a standby screens, wallpapers, screen-savers, and even the device’s native UI.Not only is Flash Lite compiled to the particular device, and so is limited by its processing and memory capabilities, but it also has proven to be very energy efficient, accordingly. Indeed, authors must specifically design and code for Flash Lite. It is in no way, a conversion from desktop Flash content. In this manner, designers and developers alike, are rightly forced to contend with the requirements of mobile media, in terms of interface, content and use-case considerations.It’s possible that Adobe could port Flash Lite to iPhone instead of the expected desktop Flash Player. In this regard, Flash Player would exists as a widget on the SpringBoard home-screen of iPhone, and not as a Mobile Safari plugin. Although it would not fix countless broken plugins in pages that use Flash Player, it would offer mobile media design opportunities for Flash on iPhone. Specifically, Flash Lite already offers APIs to interact with mobile phone specific features, such as triggering the vibrate, detecting battery life, and cell network signal strength. These capabilities are not offered on the desktop version of Flash Player, and may or may not be available in Apple’s official native iPhone application API or SDK. Only time will tell.In this scenario, Flash Lite becomes an avenue for designers and developers familiar with Adobe’s toolsets to create applications that exist as standalone native experiences, rather than embedded modules of Mobile Safari. In many ways, this supports the special needs of mobile media more appropriately than simply making the familiar Flash just work. Imagining a port of Flash Lite for iPhone could mean the opening of a vast market for native iPhone widget applications, designed by designers, and not restricted to hard-core Objective C programmers. Indeed, this is a threatening prospect for those that are eager to carve out a niche in iPhone application development. However, Flash Lite 2.1 probably does not offer the means to react to multi-touch gestures like pinch, flick and tap-zoom, and so it’s probably not the version we will eventually see.
Flash Lite 3
Just as the desktop Flash Player is constantly updated, the mobile Flash Lite player is also expected to be evolving. It is said, that a forthcoming version of the Flash Lite player, perhaps 3, will bridge the gap between the embedded browser Flash content and the standalone mobile specific Flash Lite content.6 In other words, Flash Lite 3 could play not just in the mobile device’s web browser, but could also run within its native operating system environment. This jives with Adobe’s efforts to seed the use of Flash outside of the browser and distribute a desktop based native runtime, called AIR, the Adobe Integrated Runtime. In addition, a Flash Lite 3 would address the concerns of a multi-touch API, and the required energy efficiencies for battery life, memory usage and processor cycling, as well as provide ActionScript to trigger mobile device specific features intrinsic to Flash Lite.In this case, Flash would exist in two manifestations on iPhone: as standalone native applications on the SpringBoard home screen, and as a Mobile Safari plugin, playing the usual desktop based content. This gives developers, designers and end-users the best of all worlds. Flash content can be created with mobile use in mind, considering the unique user interface and energy efficiency required. Everyday users will enjoy not only the full multimedia web they’ve grown accustomed to on the desktop, but also will enjoy a market of native mobile applications that arguably, the Objective C programmers of the world, simply cannot singlehandedly service.
Flash will appear on iPhone eventually. There is no doubt that Adobe will roadmap this device into its strategy for Flash Player, Flash Lite, or both.Yes, there are significant performance, interface and user considerations that must be addressed as Flash appears on iPhone. Adobe has already demonstrated an accomplished ability to service the mobile media market. It’s only a matter of when, and what form iPhone Flash takes as it appears beneath our beloved glass multi-touch screens.One can only imagine the pressure Adobe’s product planners are putting on its Flash Player team to fit iPhone into the needs of the short-term and long-term strategy. In the short term, Adobe needs to get Flash on iPhone within the next three to six months to capture the required developer and designer audience, and compete with the ascendancy of Mobile Safari and native iPhone applications. In the long term, Adobe needs to get it right, and release a iPhone Flash Player that addresses the specific needs of both mobile media and the vast legacy of desktop Flash content out there. A premature release could spell long term disaster for Flash, as it needs to compete with the rapidly expanding Open Source and Web Standards movement. We haven’t mentioned Microsoft’s entry into the web media space with its recently launched Silverlight platform, but until we stumble upon a site that actually uses it, it’s irrelevant.Although there are many who would like Flash to just go away, because it’s not open source, not free, and tends to be used to bombard us with annoying banner ads and horrible interface design models, Flash is not going away anytime soon. However, how Apple and Adobe navigate the uncharted territory of merging mobile and desktop user experiences along with multi-touch interfaces, will certainly determine the relevance of Flash in the years to come.
- See Adobe statistics on Flash Player downloads. [↩]
- See Roughly Drafted’s analysis. [↩]
- See A List Apart’s analysis. [↩]
- See Cabel Sasser’s Twitter which claims dibs on this observation. [↩]
- See the profile of Walt Mossberg in the New Yorker. [↩]
- Speculative, but based on reliable, but undisclosed interactions with Adobe. Also, see Bill Perry’s entry on the subject. [↩]