Flash on Phones? Is That a Promise or a Threat?

By  |  Monday, October 5, 2009 at 12:50 am

Skip IntroAdobe’s MAX developer conference is underway in Los Angeles, and the big news is Flash (almost) everywhere–and especially on phones. The company is announcing Flash Player 10.1, due in beta form on Windows Mobile, Palm’s Web OS, Windows, Macintosh, and Linux later this year, and on Android and Symbian in 2010; in addition, Adobe and RIM are announcing that they’re working together to bring Flash to BlackBerries and that Google is joining Adobe’s Flash-everywhere Open Screen project.

On a conceptual, forward-looking level, this is good news: The more options that developers have for building cool stuff, the better, and it’s best when the cool stuff they build works on as many devices as possible. The notion is that Flash will let them design functionality that’ll work on multiple computer and phone platforms without having to be reworked from the ground up–which will be an interesting challenge given how very different smartphones tend to be from each other in terms of factors such as screen resolution, graphics oomph, and connectivity.

But if full-blown Flash is going to be a welcome addition to the mobile world, it’s going to take some rethinking. At the moment, it would be pretty cool if all that video on the Web in Flash format was readily available on phones. Other than that, it’s hard to come up with examples of things that Flash does on PCs that are urgently needed on smartphones. Actually, it’s easier to name things we can’t live very easily without, such as animated Web-site intros, and anything else that loads slowly enough that it’s preceded by a meter indicating how much longer you’ll have to wait. If Flash content is going to be useful on phones, it needs to be Flash of a minimalist sort that doesn’t get in the way of accomplishing stuff when you’re on the go.

One company, of course, is absent from the army of Flash boosters that Adobe has assembled this week: Apple. There’s no reason to think that a version of Flash for the iPhone is imminent, and numerous obstacles stand in its way–all of them erected by Apple, which may look at Flash as a competitor to the walled garden known as the iPhone App Store.

The richer the bounty of software at the App Store gets, though, the less the absence of Flash on the iPhone feels like a major downside: With the exception of universal compatibility for Web video, most of the benefits that Flash might bring are already here for iPhone owners. I had the impression that iPhone owners spend less time pining for Flash than they once did, so I checked out Google Trends for “Flash for iPhone” to see how often folks search for that phrase:

Google Trend

Searches peaked around the time that the iPhone got third-party applications back in July of 2008, and have mostly been in decline ever since, though recent months have seen a modest uptick.

Here’s a question for owners of smartphones of all sorts:



13 Comments For This Post

  1. Marc Says:

    Obviously a threat to Apple’s app approval process, and another avenue for hackers to attack, as all browser plug-ins are. Would an Adobe security hole mean we’d need to upgrade the entire iPhone OS? What about other plugins? Silverlight and Java especially would be brilliant.

    If it worked the way embedded YouTube videos currently work it would be fine. You see a grey outline, tapping it would start the flash object. That way adverts wouldn’t be effective and we’d only see what we were interested in.

    Flash on the iPhone would be cool. Gotta feel sorry for poor old QuickTime. I remember back in 1998 it seemed like on Apple ever used it on the web, and now only a few sites use it just for iPhone compatibility, if we had Flash for the iPhone then it truly would be extinct.

  2. choirguy Says:

    Having a son with an iPod Touch, I’d sure like to see flash enabled for a few websites, like miniclip.com or clubpenguin.com. My son spends a lot of time on the sites using our computers, but the iPod Touch he owns is more than capable of running the flash programs on these two sites (in fact, it seems that a couple of the games from miniclip have been ported right over to the AppStore). Otherwise, it does get annoying when you hit a website on mobile Safari, and it is only enabled for Flash-enabled web browsers. Since we’re back to having a good segment of the population (mobile browsing) that can’t access those pages…you would think they would have a non-Flash alternative…but they don’t. I wonder how many sales are lost for that reason?

  3. P Watanabe Says:

    About 50% of the Flash I encounter is irritating advertising. It’s fortunate that I have a bookmarklet, that kills plugins. The ad and its wasted space disappears. So flash on the iPhone would mean such a bookmarklet would be essential for it too.

  4. Bouke Timbermont Says:

    flash is a resource-hog. I would prefer the internet without it to be honest. If I see what HTML5 can do in terms of app development and video compatibility, I don’t see why ANYONE would want flash any more, except for compatibility with current sites.

  5. sfmitch Says:

    I hope Flash never comes to mobile web including the iPhone.

    Flash websites are annoying and Flash itself is buggy and a resource hog.

    Sorry, but I see Flash as a Bug not a Feature.

  6. Marc Says:

    Even with my suggestion where the flash content only gets loaded when you tap? Akin to how embedded YouTube works now. Being able to watch live news channels, nearly all web video is worth the minimal downside to me.

  7. tom b Says:

    With 135 votes in, 71 people hate Flash (“downright irritating”). This shows the difference between USERS and clueless computer pundits who believe users LIKE Flash. And it should serve as a cautionary warning to “if-it’s-out-their, we-will-copy-it” companies like MSFT, which is pushing the even more unwanted Silverlight.

  8. Kevin Blakeley Says:

    Keep flash off my phone please. Its one more way for ads and other crap to work their way in. More and more web sites are making mobile versions of their site that do not include flash and the sites were great and are snappy. You add flash in there and it just slows everything down.

  9. Marc Says:

    Not if Apple implement it well. Javascript can be just as annoying, see example:

    alert(‘I want to annoy you’);

    But on balance we put up with it’s potential to be annoying because it greatly enhances web sites. Flash and Silverlight do the same.

    If Apple implement it as I have suggested – by that, I mean show a placeholder, and REQUIRE user interaction before any flash get loaded (and before any flash cookies get set etc) then I can’t see the problem. This is how embedded YouTube videos work now, and it’s great. What are the downsides if it’s opt-in?
    No Flash the only thing I don’t like about Safari for the iPhone right now, it’s a shame Apple puts politics before its customers.

  10. Harry McCracken Says:

    @Tom: I think that on some levels, it’s a bad sign when consumers have opinions about Flash–con OR pro. Nobody likes or dislikes, say, C++. We think about Flash in part because the things built with it are often disruptive (and because of the hassles that the Flash Player sometimes involves).

    Won’t it be a sign that Flash is doing its job perfectly when it creates pleasing experiences on the Web but nobody knows it’s there?


  11. Marc Says:

    Where does this fit into things?

    Quote “Flash Professional CS5 will enable you to build applications for iPhone and iPod touch using ActionScript 3. These applications can be delivered to iPhone and iPod touch users through the Apple App Store.”

    I guess this is just compiling actionscript code to native iPhone apps?

  12. Matt Davis Says:

    I’d agree that Flash is a threat to Apple in the realms of web video, but that battle’s come and gone. Flash Video is here, and we want that on the iPhone – it’s H.264, but flashified.

    I’m no Flash apologist – QuickTime is a far better technology for web video and handles choppy and contested bandwidth visibly better. But Apple insisted new installs came with iTunes or other gubbins and the PC users – especially corporates – passed on it. And they continue to do so. So we’re stuck with Flash. Maybe we can make this work, but Apple’s attitude (once again) isn’t helping.

  13. Lawrence Velazquez Says:

    JavaScript is a Web standard that is implemented by the browser. Flash and Silverlight require proprietary plugins that leave the performance of the web browser at the mercy of their third-party authors. And Adobe and Microsoft are not third parties I’d like affecting my browsing experience.

    Who are these people who are clamoring for Flash on the iPhone, besides tech nuts?

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