Will iPhone Flash ever be more than a flash in the pan?

David Braue
14 October, 2009
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One of the most persistent memes in the Apple world, beyond the continuing clamour for a tablet Mac, has been the badgering of Apple to bring Flash to the iPhone. Yet while time has shown me to be no defender of many of Apple’s policies, with a recent spate of announcements from Adobe that still doesn’t address the iPhone, there may very good reasons to kerb our enthusiasm for iPhone Flash.

As a broad-reaching media platform, Flash certainly has become the de facto standard – used in everything from animated ads to interactive games, streaming video, and full-featured applications like the excellent (and free) image editor Picnik.com. It has delivered the cross-platform application promise that Java has never quite achieved, thanks mainly to its integration with Web browsers that handle the nitty-gritty of translating the Flash application into stuff you can actually interact with.

Flash’s absence is the main reason why so many Web pages load with big blocks on the iPhone where the content is supposed to be; sites that detect the Safari Mobile Web browser either revert to lower-bandwidth versions or, more recently, switch to mobile-optimised versions invariably designed to fit the iPhone’s screen. Considering that the entire mobile Web was text-only as recently as two years ago, this is still pretty good.

But why wouldn’t Apple want to add Flash to the iPhone? Past statements on the challenge suggested it was too technically difficult, although the appearance of Flash for Blackberry OS, Palm’s WebOS, Symbian, and Android-based phones would seem to confirm this is bunk. And, of course, there were the reports last year that Flash on iPhone was already being developed by Adobe and that its performance on other devices was less than optimal.

Sceptics (and here I include myself) may point out that allowing rampant use of Flash applications would break Apple’s App Store model by allowing delivery of free applications and games straight to the iPhone. Apple doesn’t want to do this, and for now it doesn’t need to do this.

Others might argue that broader Flash support would allow broader use of streaming video sites-other-than-YouTube, which is supported explicitly in the iPhone because Apple convinced Google to offer its streaming content in an iPod and iPhone-compatible video standard. Widespread Flash-based video support would also provide a way for adult video providers to get their content onto mobiles, bypassing Apple’s App Store morality filter and opening up new revenue opportunities for all the wrong reasons.

There may be technical issues as well: Consider that AT&T has only just allowed MMS on its US network and still bans tethering, and it’s really not hard to see why Apple still doesn’t allow a video streaming free-for-all on the networks of its carrier partners. Even the Flash apps themselves would increase the average size of many Web pages being downloaded; multiply this by millions of simultaneous users and you face a not-insignificant bump in bandwidth demand. And if there’s anything mobile carriers hate, it’s people actually using the bandwidth they’ve paid for.

But is it all about bandwidth? By all accounts, allowing any sort of runtime compiler – a class of application that has generally been banned on the iPhone – is not only a violation of Apple’s developer terms but opens up a completely new can of worms in terms of potential security risks, shoddy software, incompatibilities, and so on. Flash apps simply cannot be tested or vetted in the way that App Store apps can.

None of this sounds like the kind of experience most people would want, especially from a smartphone platform that is prized for its smooth user experience and (mostly) robust applications.

Apple is still wrestling with appropriate policies for its own applications and it doesn’t need the headaches that broad Flash support would introduce; better, it seems, to hold off on it and force the content world to accommodate the iPhone by building compatible sites or applications that can be offered and managed through a consistent interface? Adobe has already taken steps in this direction with its jury-rigged toolkit for porting Flash applications to the iPhone, and the device’s market-dominating weight seems to have made it the platform of choice for most mobile developers.

As Flash balloons out on the desktop and becomes basically a cross-platform application environment, the iPhone’s design will become something of a limitation: the iPhone doesn’t offer local file storage, for example, and its touch-based interface is far less accurate than that which can be accomplished using a mouse. Flash games for the iPhone would need to be designed for the iPhone and not generally within Flash, which sort of defeats the purpose of arguing for Flash on the iPhone.

I thus pose the suggestion that, just maybe, Apple is in fact doing the right thing when it comes to Flash on the iPhone. Sure, we all want to brag about how our iPhones can do everything our desktop computers can, but we should also consider whether this is a desire born out of rationality or just out of optimism – this curious belief that the iPhone can do anything.

More to the point, is there really anything you need to be doing on your iPhone that you cannot do because there’s no Flash support?

For now, Apple can sit and wait; let the Blackberry and Android phones be the first ones into the pool. Who knows? If Adobe’s experiments are successful, perhaps Apple will be less reluctant to dip its toe in the water; remember that, after the launch of the original iPhone, Steve Jobs famously questioned why anybody would want to load applications onto a phone.

Perhaps the most intriguing question, however, is whether Apple’s Flash support could actually force compromises from Adobe – limiting or redefining certain functionality to explicitly support specific features in the iPhone Way. Adobe would likely resist, but Apple already has its own application platform that’s doing just fine, thank you. Compromise on both sides may be the only way to resolve this particular impasse. Or, of course, Apple can just continue ignoring Flash as it is wont to do with standards it doesn’t particularly care for.

The genre-defining popularity of the iPhone means Apple can afford to resist the pressure to offer Flash: developers will do whatever it takes to be where the potential users (and revenues) are. And if the mountain will not come to Mohammed, the saying goes, Mohammed will come to the mountain. Web developers are doing it already – and if enough of them make the jump, it’s possible that mobile Flash could just turn out to be less important than we think.

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