Why Flash didn’t work out on mobile devices

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The debate over whether supporting the Adobe Flash plug-in on mobile devices is a feature or not is over. Last night, ZDNet got hold of a leaked Adobe announcement: It’s abandoning its work on Flash for mobile. It’s not a huge surprise that it came to this, since Adobe had been struggling to optimize the performance, and the tide has been turning toward HTML5.

From the Adobe announcement ZDNet published:

Our future work with Flash on mobile devices will be focused on enabling Flash developers to package native apps with Adobe AIR for all the major app stores. We will no longer adapt Flash Player for mobile devices to new browser, OS version or device configurations.

Instead, the company will refocus its efforts on mobile apps and desktop content, and “aggressively contribute to HTML5,” as the company wrote in a blog post Wednesday. It’s not just that HTML5 is a great opportunity for Adobe. There are some very basic reasons why the company changed course on its mobile Flash.

It didn’t work that well. Flash optimized for mobile didn’t even arrive until last year, and the results weren’t impressive from the beginning. We did our own tests here, and so have plenty of others. For some, the quality is acceptable for showing mobile video. For others, there was much to be desired. Here’s a chart showing results from benchmark tests of Flash versus HTML5 on several popular smartphones and tablets from this summer and the occurrence of dropped frames:

It lacked across-the-board support. Flash for mobile wasn’t automatically doomed by Steve Jobs’ infamous “Thoughts on Flash” letter posted in 2010. But it was a big blow that one of the most  popular smartphone brands out there was one of Flash for mobile’s most vocal critics — and, of course, that Apple refused to allow it to run on any of its mobile devices, including the iPad.

An Adobe product manager even hinted on the company’s blog last night that Apple’s lack of support was influential: “Adobe saying that Flash on mobile isn’t the best path forward [does not equal] Adobe conceding that Flash on mobile (or elsewhere) is bad technology. Its quality is irrelevant if it’s not allowed to run, and if it’s not allowed to run, then Adobe will have to find different ways to meet customers’ needs.”

Instead, Apple(and Google and RIM) encouraged millions of developers making mobile applications to use HTML5 and other web technologies based on open standards. But Apple leaving mobile Flash off their mobile devices for the last four years has shown that the web has adapted, with more sites embracing HTML5 for websites, games and apps.

It didn’t seem to fit the post-PC/ultra-mobile era. Whatever you want to call it, the world we live in now requires devices that respond instantly and have enough battery to last hours and hours without recharging. Some of Flash for mobile’s characteristics are out of sync with where mobile devices have been headed for a while. Jobs put it this way last year: “[T]he mobile era is about low power devices, touch interfaces and open web standards – all areas where Flash falls short.”

HTML5 support is growing fast. HTML5-enabled browsers are expected to gain huge ground in the next few years. According to ABI Research data, more than 2.1 billion mobile devices will have HTML5 browsers by 2016, up from just 109 million in 2010. And HTML5 isn’t controlled by one company; it’s an open standard that’s being embraced by developers across several mobile platforms, and has the backing of Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple. The list of mobile sites and applications that are making high-profile switches from supporting Flash to HTML5 is growing. The Financial Times, Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader, YouTube, Vimeo, Vudu, Pandora, Twitter and SlideShare are all making the switch. And as we’ve seen, even Adobe is getting on board.

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