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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 (s ADBE) 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 (s AAPL)(and Google (s GOOG) and RIM (s RIMM)) 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(s AMZN), Google, (s goog) Microsoft(s MSFT), 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, (s pso) Amazon Kindle Cloud Reader, YouTube, Vimeo, Vudu, (s wmt) Pandora (s P), Twitter and SlideShare are all making the switch. And as we’ve seen, even Adobe is getting on board.

20 Responses to “Why Flash didn’t work out on mobile devices”

  1. I’ve been very frustrated by not being able to view online content because my iPad 1 wouldn’t play Flash videos hosted by a number of big sites such as HuffPost, NatGeographic, TED (recently remedied) and even some of YouTube’s content etc. I bought a Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 and love the fact that now I can see the whole web, not just Steve Jobs version of it. I think it will be years before everyone is able to deploy all their content in HTML5. Till then iOS users will be missing out on some very neat stuff. And HTML5 will probably never be able to do some of the very esoteric stuff Flash can. But we have to go with the flow, hopefully the existing Flash implementations on Android will carry us for a while.

  2. Paul Dixon

    so native flash apps (air) who’s code is vetted by the app store. THAT is okay, that’s fine to run on iOS with no (jobs cited) performance nore security issue, where as the flash platform working within another platform (the browser) suffers performance problems and since it’s code is unchecked, goodness know what could be going on. People might be coding APPs free of charge, accessible over the internet without Apple taking 30%…..hmm I wonder why apple REALLY didn’t want browser flash, when flash apps are totally okay. It will be TOO late for the flash haters who cotton on , eventually, when Apple deny rich media HTML5 sites access to the phones hardware via open web standards and javascript.

  3. Very misleading graph. The summary of the article you pulled that from is that Flash outperforms HTML5 by a large margin on mobiles. He explained the point on video – it’s a question of which platforms had released updates that included Adobe’s latest version of Flash. The ones that had (and thus had StageVideo) showed 100%. The ones that didn’t were still using software at the time.

  4. Daniel Siqueira

    “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.”

    This is how you understand how technologically ignorant people are. Just try have code that does the same thing in flash and then in html5/css3/js. I can bet your battery will drain a lot more trying to render the html pipeline than flash.

    TV is about video, the web is about much more, and in the multimedia are, flash still has years of supremacy. You just can’t do in HTML what flash can do

    As an example try to play 2 audio tracks in mobile safari using the audio tag (or 2 videos). we’re talking 2! not 100
    HTML5 -> welcome to the 1995 web

    • Martin Rp

      These are all the points that ‘blaaah flash sucks – all about html5’ people don’t understand. HTML5/JS isn’t a full programming language, nor will it be for a very long time )(at best). Now look at Flash 11… It has full hardware acceleration & the UE3 engine built into it. It is lightyears beyond html5 and moving in a completely different direction. Now PLEASE can we stop this argument, it’s completely null & void.

  5. None of this changes the fact that JavaScript is a horrible language. We need strong typing, real OO, packages, interfaces to build modern software. JavaScript is holding the web back way more than this or any other plugin. Web apps will never be close to native until JS is fixed or replaced. Just because google can create google docs with an army of developers (and it still is a far poor imitation of a native app) doesn’t mean JS doesn’t suck.

  6. wow, that sucks. Flash is far and away better than html5. Much more dependable, and all around more fun to develop in.

    html 5 is still several years from being anywhere near ready to handle the same development requirements. It is almost enough to keep me from upgrading to anything beyond honeycomb.

  7. Glenn Fleishman

    “Apple refused to allow it to run on any of its mobile devices, including the iPad”: This is a canard. At the time that Jobs wrote this, Adobe didn’t have mobile Flash running in release (not beta) form on any major mobile platform. Flash 10.0 was unusable on mobile devices in any real fashion, and 10.1 shipped that June.

    One of Jobs’s several complaints was the fact that Adobe hadn’t to that point demonstrated a version of Flash, despite many requests, that met Apple’s standards of performance and reliability. Some would argue even 10.1 didn’t, and it took until 10.2 for htat.

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      You are quite right. In “Thoughts on Flash” Jobs said that Apple had regularly asked Adobe to demo a working FlashPlayer for any mobile and Adobe had never been able to do it. It’s Adobe PR that mischaracterized Apple as refusing to run FlashPlayer, as though the demo had been done and Apple got pouty.

    • Nicholas

      I was playing with Flash on mobile starting with the Nokia N800. That was well after the feature phones in Japan and elsewhere were enabling the apps. It was slow as hell, and immediately knew it would never work.

      The Steves agreed…

  8. The real reason why Adobe is dropping Flash mobile support is not iPhone. It is Windows 8.

    Microsoft made it very clear that they won’t allow Flash to run in Windows 8 Metro browser and they are pushing HTML5 as a platform. You do not need a crystal ball to see that without Windows’ (which runs on 95% of PCs worldwide) support, Flash is dead. It will be supported for legacy reasons for a while, but it has no future.

  9. pretty obvious.


    You are comparing
    hardware video playback ..with.. software video playback.

    But if Apple ect.. wanted to dev actionscript to be able to run on mobile devices (connect with hardware) could. ( if adobe let them )
    rather than… they dev javascript variants with direct hardware support via html5 video tag.

    But flash isn’t dead … nor will html5,javascript kill it.
    flashPLAYER might disappear. but flash is not just that.

    eg.. photoshop is around … even tho we don’t need plugins to view images.
    And flash is just the same as photoshop…except the output.

    OH… guess what I use to dev iPad/iPhone/android apps.. ? ?

    FLASH CS5.5

    • Hamranhansenhansen

      That is the whole point. Why would you want to replace the user’s universally available, built-in ISO MPEG-4 hardware video player with a clunky Adobe-only ISO MPEG-4 software video player that not only performs poorly, but also opens security and privacy holes, and requires additional I-T management that phone users are not equipped to do? For what purpose other than vendor lock-in?

      This is not an academic exercise, this is the actual real world. These results represent frustrated users.

      Why would Apple (or any vendor) want to replace their standardized JavaScript (required by the HTML5 specification) with Adobe ActionScript? There is absolutely no reason to do that.

      Nobody cares about killing the Flash authoring tool. It is FlashPlayer that is crippling the Web. FlashPlayer was always the problem. It’s not standardized, it’s not universal, and it very rudely tells users who don’t want it to “Get Flash.” Nobody cares if you use the Flash authoring tool all day long. Write love poetry to it if you like. What we care about is liberating the vendor neutral open standard World Wide Web from crippling proprietary Adobe FlashPlayer and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6-8 so that the Web can fulfill its purpose as the world’s one common app platform, totally independent of what device the user is using.

      It is great that you make iOS apps with Flash. That is a much better use for it than closing down vendor neutral open standard W3C HTML5 or vendor neutral open standard ISO MPEG-4.

      Photoshop exports ISO JPEG and W3C PNG for sharing, and can even save its documents as ISO PDF. If the Web was full of PSD images that could not be viewed without an Adobe binary, then yes, you bet we would be trying to stop that as well.

      Basically, the problem is that Flash developers are extremely rude, they are terrible Web citizens. They say “Get Flash” to people who don’t want it. They say “you can’t see this content” to users who aren’t using an Adobe-blessed platform. They disrespect the W3C (inventors of the Web) specifications to either make life a little easier for themselves or lock users into Adobe software. That is the problem. FlashPlayer was always the problem. Apple didn’t say “don’t anybody use the Flash authoring tool anymore,” they said, “we don’t want to install FlashPlayer on our platform because it is a stinking pile of garbage.”