Flash

Steve Jobs was at least mostly, if not completely wrong about Flash on mobile devices. There. I said it.

Let me start by saying that I don’t care about Flash. I am completely indifferent about Adobe and anything they do or have done. I feel the same way about flash as I feel about HTML, High Def TV, 3D movies or speed limits on highways.  They exist, they serve their purpose, and we have to live with them. Does Flash cause problems?  Sure. Would the world be better off if Flash had never existed? It’s a moot point, because it does exist. Does ignoring flash make it go away? This is a resounding “no”!

I bought an original Droid about 18 months ago.  When I first got it, it would not display flash content on web sites. Last spring, we went to Florida for Spring break. One night, we were trying to decide where to eat.  I pulled out my phone, located restaurants near by.  We picked one that looked promising. My Wife wanted to know what the Kids menu was like, because one of my daughters is pretty picky about food.  Clicked to the restaurant’s web site, one big empty flash box.

The drive to Florida had started to convince my Wife that my expensive phone might just be worth some of the expense. And now it had been rendered useless by a few lines of Flash code. During the trip down, my humble Droid had been simultaneously running GPS, traffic jam patrol, streaming music to the stereo and providing WiFi internet to the three iPod touch’s in the car.  But it couldn’t display the menu at a restaurant 3 blocks away.

I’ve been running Flash on my Droid, and now my Thunderbolt for almost a year.  And, while it’s not perfect, it’s no where near as bad as Steve Jobs’ “Thoughts on Flash” leads you to believe. I’d like to address some of his comments from that post here.

Adobe’s Flash products are 100% proprietary. They are only available from Adobe, and Adobe has sole authority as to their future enhancement, pricing, etc. While Adobe’s Flash products are widely available, this does not mean they are open, since they are controlled entirely by Adobe and available only from Adobe. By almost any definition, Flash is a closed system.

So?  Why do I care? Steve goes on to say that “Apple has many proprietary products too.”, but that they “strongly believe that all standards pertaining to the web should be open.” Great. Good for them. Open is good. No one is arguing that. But, just because open is good, doesn’t mean that everyone in the world will (or even should) use open things. Apple can not impose their will on the whole internet, which is a nice segue into the next part of Steve’s rant thoughts.

Adobe has repeatedly said that Apple mobile devices cannot access “the full web” because 75% of video on the web is in Flash. What they don’t say is that almost all this video is also available in a more modern format, H.264, and viewable on iPhones, iPods and iPads. YouTube, with an estimated 40% of the web’s video, shines in an app bundled on all Apple mobile devices, with the iPad offering perhaps the best YouTube discovery and viewing experience ever.

He goes on to talk about other apps that help bridge the gap further. Then he talks about not being able to play Flash games, but points out there are 50,000 games in the App Store.

Ah, now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. It’s not about Apple wanting to make the world a better place. It’s a simple matter of greed. I’m not knocking greed. Apple is entitled to do whatever they want with their closed, proprietary iOS platform. And people really seem to like it. But, most (I say, “most”, but I think it’s more like “all”, but here at Aucontrary, we know some people that claim otherwise but we feel they are in denial) people I talk to that have iOS devices, love them, but really hate that they can’t do Flash. And I’m not leading these witnesses. The complaints about the lack of Flash support comes unbidden from people as they talk about their devices. People with Android devices that don’t support Flash make the same claims. Oddly enough, Blackberry people rarely complain about it, but I think that may have more to do with the fact that their main browser isn’t (or at least historically hasn’t) been as good at rendering non-mobile sites as iOS and Android devices are. When I moved from my Blackberry to my Droid, I graduated from mobile web sites, to full web sites.

Then there are the claims about security:

Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash. We have been working with Adobe to fix these problems, but they have persisted for several years now. We don’t want to reduce the reliability and security of our iPhones, iPods and iPads by adding Flash.

…but we don’t mind if their products crash our computers. I don’t get it. If Flash is that bad, why not ban it on Macs? Could it be because they can’t? They can’t technically because they Mac platform isn’t as closed down, and they can’t politically because the backlash would be too strong? If you are concerned about the security vulnerabilities in Flash, don’t run it. But let each person make that decision on their own, don’t force your will on everyone. I would think that for most people computer security is much more important than phone security. After all, most people do a lot more shopping and online banking on their computers than their phones, but everyone I know at least has Flash loaded on their computers. The closest I’ve seen people get to living without it is to run an extension that disables Flash unless you allow it.

In addition, Flash has not performed well on mobile devices. We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now. We have never seen it. Adobe publicly said that Flash would ship on a smartphone in early 2009, then the second half of 2009, then the first half of 2010, and now they say the second half of 2010. We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?

I’ve been doing it for almost a year, and it performs REALLY well.  Yesterday, I watched several different live feeds of the Royal Wedding on my phone via flash-enabled sites, and it looked really good. They didn’t all work, but I found several that did.  A couple of them even let me put the video in full-screen mode. No skipping, no freezes, no crashes. It just worked. Was it hard on the battery? Maybe a little, but it worked, and I was allowed to choose how much of my battery power I devoted to it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…

To achieve long battery life when playing video, mobile devices must decode the video in hardware; decoding it in software uses too much power. Many of the chips used in modern mobile devices contain a decoder called H.264 – an industry standard that is used in every Blu-ray DVD player and has been adopted by Apple, Google (YouTube), Vimeo, Netflix and many other companies.

Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software. The difference is striking: on an iPhone, for example, H.264 videos play for up to 10 hours, while videos decoded in software play for less than 5 hours before the battery is fully drained.

Again, it’s my choice. I don’t really watch a lot of video on my phone at all. And if I did, I’d probably choose watching via flash as my last choice for doing so, but at least I have that option.

Flash was designed for PCs using mice, not for touch screens using fingers. For example, many Flash websites rely on “rollovers”, which pop up menus or other elements when the mouse arrow hovers over a specific spot. Apple’s revolutionary multi-touch interface doesn’t use a mouse, and there is no concept of a rollover. Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices. If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML5, CSS and JavaScript?

This is probably Steve’s most valid argument. We recently went to Epcot. At Epcot, there is an area called runtime where you can stand in front of a green screen and it records you running and jumping and then puts you in a video game. When you are done, you get to play your game. And after that, you can e-mail the game to yourself. My daughter’s did it, and I entered my e-mail address for the link and brought it up on my phone. It loaded and looked like it would play, but the flash game wanted me to press the space bar to start the game, and I couldn’t figure out how to bring up the soft keyboard with the game up in the browser to do that. But, again, I got further than anyone on an iOS device would have. So, yeah, I get that there will be limitations, but just because EVERYTHING won’t work is no reason for Apple to decide for their customers that they are going to force NOTHING to work.

The next argument gets a little closer to showing Apples true colors.

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform. If developers grow dependent on third party development libraries and tools, they can only take advantage of platform enhancements if and when the third party chooses to adopt the new features. We cannot be at the mercy of a third party deciding if and when they will make our enhancements available to our developers.

…you know, and we can’t force developers to give us 30% of their revenue if we let them use alternative means to get apps on the platform. He goes on to talk about the experience, and how if you aren’t writing for a single platform, that you get the lowest common denominator. So, basically, the reason I can’t read the menu from the restaurant’s web page to see if my daughter will be happy eating there is because Steve doesn’t want crappy software in iOS devices. Have you seen the apps available for the iOS and Android devices? Don’t get me wrong, there are some really nice apps out there. But there is a LOT of crap.  Whenever I see stats comparing how many apps are available for iOS vs Android, I think of my calculator when I was in 8th grade.  It was a new school year, and I was comparing my calculator with my friend’s.  I told him mine was better because it had 260 functions, his only had 150. He was like, that just means your calculator has 110 more functions you will never use than mine does. Indeed, until iOS 4 came out, you couldn’t put more than 64 (or some other multiple of 16) apps on an iOS device because the home screen only had a small number of pages, and each page could only hold 16 apps.

The thing is, this is (or shouldn’t) be about games. It’s about surfing the web. And there are a LOT of web sites that cannot be used without Flash. Normal every day web sites. Like I said, I run a plug in on my computer that disables flash unless I click to have it load. When I go to Cadillac’s web site with that plug in, this is what it looks like:

Pretty useless. I could post a lot more examples here, but the point is, if you want to surf the web using your mobile device, you NEED FLASH. All of the arguments above (both Steve’s and mine) don’t change that.

Apple doesn’t want anyone to play flash games on an iOS device for the simple reason that they cannot make money off of people playing flash games on their iOS devices. And they are willing to compromise the quality of one of the most basic things people want to use their iOS devices to do in order to make sure they make as much money off of you as they can. That is a complicated sentence. Read it again. We’re back to GREED and CONTROL. In case you haven’t figured it out, I don’t like to be told what I can and cannot do.

The botom line is, they can’t allow flash for “normal” web sites, but prevent you from playing flash games on it, so they decided to block the whole thing.

Apple is making all of your decisions for you. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to worry about that?

I’ll admit that long-term, Apple’s decision will probably force a lot of web sites to reevaluate their decision to use flash to design their whole web site.  But that will take time, and not all sites will bother to redesign, so five years from now, when you are in the middle of the islands in South Carolina and want to read the menu from a local seafood place, there will be a better than average chance that your iOS device won’t be able to display it. But my Android phone will. And until every site ever made switches, iOS users will never be able to access the full Internet.

Categories: Apple, Computer, Smart Phone
  1. Rob
    May 3, 2011 at 3:20 pm

    Safari + 42 open active tabs – Flash = No issues.
    Safari + 1 Flash site = Crash.

    This is replicated over and over in any browser (Firefox + Flash = crash, Chrome + Flash = crash). Why would you want it on your mobile device?

    I’ve never had flash on my mobile device. I’ve never cared.
    In fact, I actively shut Flash off on my desktop (http://clicktoflash.com/), that’s the first Safari extension I load on a new computer, followed by 1Password.

    Fewer and fewer sites are using Flash, because of all of the issues with the technology. Putting it into mobile platforms has caused nothing but issues for those platforms:
    http://hothardware.com/News/Analyst-Battery-Life-Still-a-Concern-for-RIMs-Playbook-Flash-at-Fault/

    Why bother?

    • May 3, 2011 at 6:42 pm

      It must be nice to live in a world of black and white.
      Black: “Flash content always crashes the browser”
      White: “Some sites have converted away from flash, so all flash content is gone.”

      My world is a little more gray than that…

      • Rob
        May 4, 2011 at 3:56 pm

        Some technologies are just, plain, bad.

        If users don’t stop using them, then companies will continue to promote them.

        If you could immediately have every site converted to HTML 5, and Flash would disappear entirely, would you?

        If you would. Then how do you expect it to happen when you keep demanding / using Flash?

  2. May 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    I covered that in the OP:
    “Would the world be better off if Flash had never existed? It’s a moot point, because it does exist. Does ignoring flash make it go away? This is a resounding ‘no’!”

    I can’t tell my kids they cannot play Club Penguin, Webkinz World or skip the Disney web site altogether (to name a few).

    I’m not going to tell my Daughter to lug her giant Math textbook home every night because the online version requires Flash, and we want that to go away, so we aren’t going to use it. (Her backpack already weighs way too much…)

    My kids use flash-based web sites almost every day, and rarely (I’m talking maybe once a month) have them crash the browser. I just used Console on the Mac they use the most for Flash games to search for Flash (and presumably flash error messages) going back a week. No hits. (Takes a long time, because Console will only search 4,000 messages at a time.)

    I have had very few problems with my flash-enabled phone. About the worst that happens is that some Flash content doesn’t work properly on the phone. But a surprising majority of the content displays just fine and even content that isn’t perfect is better than (or at least no worse than) a blank white box.

    But the content I care about most (companies that created their whole site in Flash, but it really looks like a normal web site otherwise) works great.

    The point of this blog entry is not to debate whether Flash should exist. The point is that it DOES exist, and ignoring it will not change that. Steve Jobs is doing a disservice to his company’s customers by unilaterally deciding for them that they shouldn’t run Flash. He’s not doing it because he cares about their experience. He’s doing it because he can’t make money on Flash apps and wants to prevent that.

    And, I’m not even arguing that he shouldn’t do what he’s doing. Obviously, he can do whatever he wants. I’m only arguing that in almost every case, the points he makes in his “Thoughts on Flash” are at best weak. I mean, if all of that was completely true, then he should pull Flash support from Macs. Why doesn’t he do that?

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