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Thursday, March 6, 2008

Jobs Says Flash Video Not Suitable for iPhone

On the day we finally get the iPhone SDK comes news that may put something of a dampener on it (unless Steve has a "One more thing" tucked up his sleeve): Adobe Flash isn't good enough for the iPhone.

In comments made at Apple's recent shareholder meeting, CEO Steve Jobs said that the iPhone doesn't support Flash because it runs too slowly on the device to be useful. The iPhone's lack of Flash has been one of the major complaints levied against it. He also said we won't see iPhone apps until "summer."

Adobe's Flash Player is used to play videos and other content on the Internet. Users have complained that the iPhone's lack of Flash support makes the browsing experience less rich than it should be. According to Jobs, Flash Lite doesn't go far enough, but the full-fledged Flash Player, which is designed to run on laptops, performs sluggishly on the iPhone. He said, "There's this missing product in the middle." He didn't go so far as to say that Adobe was working on such a product for the iPhone or any other product, and neither did Adobe.

In an Internet post last month, Ryan Stewart, Adobe's chief spokesman for its Internet-based applications, said, "No one aside from [Apple Chief Executive] Steve Jobs has any idea if or when it's coming. Everyone I talk to doesn't know anything."

Apple is introducing the road map for its iPhone SDK at an event tomorrow. Developers were likely hoping to find ways to support Flash on their own through the SDK. After Jobs' comments, that seems less likely. At the shareholders meeting, Jobs said that users will "see a lot of apps out there this summer." This lends more credence to the belief that the actual SDK will be not be made available tomorrow, but some time in the future. If Jobs believes that applications for the iPhone won't be available until this summer, that means developers are going to continue to be frustrated for a while.

That also means that the iPhone hacking community is going to continue to be busy innovating on the sly. Many believe that Apple will maintain rigid control over how iPhone apps are developed, approved, and distributed, with Apple taking a cut. Hackers probably will provide more useful apps in a shorter time frame, as is already evidenced by the services made available to unlocked iPhones.


Jobs Says "Not Likely" to Flash on the iPhone
Flash, in its current state, is not a good fit for the iPhone
first displayed, people have been wondering if there was going to be any kind of Flash support for the iPhone. Initially, I think the response from Jobs was "maybe", but I took that as a "nope." There are hundreds of reasons why Flash doesn't make sense on the iPhone, but I'll run through a couple of my own opinions as to why Flash, in its current state, is not a good fit for the iPhone.

File System. The Flash Plugin simply assumes the presence of a file system to which it has (limited, isolated, and secure) access. The iPhone file system is not open. Unlike Windows Mobile, you can't pop open an explorer window and browse around the contents of your phone.

Processing Power. The iPhone has a processor that is designed to be optimized for limited power consumption. The version of OS X that runs on the iPhone is designed to maximize battery life, as is Safari. Flash assumes it can suck whatever resources from the computer it wants. Even if every single Flash developer agreed to produce low-resource-consuming Flash files, how could the runtime be tuned to work in this environment in a way that is both practical and profitable? (you'll see that theme as I continue...)

Alternate UI paradigm. Flash is not optimized for touch interfaces. In fact, Flash has no idea what a touch interface is at all. It responds to clicks and mouseovers, and the iPhone has no concept of a mouseover. Any existing Flash sites or mini-apps would have to somehow compensate for that. If you've been to enough Flash-ridden sites, you'll know that there are tons of SWFs that rely heavily on mouseover and would simply be unusable on an iPhone.

Zooming and Pixel Depth. The iPhone is an extremely high resolution display, even though it is a small form factor. I think it has 3 times the pixel density of the average monitor. I don't even want to know what kind of headaches that would cause the developers trying to port the flash runtime to the phone. Surely a port could be made, but would it be practical or profiterable for either Apple or Adobe to do it?

Form Factor. I can't even count the number of Flash portions of web sites that do not scale when the page scales. Flash is fantastically easy in fixed-width mode, and when people do navigation bars, rollover strips, or some of the other extremely ubiquitous use cases for Flash, they do them in fixed width scale! Basically what you'd be looking at is any page with any of this non-scaling flash content on it would completely obliterate what is currently the most smooth and seamless mobile browsing experience available. It would prevent mobile Safari from being able to scale and zoom to other portions of the page not containing Flash. No port of the Flash runtime would prevent iPhone users from being assaulted by this experience. Any iPhone user who hit a page like this would flee in terror, just like people do now with other crappy mobile browsing experiences. Do you think Apple wants to give their users a crappy experience?

Security and Sandboxing. Flash can do things that JavaScript cannot. Flash can also do things that you simply cannot do on a mobile phone with a locked file system. Even if a port were possible and/or completed, if you thought the complaints about the Vista UAC were bad... just imagine what Apple fanatics would do if constantly being beaten over the head with security and sandboxing prompts and dialogs. "This page is trying to do something the iPhone doesn't support" ... WTF??! Steve Jobs is right in assuming people would rather see the "blue cube" of the missing Flash plugin than have to tap away a security violation dialog. At least with the blue cube, the important content of the page is still accessible.

The Canvas. I don't know about you, but I think this little HTML tag kicks ass. Using a little JavaScript and the Canvas tag, you can draw and animate to your heart's content.

Video. The iPhone uses H.264, which is, as far as I know, a more widely used video standard than Flash.
So, to sum things up:

If Apple were to create a Flash port for the iPhone, the nature of the exiting world of Flash applications would make the user experience terrible, and not up to Apple's standards. If Adobe were to create a flash port for the iPhone, the user experience would be equally crappy, and equally below Adobe's high standards for quality. Both efforts would require a large financial investment to produce something that most people would think sucked anyway, so its solid business that neither of them are very interested in creating the port.

I say leave Flash off the phone. The combination of the forthcoming SDK and the abilities granted to web developers by virtue of CSS3, WebKit extensions to CSS, Safari's advanced HTML support (including the Canvas tag!) all add up to a rich development environment that is wanting for very little and I don't think anybody who actually uses an iPhone on a daily basis really misses having Flash there... I know I don't.

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