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Flash on the iPhone — No, Yes, Nope, very Likely Yes

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Imagine: The Web without Flash?

Apple’s iPhone, in recent times, has been the must have uber cool device/phone for those who are style-aware, techno-savvy, geek-cultured, business-professionals and Apple fanboys. It is pehaps one of the most marvellous innovative evolution from Apple, fantastically marketed down the tech-piped throats of the internet-aware civilization.

Unfortunately, the iPhone is not officially available in India (at least at the time of writing this article) and I don’t have one, thus I’ve always given cursory glance to iPhone related stories. Yes, the cursory glance is more to avoid getting utterly jealous of others who already have one and to avoid tempting myself into yet another Apple induced submission.Adobe

The Awesome iPhone

Of late, there are lots of talk about the Flash Player on the iPhone which got me interested. This morning, I was reading Aral Balkan’s frustration that Adobe is not working on Flash for iPhone which prompted me to go deeper and learn the stories of “Flash on the iPhone.”

Aral was not happy; and I’m sure many other iPhone users have similar suck-timents.

Damn you Apple for hooking me in with your wonderfuckingly cool UI and then shackling me with your sub-par feature-set. I want my Flash Player and my 3G, you hear? You’ve spoilt me; I can’t use any other handset now without feeling like I’m handling ancient relic and yet I can’t do simple things like copy-and-paste and connect my laptop to the Internet through my phone.

Flash not ready for the iPhone!

Earlier in the preceeding month, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made it clear that the iPhone hadn’t adopted Adobe’s Flash Lite (the mobile version of Flash Player) because of technical and performance concerns. He suggested Adobe to work on a new version of the Player.

Well, what Steve meant was, “Adobe’s Flash Player for the Web is too bulky and slow for the iPhone while Flash Lite is not capable of being used for the web.” That sounds fairly damming, more specifically when it was announced at the Apple Shareholders’ Meeting where things would be really big and public than expected.

Flash will be on the iPhone

Then came the good news from CEO Shantanu Narayen that Adobe had since obtained the iPhone SDK which Apple released recently. The tools will let Adobe build a Flash player for the iPhone, then distribute it through Apple’s iTunes online store. “We believe Flash is synonymous with the Internet experience, and we are committed to bringing Flash to the iPhone,” Narayen said. “We have evaluated (the software developer tools) and we think we can develop an iPhone Flash player ourselves.”

Everything was looking cool, sweet and smooth until Adobe realizes that the iPhone SDK is not enough for Flash on iPhone. Adobe has admitted it can’t bring Flash to the iPhone just because it thinks that would be a neat idea.

Flash unlikely on the iPhone

Of course the problem facing all technology designers and developers is that the paying public want more and more in there gizmos, devices and phones but want the size of the product constant, if not smaller. Therefore either the hardware must improve or the software must do more in the same space. The technology therefore needs to be not only better but just as reliable as for and user friendly, this is where an apparent snag has hit the “Flash on the iPhone” rendezvous.

Flash isn’t a mere third-party application, like a game or an instant-messaging client. It’s a plug-in that would have to work very closely with Safari on the iPhone, and that’s something Apple has declared off-limits to third-party developers at this time unless they get a hall pass.

Certain people put 2 and 2 together and reached 5. Adobe had to clarify what was meant following the media stories that Apple and Adobe could add the Flash Player to the iPhone. The company explained they needed Apple’s permission to use the SDK needed for this. Further comments from Narayen seem to indicate he would like to bring Flash to the iPhone but it’s not as straightforward as he seems to believe. In order to use flash, which would be a major function provider, it would need to be compatible with Safari, the program already installed on the iPhone.

Safari is the application that runs the Internet on the phone so is an integral part. Flash player would have to run in tandem or take over some of the Safari’s functions. The other drawback for Adobe is that apple have already blocked outside developers from working on the system with out special permission, also if they could get permission to do the development they would then need permission to have the application on the iPhone, they could risk using the decoded phones some people have created by breaking the iPhone’s security code but the risk is to big. Adobe runs in so many home and business computers they don’t want to upset one of their main buyers. Apple through its CEO Steve jobs isn’t so reticent about giving possible upset by stating that standard Flash is too big and Flash Lite is too small for the iPhone.

And even if Adobe was granted a special dispensation to dig deeper into the iPhone, it couldn’t actually distribute Flash onto the iPhone unless Apple approved its inclusion in the App Store or bundled it with the iPhone. That is, unless Adobe wants to hook up all those jail-broken iPhones with Flash, which it could technically do but would probably ruin its chances of ever getting an official blessing for Flash on the iPhone.

Adobe points out that there are roughly 450 million phones in use with Flash installed and with their business aim for the number to be 1 billion by 2010 they seem serious. So if they can produce a suitable medium for so many phones and have plans for so many more why can’t they sort the problem with the iPhone. The alternative view is that perhaps Apple doesn’t want to use Adobe on their prize product at all.

Adobe's 2008 Q1 Earnings Conference CallWhile we’re talking about Flash on the iPhone, how can one missed Adobe’s 2008 Q1 Investor Relations Call and Q&A which took place few days back. During the session, the formidable was asked to CEO Shantanu Narayen about “Flash on the iPhone.”

Shantanu’s comments were in response to a question at about 7:04 in slide 20 (the Q&A portion of the call). Here’s the transcript:

Well, you know, we really believe that Flash is synonymous with the Internet and frankly anybody who wants to browse the Web and experience the Web in all its glory really needs Flash support. I mean, we were very excited about the announcement from Windows mobile adoption of Flash on their devices and the fact that we’ve shipped a half billion devices now, non-PC devices — so we’re also committed to bringing the Flash experience to the iPhone and we’ll work with Apple. We’ve evaluated the SDK we can now start to develop the Flash Player ourselves. And, we think it benefits our joint customers so we want to work with Apple to bring that capability to the device.

Bill Perry of Adobe have negated many assumptions made out of the CEO’s statement and he have his points

  • We’ve played around with the iPhone SDK since it was introduced and think we can now begin development on delivering Flash Player on the iPhone.
  • More work needs to be done with Apple however, as the SDK and the license associated with it doesn’t enable us to bring the full Flash experience on the iPhone’s Safari web brower.
  • We know lots of iPhone users wants Flash. Adobe’s goal is to make Flash as ubiquitous as possible, so that means delivering Flash to as many platforms as we can. Much to everyone’s surprise we announced on Monday that Flash was coming to the Windows Mobile Platform. So if we can do it with Microsoft, we’re certainly hoping that it’s not that complex for Flash to make it to the iPhone.

Is Apple sorta afraid of Adobe?

Zoe Slocum has posted a theory on the tech news blog idea revolves around the Pandora application, a free use music download music device. The application is becoming incredibly popular and is set to rival apples iTunes program. The drawback for Pandora devotees and converts is the application needs Flash and iTunes doesn’t. Is it therefore possible that Apple don’t want flash for the iPhone, as it will help Pandora develop and possibly eclipse their iTunes?

With the iTunes application being used to help customize the iPhone ring tones as well as for the usual music and video downloads it does make some sense to keep the variety of applications that the system works on to your own things and hold rivals back. Having said that surly some sort of unfair competition laws are being breached here. This is a big accusation to make but it is surely a feasible explanation.

By saying Apple can’t use the present Flash programs and then by restricting who can develop alternatives Apple hold the aces for the iPhone. They haven’t officially said Adobe will never be in use on the iPhone but they also aren’t likely to make it easy either. The fact is if Apple were confident in their product they would be happy to allow all comers to develop programs for them in order to improve their product, either they aren’t confident or are perhaps being extra careful or simply they are blocking Adobe because of Pandora. If Pandora failed would Apple open the doors to Adobe and others, will Adobe find a back door way of either proving their present program works or of making the perfect program to offer we wont know till it happens?

The iPhone already supports HTML, PDF, and Microsoft Word and Excel and will soon have Java installed. Cynics could argue that although many of these additions are needed to give the full product they aren’t rivals to any of Apple’s products. Although saying that Apple and Microsoft haven’t always been best friends.

The test of all this will be the humble customer, will they firstly keep buying the product, secondly will they say nice things and thirdly as the product develops will they demand more and more functions. If Apple want to succeed with this and still block companies like Adobe they will have to ensure that they can keep pace with demands. If Apple cant keep pace perhaps they will bite the bullet and turn to Adobe, as I mentioned earlier perhaps Adobe will find a way to develop a more suitable Flash and will be ready for Apple to come crawling.

Nonetheless, none of this means Apple and Adobe really aren’t working to bring Flash to the iPhone. There are clearly benefits to having Flash, even Flash Lite, on a mobile device, and the two companies have worked closely for years. To re-iterate, Apple’ main problem with the technology is that “Flash is too big, and Flash Lite is too small,” for the iPhone.

We will have to guess and second-guess as to the motives of both sides in this and we will have to watch for the outcome. Hopefully the customer will be the beneficiary but don’t hold your breath.

References

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