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November 14, 2011

Flash and Mobile Devices

Last week, Adobe announced that it will stop developing the Flash Player for mobile devices. It may seem like a surprising news, but the most convincing reason to create Flash apps and sites is Flash's installed base. Because of the popularity of YouTube and other sites that require Flash, most computer users install the Flash Player (99% of the Internet-enabled computers, according to Adobe).

That's not the case when it comes to mobile devices: Flash Player can only be installed in Android 2.2+, Blackberry PlayBook and HP webOS. According to Adobe, "by the end of 2010, over 35 models of smartphones were certified for Flash Player, and over 20 million smartphones either shipped with or downloaded Flash Player." The estimated percentage for Flash-enabled mobile devices shipped in 2011 is 36%. Since Apple's iOS devices and Windows Phone devices won't include support for Flash, it's obvious that Flash can't become ubiquitous on mobile devices. In fact, right now, it's mostly limited to Android and that's exactly what Adobe doesn't want to achieve.

Adobe's biggest mistake was that it assumed that Flash could be a great option for building mobile web apps. The mobile Flash Player was useful to load pages that required Flash, but that's because users didn't have other options. The experience wasn't great, scrolling was jerky, Flash objects looked disconnected from the rest of the page, so it was a good idea to only load Flash content on-demand.

Developers that want to build mobile apps right now have two options: either build HTML5 apps that work in any modern browser or create native apps for iOS, Android and other platforms. Adobe has tools for both options and the goal for the future is to improve them. "HTML5 is now universally supported on major mobile devices, in some cases exclusively. This makes HTML5 the best solution for creating and deploying content in the browser across mobile platforms," says Adobe. "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." Both AIR apps and HTML5 apps are already successful and the main advantage is that they don't require a plugin.

While it's nice to be able to load sites that require Flash on your phone and tablet, Flash is not a technology for the future, it's mostly for the past. Steve Jobs was right to say that "open standards created in the mobile era, such as HTML5, will win on mobile devices (and PCs too)" and to recommend Adobe to "focus more on creating great HTML5 tools for the future, and less on criticizing Apple for leaving the past behind".

Google chose pragmatism and started to collaborate with Adobe, who developed Flash for Android, Google TV and a more secure Flash plugin bundled with Chrome. Android's open nature and Chrome's focus on security made this possible. The end result was that users had the option to install Flash on their mobile devices and their desktop browser was more secure, since Flash was sandboxed and automatically updated.

Both Apple and Google cared about users, but in different ways: Apple wanted to provide a better experience, while Google wanted to provide more options. Flash was the wrong option for mobile devices, but it was the only option to load some sites.

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