My thoughts on Flash and the iPad

There’s been a lot of controversy over Apple’s decision to ban Flash (and Java for that matter) from the iPhone since the day it was released. Now, with the iPad about to hit retail, there’s been more debate on whether this was a technical decision or not, and whether it’s a severe limitation for the devices, or a blessing. Being both a Flash developer, an iPhone OS user an open source advocate, I thought I’d weigh in on the conversation.

Before I get started though, let me point out that I’m not a fan of Flash. I think it’s a real shame that there’s no open, official standard that lets web designers do the things Flash can. Adobe has the web in an awkward stranglehold right now, and I’d love to see that change. But the reality is that Flash is an integral part of the web today.

HTML5 isn’t an option just yet

One of the main uses of Flash on the web is video. People keep forgetting however that Flash is also used extensively for other things. It is the only technology available today that allows you to scale, rotated and distort objects. It has a 3D engine (which admittedly isn’t used widely, yet) and it offers the most advanced controls over typography of any tool in a contemporary web designer’s toolbox.

Flash is used in product demos (360 views), simulations, games, data visualizations and many other areas where HTML falls short. Perhaps the upcoming release of HTML5 will allow designers to do the same things without Flash, but until HTML5-supporting browsers are widely adopted, Flash is the (only) way to go. Especially since most of the HTML5 demos I’ve seen have been built using browser-specific (non-standard) functions and were nowhere near a smooth as Flash animation has been since 1996.

And as for video, HTML5 appears to have a long way to go before it can replace Flash as the web’s preferred video player.

There’s no fundamental issue with Flash and touchscreens

This blog post has been getting a lot of attention, and rightfully so. It clearly describes why some currently available Flash content won’t work very well on touchscreen devices like the iPad. However, the types of applications that Flash is often used for, especially games, have always needed different approaches for mouse pointer based devices and touchscreens. Whether they were developed using Flash or not. Flash allows you to accommodate both interaction models, and it’s no problem at all to create touchscreen interfaces in Flash.

Flash is not buggy, slow or overly power-hungry on other devices

Steve Jobs himself has said that Flash on the iPad would kill its battery life. And I’m sure it could. It’s very easy to create a Flash movie that uses every single CPU cycle available on whatever machine it runs on. But like with all other development platforms, that’s just bad programming. Flash is capable of techniques like bitmap caching which can reduce CPU utilization dramatically. And the soon to be released 10.1 version will be capable of outsourcing most of the remaining heavy work, like decoding video, to the systems GPU. Which is probably what the iPhone’s video player does too.

I’ll admit that the current Flash player is slow (by comparison to Windows) on OSX and Linux. It’s obvious that Adobe has not always maintained these players very well. There’s been debate over whether or not Apple is partly to blame for this, but fact is that the Mac version uses ten times the resources the Windows version needs to display the same content.

That being said, on ARM based sytems (like the iPhone and the iPad), things aren’t quite so bad. I get the feeling that many of the users commenting negatively about Flash as a technology are Apple fans who’ve not been getting the performance and stability that Flash delivers on Windows.

A business decision?

I’m convinced that Apple’s ban on Flash is purely a business decision. Allowing Adobe’s technology onto their devices would in turn allow content (music, video, games, etc) to be delivered to the devices without going through Apple’s immensely successful App Store. No matter how much Adobe would improve Flash’s performance and stability, it still wouldn’t make sense for Apple to change their minds. Not with billions of dollars coming in.

On a side note, Adobe has announced that the next major version of the Flash development environment will allow Flash applications to be exported as iPhone apps. So there will be Flash on the iPhone, just not in web pages. For me, the most interesting thing about this is that it will reveal whether Flash is really as bad as Jobs says. I wonder if those apps will drain battery life and crash frequently. If they don’t, that will tell us a great deal about Apple, won’t it?

(Read this post in Belorussian at PC)

22 Comments

  1. Link: My thoughts on Flash and the iPad | Roy Tanck's weblog
  2. I don’t buy it. Purely a business decision? No. Partly? Sure.

    Apple sees a standards-driven web as the key to a platform-neutral playing space. Apple can produce a robust web browser; what it can’t do is control the quality of the Flash experience on it’s operating systems.

    By forcing the industry to conceive of a future without Flash, Apple is helping create one, and doing its best to make web browsing a pleasant, if slightly less featureful, experience. It sees that as crucial to the platform. Good for Apple.

    Comment by John — February 28, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

  3. I agree with the poster above: Apple’s decision to not use flash is a double whammy. Apple wants to push new technology forward and set itself as the standard and it wants control over its store. Whether it would be successful is a different question. Bookmarked

    Comment by William — February 28, 2010 @ 8:44 pm

  4. Adobe has said on more than one occasion that they want to work with Apple to improve Flash performance. This implies that Apple would have a level of control over that proces. Yet, even with Flash running great on Android phones, Apple doesn’t seem to want to budge.

    I’m also not sure Apple is in position to force anything. As loyal as their following is, they still only represent a small portion of computer users. The lack of flash on the iPhone is not so bad, and the iPad would need to become a spectacular success for it to become the the leverage needed to allow them to get rid of Flash by themselves.

    Comment by Roy — February 28, 2010 @ 9:44 pm

  5. Is it possible that Apple’s nudging Adobe in the direction of making Flash more of an open-source platform might have some positive ramifications?

    Not everything has to be either/or and using influence does not have to mean “force by means of monopoly”. That’s Microsoft’s modus operandi.

    Comment by Andrew Raimist — March 1, 2010 @ 5:16 am

  6. I don’t think that anyone could deny that Apple could lose a lot of money by allowing Flash, but I wonder how many more iPhones and iPads they could sell if it worked really well and the public could see how amazing their product could be…

    Comment by Neil Frank — March 1, 2010 @ 5:54 am

  7. Andrew, yes, I think in the long run Adobe’s strategy should be to fully open up Flash and try to remain the top Flash editor vendor. I wouldn’t be surprised if future versions of the Flash IDE would be capable of producing HTML5 too.

    Neil, my guess is that the iPad relatively low pricing means that Apple’s hoping to make the profit off of content sold through iTunes.

    Comment by Roy — March 1, 2010 @ 10:50 am

  8. But Roy, that poses the question of whether the main purpose of the iPad is to get people to consume more content on iTunes. Frnakly, I don’t buy that. Why would I buy a $500 mini-TV to download the existing TV programs and movies to take to a coffee shop when I can do that at home? And if I’m on a plane, the why wouldn’t I just use my MacBook?

    If there was content there that could leverage the touchscreen format, then for sure I’d buy. It would be worth it to subscribe to my favorite magazines (Economist, New Scientist, Scientific American) if they could be interactive, allow videos, 3-d images of the cosmos/ atoms/ etc et al. For that sort of stuff, I’d buy an iPad at $1,500 tomorrow.

    But the fact is… there’s no content like that. Until then, iPad remains an accessory that adds nothing to my phone and laptop setup, apart from lightening my wallet.

    Comment by Gordon — March 1, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

  9. But there is going to be content like that. That’s why there’s the iBook app (competing with Kindle and other e-readers) and the ability to run iPhone apps, video and music.

    Wired already published a very cool demo of how their magazine is going to look in the iPad. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’re describing: http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/02/the-wired-ipad-app-a-video-demonstration/ .

    Comment by Roy — March 1, 2010 @ 2:25 pm

  10. Thank you. I was pondering this problem and wondering what’s all the hype for a iPad if you can’t even use flash or java. I will definitely refer people to you to interpret some of the tech stuff we don’t understand.

    Comment by Mike H — March 1, 2010 @ 11:51 pm

  11. I did not buy the app either. I am simply not interested. :)

    “what it can’t do is control the quality of the Flash experience on it’s operating systems.”

    Right on! Apple’s initiative does sound crazy, does not it? Then again, who knows. Apple has created history time and again. Maybe it is set to do the same thing again this time. :)

    Comment by Chimpu Sharma — March 2, 2010 @ 2:38 am

  12. Its going to be some time before I can justify buying an iPad. Like when they add a USB port!

    Comment by Cool Springs Todd — March 9, 2010 @ 10:18 pm

  13. ipad = Classic Epic Fail

    Why the ipad is an Epic Fail:

    1. 1024×768 = No Widescreen ? SVGA has been out of date for quite a few years now.

    2. No Multi-tasking. What ? Seriously ?

    3. No Flash Support. This is the real deal killer. Try going to youtube or COUNTLESS other sites without flash…

    4. No Java Support. Another deal killer. If a site doesn’t use flash, you can just about bet it uses java. Haa.

    5. You have to use itunes. It is only the WORST program in the history of programming. There’s no way I’d ever put that on my computer.

    6. ATT Network (Need I say more?)

    Comment by Kurt — March 22, 2010 @ 4:17 am

  14. Kurt, I think I disagree with you on some of your points.

    1. Widescreen would have made the iPad’s aspect seem weird. For a device aimed at reading text and browsing, screen height is important, and considering how the resolution isn’t enough to browse in landscape mode, this makes sense to me.

    2. The next OS release will bring multitasking.

    3. Agreed. The battle between Adobe and Apple isn’t pretty, and while I’m happy it forces developers to look at alternatives, the iPad should have Flash.

    4. Java? Really? Almost every website uses javascript, and Safari is pretty good at that. On the iPad too. Real Java, as in applets I haven’t seen in ages.

    5. Agreed 100%. Hate it. But I hate the vendor lock-in for content much more than iTunes’ little quirks.

    6. We don’t have AT&T here in The Netherlands, but the iPhone is carried by T-Mobile, with whom I’ve never had issues. But then again I’ve only been a 3G user for two days now :).

    Comment by Roy — April 17, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

  15. Hi Roy,

    For what I read in your posts, I guess you must be waiting as I do to the response of Asus to the iPad. I use a R2H since 2006 (and still is running fine) and it can do must of what an iPad can do except for the touchscreen limitations and the size of the screen. But I’m sure Asus is going to come out with a superior alternative, what do you think?

    Comment by Daniel — May 14, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

  16. Ps. Sorry, a bit offtopic ;-) Let me recommend this interview to clean it up a bit: http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2010/04/29/live-blogging-the-journals-interview-with-adobe-ceo/tab/liveblog/

    It is an amazing discussion: think about all the years of partnership between Apple and Adobe. In fact, the big hype of Apple is due in major part to all the designers who use Apple to run Adobe software. Who could have predicted such a clash between them?

    I strongly agree with Adobe’s CEO: if Flash crashes Macs, OS X should do something about it –except banning Flash. Apple loves being an IT WASP: excluding Flash is another step into their beloved endogamy. Therefore, my vote goes to you as well: it is a business decision.

    Comment by Daniel — May 14, 2010 @ 12:12 pm

  17. Actually, I’m not watching Asus for this. I’m sure they’re working on a tablet, but I’m also convinced it’ll be based on eee-pc technology, and that it won’t be running a mobile OS. For me, Android is the most likely competitor for the iPad, and I keep hearing about cheap Android tablets that are on the horizon.

    Comment by Roy — May 18, 2010 @ 12:08 pm

  18. I still hope that Asus will launch a beautiful machine; which OS will it use is going to be a surprise, specially after the announcement by HP.

    Comment by Daniel — May 26, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

  19. Funny, I’m actually typing this response on my iPad! Typing is getting easier, though it initially took some getting used to not being able to rest your fingers on the keys. But anyway, a lot of the issues mentioned above can easily be bypassed via jail breaking, which I have done. I can run background apps using Backgrounder, which you can get from Cydia. I also have something called MyWi, which let’s you tether your iPhone 3G to the iPad, so I never need to get the 3G version. With regards to Flash, it IS actually possible to run it on the iPad, if you jailbreak it, and it actually runs smoother than the JavaScript on some websites, believe it or not.

    As far as iTunes goes, again, it’s a software issue that can be bypassed easily. I haven’t used it since the first time just to sync it with the computer for initial setup. As far as USB, you can buy the camera connection kit, and with a jailbreak, you can actually use it to connect the iPad to an external storage HD. Although personally, I prefer cloud backup storage such as DropBox.

    In any case, the hype is real. In just a months since launch it’s sold more units than Kindle did in the past few years, and all other e-readers combined. I think the battery power is also amazing. I’ve only charged it once since buying it 2 weeks ago!

    Lastly, there are some doubts about the iPad hype above…which currently se

    Comment by Tech Lover — June 11, 2010 @ 10:51 am

  20. BOOOOOOOOO APPLE.

    I bought an iPad this week. I am taking it back for one reason. The lack of Flash support prevents a complete capability to surf the web. AWFUL.

    This device has but a couple uses, the web browsing is a major reason for ownership and falls well short.

    As much as I love the video / movie content via iTunes on the iPad, it’s going back due to the horrid failure to support Flash.

    Boo Apple. Boo. What an awful choice. I’ll have my $700. back now please. Thanks.

    Comment by Sean — July 2, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  21. Let’s bottom line it: Jobs wants to sell you every damned thing you can see or hear on any apple device. FLASH makes inroads into that revenue stream, therefore FLASH must go.

    Comment by 花蓮民宿 — August 5, 2010 @ 10:09 am

  22. I wonder how apple will treat Microsoft Silverlight?

    Comment by Business Cards — June 8, 2011 @ 5:41 pm