Flash-on-Mobile: Re-Examining the Controversy

While it’s been a low-level grumbling for years, the issue of Flash on mobile devices (and particularly the iPhone/Touch/iPad ecosystem) has reached fever pitch over the past few weeks, with Steve Jobs as self-appointed Flash basher-in-Chief. The OSNews crowd, that is, dyed-in-the-wool technologists have, by and large, not been big fans of Flash, with its spotty availability and performance on alternative platforms, resource hogging, and instability. And though it’s quite useful for web video and other specialized interfaces, it drives the tech savvy crazy when it’s used for utterly superfluous multimedia bling. So we’ve had a lively discussion of the pros and cons of Flash, and whether device users should be free to make their own decision about whether it’s worthy to install on their iPads. But we’re leaving out an important detail. As Daniel Eran Dilger, a Flash developer, points out, almost all the important existing Flash infrastructure won’t work anyway. Update: A worthwhile rebuttal to this point of view.The article is a good read, and when you read it, you’ll do a facepalm. Pretty much anything important that uses Flash, from video players to games to Rich Internet Applications to silly UI elements depends on totally mouse-centric input cues. It’s important for Flash interfaces to know where the mouse cursor is, whether you’re clicking there or not. Touchscreens have no such data. There’s no way to know whether your finger is hovering above the screen. Of course, there’s no reason why new conventions can’t be established and Flash interfaces couldn’t be adapted to be aware of touchscreen-specific elements. But that would require all of the web’s Flash infrastructure to be re-written. If you’re going to do that anyway, why don’t we just focus our energies on HTML5 and leave Flash in the dustbin of history. Well, in essence that’s Steve Jobs’ position, and now it’s mine.

What’ s interesting is that Steve hasn’t brought up this issue himself. Instead, he’s trying to fight this battle with a combination of some kind of techno morality mixed with semi-unconvincing performance and stability gripes. While including Flash on the iPhone would eliminate the infamous blue lego icon, and the video players and the fancy buttons and the games would all appear on the screen, none of them would work. Some would kind of work, and others wouldn’t work at all, and overall, it would be no kind of solution.

Personally, I take a pragmatic approach to issues like this. I have Flash installed on all of my desktop computers, and I can honestly say I use it every day, mostly for web video, but sometimes for RIA interfaces or games. Once this HTML5 video thing gets resolved, Flash will move from an essential tool to a moderately useful one. But I’m also a long-time iPhone user, and, thanks in large part to the YouTube app, I don’t miss Flash much. When I run across something I can’t view on the iPhone, I either set it aside until I’m at a proper computer, or I just skip it. Just like the early iMac users really missed their ADB and serial ports or floppy disks for a while, I’m sure some people would miss Flash if it went away, but of course after a few months went by, and the web world moved past Flash to the new thing, we’d all look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. Steve Jobs has always been willing to be the jerk who abandons “old” technology first, and he’s got a pretty good track record. Without him, it would have taken USB several extra years to catch on. I wouldn’t mind seeing Flash relegated to a specialty add-on for Rich Internet Apps like fancy reporting tools, and the world moving to real industry standards for everyday UI elements, including video playing. If anyone’s going to accelerate that process, it’s going to be Apple. Microsoft might have the clout, but they’re too obsessed with supplanting someone else’s proprietary non-standard with their own, so that’s unlikely to happen.

In this case, Steve Jobs is less likely to win this case with the Reality Distortion Field than with a big dose of Reality. And the reality is this: include Flash on touchscreen devices all you want: they won’t work anyway.

Of course, it’s all a little more complicated, with Adobe and other touchscreen device manufacturers playing up upcoming Flash features as part of their efforts to align themselves against Apple. Read the comments in the Roughlydrafted article for some thought-provoking debate. But my opinion is that while it may be very important for Adobe to remain relevant by keeping Flash in play, and it may be important for Apple’s device competitors to tout Flash as a competitive advantage, the harsh reality is that web developers will have to at least update if not re-write much of their Flash UI infrastructure, and it will be a long time before non-mouse-using device users will have a satisfactory Flash experience on most web sites. It’s a good opportunity for us to ditch Flash. We should seriously considering taking it.


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