By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, September 30, 2008 at 5:21 pm
It may be the single biggest thing on the iPhone to-do list that’s not completely under Apple’s control: getting Adobe’s Flash working on the thing. Yes, there are cynics,lovers of lightweight surfing, and haters of animated intros who will contend that the iPhone is better without Flash. But anyone who’s ever tried to visit a useful site that uses Flash knows that the iPhone’s Internet has been more of an almost-but-not-quite-real Internet than the “real Internet” that Apple touts.
There’s lots of hubbub on the Web today about a Flash conference in the UK where an Adobe executive mentioned that the company is working on Flash for the iPhone. As Silicon Alley Insider notes, this isn’t news–Adobe’s said it’s on it before. But it is an excuse to think about the implications and ask a few questions. Such as:
1) How would it work, exactly? Would Flash content show up within Safari, or in a standalone browser? Would everything work, or just certain Flash applets? Would it attempt to resize stuff for the iPhone’s screen, or leave it as is? The idea of Flash on the iPhone is a lot more exciting if it’s comprehensive support, but we don’t know if that’s what Adobe has in mind.
2) Would it be a drag, bandwidth-wise? The whole idea of Flash is to do very fancy stuff without requiring a lot of bandwidth, but the world is full of Web sites that make you wait…and wait…while a Flash intro loads, showing that the technology can be used to slow Web sites down as well as speed them up. I’m not sure if Flash content that feels snappy on a PC or Mac would bog down even an iPhone 3G, or if there’s anything Adobe could do about it if it did.
3) What would the deal be with video? Apple got YouTube working well on the iPhone in part by working with YouTube to reencode everything in an iPhone-friendly format. But there’s still zillions of hours of interesting Flash-based video that’s not on YouTube, and is therefore unavailable on the iPhone. Thinking about bandwidth again, I’m not sure whether simply putting Flash on an iPhone would make this video usable or not.
4) In general, how usable would it be? Putting Flash on a phone is such a formidable project that it’s possible that Adobe would do it in a way that technically worked but was too onerous to be much fun. If it’s slow and makes you pan around, Flash on the iPhone might not be worth the effort.
5) Would Apple welcome Flash with open arms? I’d hope so, since well-done Flash support would be a boon for iPhone users. And for Flash support on the iPhone to be really good, Adobe would almost certainly have to work with Apple to hook it into Safari. But back in March, Steve Jobs spoke unkindly of the propsect of Flash on the iPhone, saying it would be too slow to be useful. The good news is that Jobs has a long history of explaining why something doesn’t make sense for Apple until the moment it happens, so I’m not overly concerned about his apparent lack of interest.
6) Would Apple actively prevent Flash from being available on the iPhone? I just said I wasn’t too concerned; I lied. Recently developments suggest that among Apple’s criteria for rejecting iPhone Apps fromn the App Store is if it sees them as being potentially bad for Apple. And while Adobe is a friend and partner to Apple in some ways, it’s also a competitor: Flash, like the iTunes Store, is a means of distribution for audio, video, and applications. The nightmare scenario is that Adobe does come up with a great Flash Player…and Apple decides it’s too good and kills it. At the moment, Apple’s actions with the App Store are so mysterious–intentionally so, since it’s using the iPhone NDA to stifle discussion–that it’s easy to get paranoid and imagine the company doing anything.
(Daring Fireball’s John Gruber has an interesting take on Apple’s reaction to Flash, and smart advice for Adobe: If it wants Apple to let Flash onto the iPhone, it should develop a version for Android.)
That’s a lotta questions about an application we know very little about. (Did I remember to ask when it might arrive?) Your answers, speculation, or additional questions would be welcome…