Adobe moves mobile Flash from rhetoric to reality

The long list of allies backing Flash Player 10.1 for mobile devices shows Adobe may have lost the battle with Apple, but the war isn't over.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
6 min read

After enduring months of scorn from Apple, Adobe Systems is set to begin a major effort to claim some of the mobile computing initiative for itself starting Monday night.

That's when the company plans to issue an all-but-finished beta of Flash Player 10.1, moving from demos and rhetoric to a more concrete answer to those who question the technology's relevance. Flash for Android phones will become final with Google's imminent release of Android 2.2, aka Froyo, and over coming months Flash 10.1 will spread to many other mobile operating systems.

"We're expecting really broad platform support over the next 12 to 18 months," said Anup Murarka, Adobe's director of technology strategy. "There may be a little bit of a slow start as these devices trickle out," he said, but a broader range expanding also to tablets, Netbooks, TVs, and set-top boxes will emerge for Christmas and at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

Also due to get Flash Player 10.1 are Palm's WebOS, Research in Motion's BlackBerry OS, Nokia's Symbian, the MeeGo version of Linux from Intel and Nokia, and Windows Phone 7--though not at that operating system's debut, Murarka said. Many companies will pre-install Flash Player 10.1 on their phones through deals Adobe is hammering out, but in the case of Google, those with Froyo phones will be able to download it directly from the Android Market.

It's no surprise that Adobe's partner list omits one very important swath of the mobile device market: Apple's iOS, the operating system that powers not only the influential iPhone but also the new iPad and the iPod Touch. Adobe has been twice thwarted in its ambition to spread Flash there--first when Apple rejected it outright, and second when it blocked a more indirect Adobe effort to convert Flash applications into native iOS applications. Apple CEO Steve Jobs castigated Flash for being insecure, crash-inducing, and a relic from a bygone age of computing.

But the length of Adobe's list of supporters shows that the company still has a lot of clout. Adobe's ability to secure mobile device partners--and there are a number of chipmakers cooperating on Flash Player 10.1 for mobile, too--is reminiscent of an earlier age when Microsoft, not Apple, was the company whose power galvanized competitors. Then, Microsoft's rivals threw their collective weight behind Sun Microsystems' Java in the 1990s and behind Linux shortly afterward, in both cases helping to counterbalance if not vanquish Microsoft.

Battle lost, war not over
Jobs' complaints, documented in a very public letter, helped spur those trying to build a better Flash competitor out of Web standards built into browsers without plug-ins. That effort, even though Adobe supports it to a degree, poses a major competitive threat to Flash.

Adobe knows it lost the Apple battle, but it's not giving up the war.

"We work with Apple on the desktop, but we're not making any progress on the mobile side," Murarka said. What that means for Flash programmers who want their software on iOS devices: "Developers will have to absorb additional cost to do development for that platform."

The biggest point of counterattack against Apple will be simply support on other phones, a move Adobe believes will keep Flash relevant in the era in which smartphones are miniature general-purpose computers, albeit wimpier than your average laptop.

Apple's objections undermines Adobe's "multiscreen" ambition to let Flash programmers create a single application that adapts to many different systems. But even without its presence, Flash Player 10.1 for mobile extends Flash programmers' reach--to Android phones including the Motorola Droid, Dell Streak, Google Nexus One, Motorola Milestone, Samsung Galaxy S, and HTC Evo, Incredible, and Desire, for starts.

"There is still an issue for content providers and application developers in targeting multiple mobile platforms (RIM, Symbian, Android). With Flash 10.1, they will at least have a common solution to target multiple non-Apple platforms plus desktop environments with one code base, one project, one skill-set, etc.," said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. "They may still have to target Apple with a separate effort, but this is an improvement over the current much higher-cost situation, which is a different solution for each platform."

Now it will be up to Adobe and its Flash allies to back up their claims of performance, compatibility, and desirability. Adobe claims notable performance for technology derided as a CPU hog on full-fledged computers: "We can watch over three hours of video on a Nexus One, streamed over 3G," Murarka said, and casual games will run for four hours.

Adobe previously had offered a stripped down and not terribly successful Flash Lite for phones, but in November 2008 announced its intent to concentrate instead on a unified Flash Player for both computers and smartphones. The work was difficult, in part because Adobe had to rework Flash for devices lacking the relatively copious memory and processor power of a regular computer.

One helpful side effect, though, is that Flash Player 10.1 should consume less memory and processing power on desktop computers, too.

Getting Flash Player 10.1 onto phones
Even though the code base is the same, there are differences between Flash Player 10.1 for mobile phones and for personal computers.

Here's a big one: with many phones, you can't just point your browser to a Web site and download the software you want.

Flash Player 10.1 for phones, therefore, will rely in part on distribution deals by which the software is preinstalled on phones or distributed via over-the-air updates.

"We are working with multiple OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to ship it presintalled on new devices," said Murarka, though he he said it was up to the companies in charge of the phones to announce such deals.

Adobe has a considerable list of processor companies that provided engineering help with bringing Flash Player 10.1 to mobile devices.
Adobe has a considerable list of processor companies that provided engineering help with bringing Flash Player 10.1 to mobile devices. Adobe Systems

But don't be surprised to see them coming soon--the new Motorola Droid going on sale on Verizon's network, to be announced Wednesday, seems a likely candidate. "Expect additional news later this week with OEM-related news," Murarka said.

And though there's no deal to announce, he said Adobe is in talks with Samsung about bringing Flash to its Bada operating system.

Adobe likes the Android Market style of distribution, which helps Adobe manage Flash Player and doesn't require them to wait for a device manufacturing cycle. Also coming is a pop-up message that Web sites can show suggesting people install Flash, an experience drawn from personal computers.

But Adobe will work with others, too; for example, Palm will distribute Flash Player 10.1 through a system update, he said.

Programmers, too, will have to adjust to the new Flash Player 10.1. Many existing Web sites will work fine on mobile phones with Flash Player, Murarka said, but those that assume a person controls the application with a keyboard and mouse or that assume the user has a large screen could have troubles.

Consequently, Adobe encourages programmers to consider touch interfaces and other newer developments. Flash Player 10.1 includes support for multitouch, but an application will work differently controlled that way compared to more traditional interfaces.

To run on a phone, a relatively powerful processor is required. Adobe's official list includes ARM11, Cortex A8 and A9, Intel Atom, nVidia Tegra, and Qualcomm Snapdragon. The software can take advantage of processor sleep states to conserve power and of accelerometers to control screen orientation.

Such engineering work is necessary and important for a good experience, and Adobe has Moore's Law on its side: new devices will come with more memory, better graphics, brawnier processors, better displays. But that's in the future.

Today's challenge will be just getting Flash onto mobile devices and getting programmers to adjust their ways. With Flash Player 10.1, though, Adobe has something more than words to persuade others to sign up for Flash.