Frash, the iOS Flash work-around: Hits and misses

We put to test a new third-party tool that adds Adobe Flash compatibility to jailbroken iPhones/iPads and see how the experimental hackery holds up.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
7 min read
Missing blue lego on an iPad

Like many, I was excited at the prospect of Frash, a new third-party tool that cropped up this past weekend for jailbroken iPhones and iPads that adds Adobe Flash compatibility to these devices.

The add-on, which was created by development firm Comex (makers of jailbreaking tool JailbreakMe.com), is in its early alpha stages, so it's unfair to compare it to say, something like Adobe's first-party efforts with its beta on Google's Android. But after using Frash for the past three days, I'm impressed.

Yes, it crashes a lot, and yes, it's incapable of doing most videos, or any sort of Flash games, which are arguably the two main reasons to get Flash onto an iOS device. However, for something as simple as loading up a restaurant menu, or a Flash-only splash screen that clicks through to an HTML site, Frash has the makings of an invaluable tool.

But even with jailbreaking now legal in the U.S., is it worth the related risks such as:

Voiding your warranty agreement with Apple
• Relying on a vulnerability that was patched by Apple on Wednesday
• Trusting software from an untested source?

Let's find out.

Note: CNET does not encourage voiding your warranty, or running unsigned, third-party code. This story is for informational purposes, and should not be considered a how-to guide.

How Frash works

Before setting out into the exciting world of Frash, it's worth understanding how it works.

Frash is not available in the App Store, but it's still easy to get it on a device that's been jailbroken through one of the third-party application installers. Users need to first add an additional download source to one of the available third-party app installation programs like Rock or Cydia.

Once it's installed, visiting Web sites with Adobe Flash elements in Safari no longer show up with the dreaded "this site requires Flash Player X or later" message, or large missing chunks of space. Instead, users see gray boxes emblazoned with the word "Flash," which when pressed, load up that Flash element and that Flash element only--just like how Adobe implemented Flash in its beta for Android.

Instead of blank spots on your screen, compatible Flash elements show up as gray boxes you can tap to enable. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

When Frash is installed, it's on the whole time and cannot be toggled off. That is, unless you install another unsigned third-party app called SBsettings, which adds a drop-down menu to the top of your iOS device. Every time a user does this, it restarts Safari and requires reloading whatever Web pages you were looking at.

What works

The first thing you'll discover after installing Frash is that it tends to crash. A lot. But when it works on something, it's a great feeling.

One large grouping of sites where you could only get by with Flash are automobile sites. In the recent months, that's let up a bit, though there are still a handful of sites including Saab, Cadillac, and Lamborghini, where you can't even get in the door without Flash installed. In the case of Cadillac, you still can't get into it with Frash enabled, because it detects that you're on an iPhone/iPad.

Many other car sites, including Subaru and Ferrari, have photo viewers that you can't get to without Flash. With Frash enabled, most of these worked to a point, though they were slow to load and we ran into problems with the interfaces being designed for a mouse rather than a finger. Also, in most cases, by simply turning Frash off, we were presented with an iPhone or iPad-formatted version of the site in question, so the need here was a relative non-issue.

One common use of Flash on car sites is the 360-degree viewer, which in nearly all cases runs on Adobe's technology. When you're looking at something like a car, this can be a very handy way to consolidate clicking through a handful of photos, though as Apple demoed recently in its HTML5 showcase page, turning an object around is something you can do without Flash. In many cases, with Frash enabled these 360-degree experiences loaded up just fine and would rotate the car a full turn, but would then not let you rotate it again. Some sites, including Toyota, provide both a Flash and an HTML5 360 viewer, but not all manufacturers are that nice.

Toyota 360
We got Honda's Flash-powered 360-degree car viewer to run with Frash on the iPad, but not all its features worked. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Besides cars, another thing that can be missing when viewing a standard site on an iPad or an iPhone are chunks of self-playing Flash animations. In most cases these are advertisements, but there can also be occasions where they are navigation or important messages to site members. These banner size units of Flash can also be embedded photo viewers, which turned out to be the case when visiting several realty and mattress sites. By enabling Frash, I was able to view a slideshow of product shots, where I otherwise wouldn't have been able to see anything.

Frash on Frash off
Two views of the same site--without Frash enabled on the left, and with Frash flipped on on the right. This may seem minor, but with Frash you can actually see a picture of the food at this restaurant.

Another one of the most common places where you'll find Flash, and where I ended up finding a great deal of success, was with restaurant Web sites. Since the iPhone launched, many of these places have wizened up to the fact that not everyone has Flash installed. So, if you run across one that doesn't, it's off to Yelp or somewhere else. But what if you're looking for something like a menu?

In many of the places I came across that had such barriers to entry, loading Frash would take me to a page with links to simple HTML-based pages that contained the right information. However, it was often tripped up by sites with music playing in the background, which led to crashing or hangs.

What doesn't work

Arguably the biggest reason to bring Flash to the iOS ecosystem is video. Some of the aforementioned things that work with this early version of Flash seem trivial in place of simply being able to watch a short two- or three-minute clip a friend has sent you on a site that does not have an HTML5 or iOS native-friendly video player. But clips are just the tip of the iceberg. What people really want is full-length content like they can get on a regular computer, and Hulu is a shining example of this.

Hulu has its own app now, but in order to get full use out of it you need to be a Hulu Plus subscriber, which costs $10 a month. With working Flash, you'd be able to watch a much larger subsection of Hulu's content.

So does it work with Frash? Not exactly. Hulu's rigged up its site to launch its iPad or iPhone app if you click on a video that's in its mobile library. This cannot even be avoided by tweaking the user agent of Safari to fool Hulu into thinking you're using another browser, something that requires an additional jailbroken app to modify.

YouTube exists as its own built-in application in both the iPhone and the iPad. It's also got a recently updated mobile site that's very slick. So why, you ask, would you ever want to visit YouTube and see the Flash version of a video? The simple answer is that there is the occasional video that has not yet been processed to work on mobile devices. When this happens (and it does), iPad and iPhone users simply have to move on or open up a device with Flash to access it.

Every single Flash video I tried on YouTube managed not to work. I'd either get a "socket error," a "connection failure," or it would just crash the browser.

YouTube not running on Frash
YouTube not running on Frash. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Photo editors
Photoshop's photo-editing app not doing it for you? How about something like Picnik, Fotoflexer, or Photoshop.com? Sorry, none of those work. Is this a surprise? Not really. These services are all pushing the boundaries of what Flash can do.

Flash games
The experience with a handful of popular Flash gaming sites (including Kongregate, Newgrounds, and Armor Games) was tantalizingly close to functional. When games weren't crashing Safari, they would load, but I was unable to get many to actually play.

This can't be blamed on Frash as much as on the fact that Flash games have been developed to take advantage of keyboards and mice--Adobe is working hard with developers to get them to rewrite old games to work on mobile hardware. Even so, visiting these mobile-optimized versions did not end up with playable games.

A Flash game almost running on an iPad
Humaliens Battle on Armorgames.com loaded up just fine, and was nearly playable. Other Flash games did not perform as well and were the number one cause of any crashes. Screenshot by Josh Lowensohn/CNET

But it's Flash!
In case you hadn't noticed, the list of things you can't do with Frash is much larger than those you can. While a nice treat on some sites, the truth is that Frash is nowhere near being akin to the Flash experience you're used to on a computer. Was it ever promised as much? Not at all. Is there room for it to get better? Definitely.

The biggest hurdle facing Frash right now is that it's got everything going against it. Apple just fixed the loophole that was allowing the jailbreaking process to work right through the browser. Installing it goes beyond what could be considered a reasonable amount of work for a non-tech-savvy individual. And most importantly, it's got less development power behind it than Adobe would have offered. Remember how long it took to get Flash on the Android OS? That's with a full team behind it, and the support of Google and OEMs. Frash just doesn't have that.

Despite these drawbacks, Frash remains another good example of what can be done within the independent development community. It may not progress much further than this, but it's already proved that it can turn some sites into something more than blank pages.