Microsoft to license Adobe's Flash Lite

Future versions of Windows Mobile handsets will be able to use Adobe's Flash Lite player technology to boost their ability to handle sophisticated Web pages while Microsoft works on a mobile version of its Silverlight competitor to Flash.

Tom Krazit
Tom Krazit Former Staff writer, CNET News
Tom Krazit writes about the ever-expanding world of Google, as the most prominent company on the Internet defends its search juggernaut while expanding into nearly anything it thinks possible. He has previously written about Apple, the traditional PC industry, and chip companies. E-mail Tom.
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This post was updated at 10:15 a.m. PDT to correct the spelling on Anup Murarka's name.

Even though it has plans to release a competing technology, Microsoft has agreed to license Adobe's Flash Lite technology for its Windows Mobile operating system and browser.

The two companies early on Monday announced that Microsoft has signed a license to use Flash Lite and Reader LE in future Windows Mobile handsets as plug-ins for Internet Explorer Mobile. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, such as what the companies plan to do when Microsoft releases Silverlight for Mobile, a competing technology.

Flash Lite is a stripped-down version of the ubiquitous Flash video player that allows mobile handsets to view Web sites created with the Flash technology. Think of Flash Lite as a slightly older version of Flash; the most current version of Flash Lite can't properly display Web sites created with the newest version of Flash, Flash 9, but it works with sites created using older versions of the technology.

As smartphones become more and more common, people are starting to get fed up with the basic Web surfing experience offered by many phones. They want something that looks more like a PC experience, with rich graphics and video. But that's hard to duplicate on a device with a smaller screen, less memory, a slower processor, and battery life requirements.

Enter Flash Lite. "Past technologies have failed trying to get into mobile by cramming a desktop experience into a mobile device," said Anup Murarka, director of technical marketing for mobile and devices at Adobe. "The technology has to bend to the use cases, rather than the use cases bending to the technology."

Microsoft's Derek Snyder agreed. "One of the hallmark experiences on any smartphone is the Web browsing experience," said Snyder, a product manager with Microsoft's mobile-communications business. Strengthening that experience, as well as adding support for PDF documents through the Reader LE license, was the motivation for Microsoft to make the deal, he said.

Flash Lite has several limitations compared with regular Flash, beyond the inability to support much of Flash 9. Apple CEO Steve Jobs rather emphatically declared his disdain for Flash Lite at Apple's annual shareholder meeting, saying Flash Lite was "not capable of being used with the Web." Murarka declined to comment specifically on Jobs' put-down, but noted that Flash Lite ships on 500 million mobile devices.

He did acknowledge that developers using Adobe's Flex tools can't build Flash Lite Web pages, although the newer CS3 suite of tools does support Flash Lite.

But one huge advantage of Flash Lite is that it's currently available for mobile devices. Microsoft's Silverlight for Mobile is not.

Silverlight is Microsoft's attempt to rein in on Adobe's position in the Web development market with Flash. Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle, though, in trying to get Web developers to build sites using its technology as opposed to Adobe's.

Earlier this month Microsoft said it wouldn't have a mobile version of Silverlight out until later this year. A technical preview is expected to arrive in the second quarter, but no other details have been released. Snyder declined to elaborate on the time frame for a production version of Silverlight for Mobile.

With Microsoft's Windows Mobile team now having to meet a surge in demand for Web-friendly mobile phones, led by the iPhone, licensing Flash Lite makes sense as a "for now" solution, at least until the company's own dog food is ready. The iPhone has been able to capture mobile Web surfers without any support for Flash technologies, something that other mobile devices running IE Mobile or Opera's mobile browser will likely try to exploit later this year.

Eventually, Microsoft expects to support both Flash Lite and Silverlight on its Windows Mobile handsets. "Flash is, for a lot of people, something they've already invested in," Snyder said. Having support for the incumbent while it tries to get Web developers on the Silverlight team makes sense; "it's good to have both," he said.