Mobile

The Flash is always greener: Why the iPhone won't have Flash anytime soon

Editor’s note: Jeff Glueck is the chief executive of Skyfire, a company with a mission to dramatically improve the browsing experience on mobile phones. Skyfire’s browser in version 1.5 is available on Windows Mobile and Nokia Series 60 smartphones, and will be coming to more platforms in 2010. Glueck wrote this editorial for VentureBeat.

Internet web browsing has improved greatly since the days of WAP browsers, and mobile enthusiasts have been right to celebrate the new era since the iPhone launch. And yet the promise of the “full” Internet being available on your iPhone (or any other smartphone) remains held up. Although Adobe’s Flash technology powers more than 80 percent of the video on the “desktop internet” today, little of that content is available on the iPhone. Meanwhile, Apple says Flash is not coming to the iPhone anytime soon, leaving techies and rich media fans lusting for a solution.

Some claim that Apple’s lack of Flash results from a political decision by chief executive Steve Jobs to block the Flash runtime, to maintain tighter control of the iPhone and iTunes App Store. I don’t have any insider knowledge of Apple’s reasoning, but I believe Jobs is actually focused on the consumer experience, and is insightful and realistic about the limitations of native Flash on mobile devices.

At Skyfire, we’ve devoted three years of R&D to making complex rich media, applications and video work on constrained wireless devices. We’re familiar with the issues involved, and we’ve had to leverage the power of cloud computing to overcome the above constraints.

Let me suggest some hot-button reasons why full Flash will struggle without leveraging the cloud:

  1. Very real device limitations
  2. Bandwidth issues
  3. Battery life impacts
  4. The “moving target” of web technologies

Reason 1: Device capabilities

The reality is that mobile handsets, including smartphones like the iPhone, do not have the same computing horsepower as the latest laptops and desktops by a long shot — not in CPU, memory, battery life, nor bandwidth.

Many Flash applications use 50 megabytes or more of runtime memory. That’s just too much for handhelds today.

There is only one “mobile” device running native Flash in the world: the Nokia N900, a Maemo Linux device which is very close to a full computer with a 1 Ghz CPU, and retails for up to 700 Euros. In practice, even the N900 cannot deliver a useful Flash experience over a 3G connection. When we tried, it could only crawl to 1-2 frames per second with 100% CPU utilization. That’s not a video. It’s a slide show. (Adobe has plans to bring Flash 10.1 to a number of other smartphones.)

Given this reality, Apple has looked ahead and understands the troubles that native Flash will face on mobile. To be clear, Flash is a phenomenally useful tool and there is a reason why thousands of the best creatives and content companies, and millions of websites, benefit from Flash. The situation for mobile is in no way Adobe’s fault. The mobile networks and devices just aren’t ready.

Reason 2: Battery life

Flash is computationally intensive; every line, color, and motion must be vector calculated by the CPU. Increased CPU cycles mean a big drain on the battery. With the iPhone recently blowing away the competition in a J.D. Power customer satisfaction survey in every category but battery life, this must be high on the list of Jobs’ concerns about Flash running on the iPhone.

Reason 3: Bandwidth and network issues

When I speak to smart observers, they are convinced that wireless spectrum jams will get worse over the next couple years, not better.

The alleged “utopia” of infinite bandwidth from next-gen networks (LTE or 4G) remains years away from full deployment across the US, with new hardware expensive and complex to roll out. Plus, it’s like building a wider highway in Los Angeles — traffic gets better, but then people drive more, with bigger cars, until traffic jams return. Just as commutes and cars get bigger, internet sites are becoming more data intense, and the files that we try to push around the networks get heavier.

Flash files are typically very large. AT&T has struggled to keep up with demand from data-hungry iPhone users.The network is already jammed by just a fraction of multimedia reached by iPhones. Imagine users trying to download an HD video on mobile. It won’t even play, and everyone in the vicinity will suffer network slowdown until it errors out.

If full Flash were widely used by mobile phones, already-clogged networks would get even slower and more debilitated.

Reason 4: The moving target

Desktop technologies keep advancing. What constitutes “standard” technology on the web moves forward each year. Mobile keeps falling behind that moving target.

As mobile technology advances, it makes more and more things possible on-the-go. The capabilities of the average smartphone today are more impressive and dynamic than the average desktop a decade ago. But desktops have not stood still, and web applications today require exponentially more power than a decade ago. By the time Flash 10 is deployed flawlessly on mobile, it will already be behind the next-generation of desktop Flash.

In closing: Mobile solutions exist in the cloud(s)

skyfire_glueck_photoThere is no infinite bandwidth or performance.

So where does that leave us? Mobile internet users should be able to access all the content on the Internet, especially all the good stuff like video and slideshows that are currently only in Flash formats on millions of websites.

Cloud computing data centers can assist devices and networks by rendering Flash and other plug-ins in the cloud, then applying sophisticated compression software. This makes for fast page loads, and protects the wireless networks by compressing streamed content by over 70 percent. Plus, thanks to powerful cloud servers, users can get websites to load exactly as they look on your desktop… with video, animations, links, and more.

The biggest challenge is the mentality that the solution will come only from the brute force of bigger hardware and more network equipment and spectrum, rather than from smart software solutions like cloud computing. In the last few months, that’s starting to change.

Maybe nirvana exists, but you’ll find it in the clouds.


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