Why Apple is Right to not support Flash on iOS

One of the most often criticized ‘flaws’ of the iPad or iPhone for that matter is it’s inability to play flash. How can something described by the Apple marketing gurus as the best way to experience the Internet not allow the user to experience all the joy that comes from watching a kitten dance on youtube or the trailer for an upcoming movie? Friends deciding on which tablet to purchase, would often play around with my iPad but then inevitably ask one of two questions. “But why can‘t it play Flash videos?” or ” Where is the USB connection port?”.
YouTube App on iPad
To answer the latter simply, there is no USB port on the iPad yet there were adaptors for the iPad 1 that allowed an external camera to be connected to it but those adaptors arguably became obsolete with the inclusion of onboard cameras on the iPad 2. Unless you need to store images from your actual digital camera. The transfer of media and files to the iPad can also be accomplished via iTunes, the cloud or some apps that allow wireless transfer via FTP.
The former question is one I myself thought about quite a lot before buying my iPad. At the time it seemed to dominate the discussion with most reviews of the iPad focusing on this ‘shortcoming’ and some Apple fans even starting Facebook fan pages trying to show the stubborn Apple execs that there is a strong market for Adobe flash support on the iPad. The android fanboys were also quick to criticize Apple for it’s non adoption of an open market philosophy. One would have been forgiven, amongst all this hype, for thinking that Apple could not incorporate Flash into it‘s device. I decided that I hardly watch videos on the web so the lack of flash support on the iPad was not a deal breaker for me.
I raise the issue, rather belatedly , because I had always answered this inevitable criticism about the lack of support for flash with some muttering about how it ensures a better battery life. Talking about things like support for HTML5 to non-tech people is like explaining to a “˜Trekkie‘ (Star Trek fan) why the Star Wars prequels were a waste of celluloid i.e Pointless. Recently however, I realised that although I am not one to watch random videos on youtube, there are often links to videos on Facebook or Twitter and I have been happily watching by merely pressing the Play button at the centre of the clip. How was this possible?

Rather than try to explain what I discovered when I searched for an answer to this mystery, allow me to direct you to the man himself, former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs reasoning behind the lack of Flash support on the iPhone and iPad. One could argue that that is like getting the devil to argue the case for fornication but it just appears logical (in much the same way as I suspect the devil would appear logical in his arguement). The main points appear to be the following:

  • The common misconception that flash is an “œOpen“ system whereas it is 100% proprietary (owned and controlled by Adobe) by any definition.
  • Apple has adopted HTML5, CSS and Javascript – all completely open standards that are also supported by Google and others
  • Adobe‘s claim that the iPad and iPhone are unable to experience the “˜full web‘ since 75% of the video on the web is flash. This is untrue (and the answer to my mystery), as most video is also available in a more modern format H.264 which is viewable on iOS devices.
  • The infamous “˜battery life‘ reasoning. The reasoning behind this is that to achieve longer battery life, video should be decoded in hardware (H.264 decoder on mobile chip) rather than in software, and
  • Because Flash was designed for PC‘s using mice, not touch screen using fingers

The intention of this post is not to support Apple products (which I suppose it indirectly does) but merely to correct the common misconception out there that iOS devices are not capable of accessing the “œfull web“ and the reasons behind why Adobe Flash is not supported in iOS. Web developers are catching on to this and slowly but surely the web is quickly switching to open standards that are accessible by any device. Just as Apple has done before, they forced the entire industry to do a rethink of the web going forward.
Regardless whether you support Apple or not, we will all benefit from this. The future of the web is open, and we do not need that choke-hold of proprietary standards like Flash.

  1. “Talking about things like support for HTML5 to non-tech people is like explaining to a ‘Trekkie’ (Star Trek fan) why the Star Wars prequels were a waste of celluloid i.e Pointless.” Hemingway?

  2. Its simple, they want you to buy media through iTunes, thereby giving Apple more money. End of story. 

  3. It’s rather clear that your understanding of Flash or rather ActionScript 3.0 as a full featured OOP language and the nature of the Flash Platform is severely limited. I am an ActionScript developer and we regularly run applications built in Flash on iPads with no performance loss whatsoever. Flash Player 10 is optimised for mobile and while Android users experience full and unfettered access to the entire internet without having to kowtow to the chokehold tactics of multinational corporations like Apple that want to lock you into hardware to develop for their specific hardware only that only developer using Apple’s proprietary language Objective C (which just by the way most developers avoid using as far as possible). HTML5, CSS and JavaScript are all fine but often require that you jump through many more hoops, write often more convoluted code and learn many more technologies. ActionScript allows you to write once and deploy that code over many devices, from desktop computers and tablets to car dashboard interfaces and televisions. I suggest you add looking at Stage3D also known as Molehill to your research and look at things like multiscreen support in Flash. Frankly all other technologies lag behind ActionScript and Flash by a long shot when it comes to deploying consistently across multiple platforms. Google and a number of other major players in industry support Flash as their deployment method of choice. Only Apple does not and the reason for this is simple. They want developers locked into an overly complicated process, forced to use their hardware to develop on and pay a premium for the privilege. As Android devices increasingly destroy Apple in the US market in the coming months I am sure we will see how HTML5 and JS compete against Flash. The assumption is that Flash == video. If video is all you want then fantastic your iPad is going to be great for that. You’ll be able to see one or two videos here and there on selected sites, fantastic. But if you want rich interactive experiences with audio, animation, video, interaction, content etc then I’m afraid you’re going to need to get a device that supports Flash. It is the premium technology for web based applications and games and will remain so for quite some time. The initial issues Jobs mentioned months ago that you are referencing here have long since been disproved by practical examples. In fact Apple adjusted their terms and conditions to allow applications compiled in other technologies including Flash to be submitted to the App Store. Either way the one important thing about technology is that ultimately it is the user and not the multinational corporations like Apple or Adobe for that matter that will decide the future of the web. Open standards have their place but so does fully featured robust and mature proprietary technologies.

      1. Bryn: Does that make him wrong ?
        Also, it looks like he was too busy thinking about the issue and contributing some interesting points in succession to stop and consider spacing, rather than nit-picking.
        What was the point of your comment?
        That said, I wish apple would adopt flash.
        At least give people the choice.

    1. Thanks for the response. You are correct in that I am not familiar with most of what you have mentioned and was writing merely from the point of view of a user. I thank you for taking the time however to enlighten us on this topic from a developer’s standpoint.
      The assumption is often that Flash = Video and the assumption is further that iOS is unable to play most of that video. That was the myth I was trying to dispell because although you state that I may be able to view one or two videos on selected sites, my experience thus far has been the ability to view all the videos that I have been directed to.
      I obviouslly also want the rich interactive web experience that you allude to, but at what price. You have to agree that Flash applications is more “power intensive”. How much so? I don’t know. But weirdly my iPad has become my device of choice for most things (as opposed to a laptop) due primarily because of it’s ease of mobility and phenomenal battery life. The web experience you speak of, is going to ahve to be really kick ass for me to compromise that experience for limited battery life.

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