Feb 18 2010

Adobe Fights Back With AIR

In an earlier blog post, I espoused that Apple’s preference of HTML5 over Adobe Flash would likely change how video is streamed online.  While this may still be true, a deeper look into Adobe’s AIR programming foundation reveals that the answer is not so simple.

In readdressing this issue, the first thing I wanted to do was ask why Apple really doesn’t want to support Flash in the first place.  As I quoted in the previous post, the official Apple statement is that Adobe’s Flash plug-in is very unstable and buggy.  In support of this, a quick search of my own came back with numerous blog posts and help forums wailing about the high CPU usage and crash rate of Flash applications on Mac OSX.

There are other, unspoken reasons as well, though.  First, and one I hadn’t initially considered, is that because Flash is a very richly-featured and ubiquitous web platform (and the internet pre-smartphone has been developed for desktop and laptop computers), it allows and incorporates controls not available on an iPhone.  From interactive websites and presentations to games and video streaming – most make use of hovering mouse effects and keyboard strokes.  Unable to support these features, an iPhone Safari browser with a Flash plug-in would be of little use and would be more prone to crashing.  Another, more obvious, reason is that with Flash’s rich platform, entire applications could be built to run from the web, thereby creating a backdoor in Apple’s control over programming and profits.

Apple’s answer to Adobe’s problems is HTML5 streaming video in H.264.  While the H.264 video codec does not have the interactivity of the Flash platform, it delivers streaming video of high quality at low bitrates, which allows Apple devices to run more smoothly.  Also, HTML5 is a specification (scripting standard) instead of a full run-time support, meaning that it cannot launch any web-based programs on Apple’s devices.

Adobe, however, is not giving up.  An announcement from the company on Monday reiterated its commitment to building the Flash environment and landing it on the iPhone and iPad.  Building on the original Flash scripting, Adobe has developed the Adobe Integrated Runtime (AIR) for PC applications that interact heavily with the web.  A popular example is TweetDeck, an advanced, popular, and well-made application for managing Twitter accounts on desktop or laptop computers.  Taking this a step further, Adobe is adapting its AIR for use on Android (Google’s mOS) and Linux-based mobile phones.

The important part is that AIR will run on the yet-to-be-released Flash Player 10.1, which could make moot Apple’s grievance against Flash’s lack of adaptability for the iPhone and iPad experiences.  As CNET quotes Adobe:

“AIR leverages mobile-specific features from Flash Player 10.1, is optimized for high performance on mobile screens and designed to take advantage of native device capabilities for a richer and more immersive user experience,” Adobe said in a statement. Specifically, AIR for mobile devices will support multitouch interfaces, gesture inputs, accelerometers for motion and device orientation, and geolocation for detecting position. 

Anticipating success in penetrating Apple’s mobile markets, Adobe is already touting the ability to make iPhone applications with its upcoming Flash Professional CS5 Packager for iPhone.  As stated on its Adobe Labs website:

Adobe® Flash® Professional CS5 will include a Packager for iPhone that will let you publish ActionScript 3 projects to run as native applications for iPhone. These applications can be delivered to iPhone users through the Apple App Store

Flash programs released as native iPhone applications could effectively address Apple’s concerns over the security of its iTunes Store and further break down its resistance to the Flash platform.  That being said, whether AIR for mobile and Flash 10.1 perform as expected is yet to be seen, and there is no guarantee that Apple will give any ground one way or the other.

I can see Adobe recruiting Windows, Linux, and Google mobile devices against Apple and its own considerable influence.  If it comes down to such a duel, who do you think would win?

[EDIT 2/20/09: The five comments by c_a were part of a discussion between two Facebook friends on my wall publishing of this article.  The following link was later added to that discussion and is a lengthy and biased but very informative breakdown of whence Flash comes and why Apple should proceed with HTML5: http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/10/02/20/inside_apples_ipad_adobe_flash.html]


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