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Inside Apple's iPad: Adobe Flash

Apple's new iPad is being criticized for lacking the capacity to render interactive content built using Adobe's Flash platform, but the company shows no sign of reversing course.

Since the iPhone debuted in 2007 without any support for Flash, Adobe has begun a revitalized campaign to breathe interest in Flash. This includes the announcement of a new series of Flash 10.1 runtimes for Windows Mobile, Nokia S60/Symbian, Palm WebOS, and Android phones (but not RIM's Blackberry). This suggests not having Flash will be a problem for the iPad.

Adobe has also staged a regular conversation amplified by analysts and pundits that essentially claims Apple is unfairly restricting choice in the market by not supporting Flash on its iPhone platform.

Additionally, while Adobe says it is supporting open standards for the web related to HTML5, it still maintains that Flash is "critical to the web" while it also works to cement as much new content as possible into the proprietary mold of its Flash platform and the related Flex and AIR initiatives.

Will being Flash-free hurt the iPad?

Adobe's arguments for Flash are difficult to support in the mobile realm. The iPhone has been wildly popular since its debut despite its lack of support for Flash. Apple's smartphone dramatically raised the bar for what customers expected in a mobile web browser. By doing this without Flash, Apple essentially redefined what the web should look like, at least on a mobile device.

While a few mobile devices can render Flash content designed for desktop PCs, Adobe's original strategy for Flash on mobile devices prior to the iPhone was Flash Lite. This subset of the Flash runtime is based upon Adobe's old Flash 7 (MX 2004) and ActionScript 2.0 bytecode, which uses an entirely different ActionScript virtual machine than Adobe's newer Flash 9/10 (which use ActionScript 3.0 bytecode).

On the desktop, Adobe simply included two engines for running both old legacy Flash and more modern content. That's not really possible or desirable in a mobile environment where the Flash runtime is supposed to respect the device's limited processor and memory resources.

Adobe basically delivered Flash Lite as a way to say Flash was playable on mobile devices without actually doing the work of bringing a real Flash runtime to each mobile platform. The company has had a difficult enough time just supporting Flash on Windows PCs and Mac OS X at the same time, let alone Linux, the PlayStation 3's NetFront brewer, the Wii's Opera browser, and the top several mobile platforms.

Adobe hopes to roll out Flash 11 with support for ActionScript 3.0 bytecode across all desktop and mobile platforms (apart from the Blackberry and iPhone, iPod touch and iPad) soon, but the fact that it will be missing on the fastest growing mobile platforms and two of the most popular smartphone platforms will definitely be a problem, as developers creating content simply can't reach the top mobile platforms using Adobe's technology.

The iPhone's lack of support for Flash does not appear to have had any impact on its popularity, but clearly has played a significant role in devaluing the importance of Flash in mobile devices, even if other platforms are enthusiastically embracing Flash. At the same time, if developers on other platforms use Flash to reach those mobile audiences, they'll being doing that instead of creating native software for Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, and so on. That will also benefit Apple, because it will keep its iPhone App Store well ahead of rivals.

Adobe Flash Timeline

On page 2 of 3: Is Apple being unfair to Adobe?