Adobe's Mobile Flash Falls Flat; Let Fingerpointing Begin - InformationWeek

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Adobe's Mobile Flash Falls Flat; Let Fingerpointing Begin

Suddenly, somehow, maybe even unintentionally, Adobe's got a flat tire like the ones you gave your friends in grade school. For years it found niches we now take for granted, and insatiable apps to consume its technology with frenzy, and yet, inexplicably, it remained largely unchallenged. It became dominant without being threatening, kind of like a benign vampire novel except it's suddenly being banned in the church; or in this case, on far too many mobile devices.

Suddenly, somehow, maybe even unintentionally, Adobe's got a flat tire like the ones you gave your friends in grade school. For years it found niches we now take for granted, and insatiable apps to consume its technology with frenzy, and yet, inexplicably, it remained largely unchallenged. It became dominant without being threatening, kind of like a benign vampire novel except it's suddenly being banned in the church; or in this case, on far too many mobile devices.Flash Desktop Dominance Adobe's mobile Flash announcements this week at Mobile World Congress (and combined with those it made at the last big mobile event, CTIA) have been covered, but perhaps not uncovered. Under scrutiny, they speak volumes about the challenges the company now faces in the proliferation of Flash to every screen on every device.

Adobe's goal is actually pretty simple: get Flash everywhere. If consumers have it, developers can target it; if developers create compelling applications with it, consumers will want it. And so the endless spiral goes merrily along. Much of Adobe's revenue comes from development environments, like Flash authoring tools. It's sort of the reverse Schick model: Give the blades away and sell the razors for a killing.

This strategy has been an unmitigated success on the desktop, where some industry experts claim almost complete penetration as a browser plug-in (Adobe says 98% penetration). Adobe told me it estimates there are somewhere between 2 million to 3 million Flash developers worldwide.

Only in the past few years has competition emerged here, in the form of Microsoft's Silverlight. Microsoft has struggled like a clumsy Bull Mastiff to get Silverlight even a fraction of Flash's presence across both the development and end-user markets. It finally is starting to find success thanks to some innovative marketing and hard selling, which have resulted in some high-profile wins, like last year's Olympics and CBS's NCAA March Madness On Demand. Microsoft claims 25% penetration, and half a million developers. It seems to be resisting the urge to bundle it into Internet Explorer, but Microsoft says it will be part of Windows Live Essentials, which some OEMs will bundle with Windows 7.

I remember working with Microsoft more than a year ago on a video-based Web site we had initially built in Flash, but the company now insisted would be built in Silverlight. I didn't know any Silverlight developers, so Microsoft turned me on to three different Silverlight partners, none of which were experienced enough to replicate the site in Silverlight without a six-month development window. Microsoft wanted it done in 30 days.

I suspect we'd get a different answer today and have plenty of developers to choose from. Both Adobe and Microsoft have moved onto a new and interesting battle, because both see themselves not only beyond the browser, but as front ends to the cloud; that is, as rich end-user environments for viewing cloud applications and services.

Mobile Flash This week's first announcement was a new, distributable Flash Lite 3.1 runtime, which lets developers and content providers automatically target the latest version of the Flash Lite runtime, and then bundle it with an installer for users. Some news stories have reported that it can do all of this over the air, but the release Adobe provided says that the announcement was a first step toward that goal. Either way, this helps both developers (Adobe's paying customer) and users (Adobe's much larger and just-as-vital constituent).

In the announcement, Adobe made sure to point out that while this will benefit users of "millions of devices" (their words), it really means it will benefit users of Symbian's S60 platform and Windows Mobile. That's because no other platforms support it, which is significant because the list of mobile platforms seems to grow constantly.

And yet Adobe told me that one billion (with a "b"!) devices will have shipped with Flash Lite support by the end of this quarter (they site Strategy Analytics). But without the North American dominant and high-flying iPhone and BlackBerry platform, that number won't grow nearly as fast as it should. (I should note that Nokia is the predominant mobile platform worldwide, but many of these devices run S40.)

Adobe has tried to change this formula. After bashing its head against the wall, it would seem it's going to try to remove every imaginable barrier in its control. For example, in the past, Adobe licensed Flash to platform makers at all points in the ecosystem -- chipset makers, OS vendors, device manufacturers, and even service providers. From Adobe's standpoint, it never knew who was implementing the license when a new phone came out. And to that extent, it didn't care.

Now, it gives the license away. Barrier gone.

But in the mobile world, as in life, nothing comes for free. The "free" license comes with a serious requirement: The players (presumably the device manufacturer and/or OS company) must open their devices to the developer community, letting them target their apps and the bundled runtime to your device. For some device makers this is a non-starter. It changes nothing, except saving some loose pocket change.

Several people also made a big deal about Adobe announcing Flash 10 for smartphones late last year. Adobe told me that it merely demonstrated Flash on several mobile platforms, including Android. But Android, like Apple and RIM, do not yet support Flash on their platforms. (Don't worry, I'll get to Palm in a moment.) Adobe did say that it is working on Flash 10 support and will soon have binaries for the two "open" (Adobe's word again), S60 and Windows Mobile platforms. Open in the sense that Flash runs on them.

All of this is a continuation of efforts Adobe began at CTIA in 2008. The company realized that it was going to have to drive fast for its developers and content customers, given the ever-growing number of mobile platforms and the protectiveness that seems to grow like warts on all of these new systems. So it started The Open Screen Project.

The requirements are a bit vague, but from what I read on the site, Adobe seems to want all its members to pledge allegiance to the latest version of Flash and ensure that developers (remember: the ones who pay Adobe money) can write to those platforms via Flash.

The list of Open Screen members is (whopping) 21 (it was announced nine months ago), and includes these device makers: Nokia, Motorola, LG, Sony-Ericsson, and Samsung. I'm going to take a wild guess here and say the smartphones from these companies come in S60 or Windows Mobile flavors. I don't see HTC (the only Android platform to date) or Huawei, which famously announced this week that it is going to announce an Android phone. There are service providers, whom, I would assume, Adobe wants to see put pressure on its phone partners.

Here are the requirements from the Web site:

• Give consumers greater choice by making implementations of the next major releases of the Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR runtimes open and addressable by third-party developers.

• Mitigate technology fragmentation by allowing Flash Player and AIR to be updated almost seamlessly over the network.

• Unleash the creative potential of designers and developers around the world by enabling them to easily publish content and applications across connected devices.

Now who wouldn't want to give consumers greater choice, mitigate technology fragmentation, make things seamless, and unleash creative potential. While there are still only 21 participants, Adobe claims that some 200 companies are considering it. It wouldn't comment on anyone (say, RIM or Apple) outside the current participants.

New to the list (just announced) is Palm, which launched its Pre and webOS to much fanfare, but not only have developers been clamoring to get its SDK, it is the last platform into the game and it needs every advantage it can get. Not only that, it has touted its openness, and its use of standard web protocols.

Notably absent: Microsoft. And it's only notable because Windows Mobile is one of the two platforms that run Flash today. It's not surprising that Microsoft wouldn't join an organization with Adobe behind it. Microsoft has said that it will come out with a mobile version of Silverlight later in the year.

Time For Speculation All of this may come across as a bit of a go at Adobe. In truth, while I enjoy picking apart the well-crafted words of a press release or a marketing document, the benefits of taking something like Flash (and Silverlight) and driving its ubiquity benefits everyone on paper. I want Adobe to succeed.

But why don't the phone/device makers? These are guesses only, so feel free to add your own, cynical or not.

• Mobile platforms are still not desktops. They have both storage and memory limitations that mitigate (to borrow Adobe's word) things with extra-size footprints. I asked Adobe about Flash Lite's memory requirements and, of course, it depends, but Adobe says it has seen applications run in under 500 KB and some consume over 50 MB. It recommends a minimum of 8 MB of available memory.

• Mobile platforms, especially the newer ones with Wi-Fi, 3G (which in turn makes us want to run video, and tap our Twitter feeds and Facebook accounts), and multimegapixel cameras, have a problem with battery life. Flash applications, especially remote apps that are constantly calling the network, or those that keep the phone from going into standby mode, will deflower a battery faster than Facebook changes its terms of service.

• Probably closer to the top of the list, the phone makers are notorious for wanting to control what goes on the phone. One developer told me that RIM is stringent about access to its more delicate APIs, requiring $100 a year for a key; if you crash the phone they can shut your key off, an understandable practice, he points out, given that people don't talk about bad apps when their phones crash, but about bad phones. Meanwhile, I've read all sorts of spittle this week about misbehaving and resource-hogging Flash applications (and Silverlight ones) on the desktop; acceptance levels for crashes on phones are much lower.

Adobe may believe that taking away barriers, by creating the Open Screen Project and removing the cost of licenses, will change things, but it will have much better luck with consumers lambasting the phone manufacturers; or compelling the service providers to pressure them, given that network usage also could drive their revenue.

Either way, something's got to give.

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