Flashy Tablets

First, there was Andy Ihnatko’s review of the Blackberry PlayBook and the LG G-Slate. Then, there was John Gruber disagreeing with Andy on his comments regarding Flash. And then there was John C. Welch disagreeing with both Andy and John. And here I am, adding some comments of my own, which only goes to show that Flash is nothing if not the source of extreme divisiveness amongst people arguing over its purpose, quality and merits.

I’m going to expect that you’ll have read those three pieces before, and therefore quote only the smallest bits from each piece I want to respond to. If you feel you’re missing some context, read those articles in full.

First, Andy wrote:

Yup, Mobile Flash is imperfect. Gaming in particular is a real problem: Adobe hasn’t figured out how to translate the ubiquitous “a mouse pointer is hovering over something but isn’t clicking it” user-interface to a touchscreen device.

In the past two months I’ve found myself using Flash a lot more than almost ever before, and it’s all to do with one simple thing: Glitch. Glitch is a web-based massive multiplayer game perhaps best described as World of Warcraft-meets-Farmville done well. Glitch runs entirely in Flash, and is a great example of how Flash is a lot more than just video, and can be used really well.

It’s also a Flash product that just utterly fails to be truly usable on a tablet where there is no mouse cursor and no keyboard except one that overlays on top of your browser screen. It’s a lot more than just Adobe having to figure out how to do this; it’s something that, as John C. Welch actually points out, the authors of such Flash products have to redesign and recode to work well for touch screen interfaces. Nothing Adobe can do for Flash will ever “fix” that problem, and if authors have to redesign and recode anyway, why not build or compile it out as an iOS and/or Android app anyway?

(if you’re in the Glitch beta, this forum thread has people talking about playing it on Flash-enabled tablets)

Andy also wrote:

But Flash video plays a damned-sight better on the PlayBook and the G-Slate than it does on the iPad. It’s as simple as this: I can watch last night’s “Conan” and “The Colbert Report” and last week’s “The Amazing Race” on these tablets without any problems. On the iPad, I can’t. I like those shows. I therefore see this as a drawback of my iPad.

Sure, Flash video plays better on the PlayBook and G-Slate than it does on any device without Flash. It also plays better on those two devices than it does on my cup of tea. But guess what: it’s been 4 years since Jobs introduced the iPhone and told online video publishers around the world that being trapped in an Adobe-owned video platform was not a good idea, and most video publishers online have long come to realize this. (we’ll leave the H.264 debate out of this for now)

One simple counter-example to Andy’s is Castle, a TV show I personally love watching. For the PlayBook, you can use the website, but have a slideshow-like framerate “until the buffer is full” (as Andy wrote), but on the iPad I can use the free ABC app to see it in glorious streaming quality with just a few taps. No hiccuping, no low framerates, it just works. Yes, that ABC iPad app had to be built from scratch and cost ABC money to make, but the video they’re streaming is almost certainly H.264 to both devices. Ironically, if they’d used HTML5 Video on the PlayBook or G-Slate, it would probably play back much better than it does in Flash, thanks to the native H.264 hardware decoder. (unless Blackberry or LG made the mistake to omit those chips in their respective devices)

Lastly, John C. Welch concluded his piece with this:

So yeah. I don’t think Apple’s wrong for excluding Flash up ’til now, although i do hope they regularly revisit that solution, and as soon as including flash becomes painless, or relatively so from an installation and security standpoint, they change their stance to reflect the revised data. And, I think that both the Dowdellians and the Gruberites need to stop defining Flash as naught but a way to play video.

Given that the experience of a Flash interface on a touchscreen device with no mouse cursor and only an on-screen keyboard will always be a terrible one unless the author of said Flash interface recreates their product to be tailored to these new environments, it doesn’t seem likely that Apple will ever care to include it in their iOS devices unless the vast majority of Flash interfaces on the web are recreated this way. And that just doesn’t seem likely to ever happen, period.

For the Flash-for-video scenario, Apple has already convinced all the smart publishers to use HTML5 or build a native app and stream their H.264 video content that way for iOS devices.

For the Flash-as-ads use case, Apple is countering with iAds and using HTML5 and CSS3, which produces just as annoying results for those who really want them.

And for the Flash-as-gaming-engine case, I think Adobe’s efforts at offering tools that export a Flash product into pseudo-native Objective-C code for legitimate inclusion on Apple’s iOS App Stores are highly commendable as well as just plain business-smart. Making it easy for publishers to redesign their interface but re-use the bulk of their work (code, art, etc.) and allowing them a one-button export for other platforms is exactly what, I think, may keep Flash relevant as a technology for the coming years. And that’s a much healthier way to deal with this brave new world of iOS-dominated mobile devices than trying to fight tooth and nail with Apple about inclusion of the Flash plugin when it doesn’t really make sense for Apple to do so, and probably never will either.

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