Well it is if you believe what Aral Balkan had to say recently. His post sparked some intense and much welcomed debate within the community regarding Adobe’s mobile strategy. In particular both Scott Janousek and Mark Doherty posted excellent responses and I think all three posts are definitely worth a read.

Flash Lite in particular took a bit of a bashing from Aral and it’s something I’d like to talk about here. Firstly I’d like to point out that I agree with many of Aral’s points. I don’t personally know him but he’s highly respected and very influential within the Flash community, and his blog is something I make a point of checking out from time to time.

I’ve been writing Flash-based mobile apps before Macromedia released Flash Lite and although my Flash Lite work these days is restricted to personal projects I’ve been following its evolution since day one, so feel I’m well positioned to comment.

So was Flash Lite a failure? I’d say not. It certainly didn’t achieve what Macromedia and later Adobe had no doubt hoped for it but I feel many great things have and will come from Flash Lite. It demonstrated that Flash is a perfectly acceptable environment to use when developing mobile content reasonably quickly, and in the hands of the right developers/designers, some pretty amazing content can already be written.

The effort gone into optimizing Flash Lite won’t go to waste. Without the hard work from Adobe over the years the Flash 10 player for mobile just wouldn’t be possible. And although the upcoming Flash Lite 4 player will only work as a browser plug-in, I feel that AIR on mobile is essentially the next evolutionary step for standalone Flash Lite application support.

Over the years I’d say I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Flash Lite. There would be days when it would impresses the hell out of me, and then others when I’d be so hacked off by the whole ecosystem that I’d just want to give up with Flash and go native. One thing however is, that over time I’ve come to realise that my frustrations weren’t necessarily with Macromedia/Adobe but with the OEMs they were working with and their inability to strive towards consistency, not only between themselves, but even across their own range of handsets.

Fragmentation was for me the biggest frustration with Flash Lite and the main reason why it never took off in the way that many (myself included) expected and hoped. Again the handset manufacturers didn’t help themselves.

Take Nokia for example. I seriously applaud their efforts and if there was one manufacturer who came closest to getting it all working it was, in my opinion, them. They continually pushed to deploy Flash Lite across their range of handsets, but for all the hard work there was always one bad decision that would scupper things for the Flash Lite developers.

Upgrading the Flash Lite player from FL 2 to FL 3 within firmware updates was a really bad idea. Although it brought many benefits – streaming video within FL3 being one – it further compounded the compatibility issues, with fragmentation suddenly existing across the same device! There was just no guarantee that a large number of users would upgrade their firmware. Up until that point you knew exactly what version of Flash Lite to expect on individual devices. After that it just got harder, more frustrating and quite depressing.

The signing process for S60 devices was always a major issue and something that never really got addressed adequately. It was always too expensive, time consuming and cumbersome, preventing those wishing to release freeware apps (and working to a tight budget) from doing so. It just didn’t really encourage the community to produce great content and get it out there. And it was all the more annoying that you could wrap up Series 40 versions of your Flash Lite content in a nice little NFL file without the need for signing while the exact same content for S60 had to be signed.

I guess ultimately the problem was that the operating systems that were written for mobile devices were never developed with something like Flash in mind. Seamlessly updating the player on the device wasn’t something that could be done easily and unfortunately the distributable player solution came too late in the day.

This may make for depressing reading but I honestly believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. The introduction of the iPhone has been a wake-up call for the rest of the industry and Apple has shown the rest of the world what the mobile experience should be like. While there has been a lot of talk about in-browser Flash support for mobile devices, the success of the app store has shown that there is also a need for standalone applications with web connectivity.

For me standalone Flash application support is probably just as important as browser support for the very simple reason that it’s much easier to tailor the experience for individual handsets that way. A mobile phone is not a desktop PC and  considering the wide range of device configurations and means of interaction you’re never going to get the same experience consistently across all devices. Many existing web based games for example will never work properly on a Flash enabled mobile phone simply because certain devices won’t have a comfortable screen resolution or the game may not translate over to a particular handset’s input mode – A keyboard driven game just won’t work on a touch-only device.

But I don’t think total coverage across all mobile devices is really necessary, and to be honest is impossible. Developers have always targetted the most popular devices and the same will be true for mobile Flash. If Adobe can get it working on a reasonable percentage of popular devices then that should be enough. But one thing they desperately need to avoid this time round is the terrible fragmentation that existed with Flash Lite. When future upgrades to the Flash 10.1 player are ready, there needs to be a way to ensure handset owners can easily, seamlessly and quickly update.

A Flash-based app will never outperform a native app, but as mobile phone’s grow in power this will become less of an issue, and if Adobe can solve the fragmentation problems that have blighted their past attempts then Flash will become a very viable platform for developing content across a wide range of handsets.

Even in its current state, those developing with Flash Lite can target a significant number of handsets, with approximately 700 million having been shipped in 2009 alone. Targeting Flash Lite 2.0, there is nothing stopping a developer releasing games and applications of the highest quality and at the same time taking advantage of the strong development environment provided by Flash and Device Central. If you know what you’re doing you really can create something in Flash Lite in a matter of weeks that runs across millions of devices.

2010 is going to be the make or break year for Flash on mobile. Will Adobe be able to jump the chasm? I certainly hope so.

  1. Let’s hope they aren’t jumping the shark 😉

    Your post inspired a long rant from me:


    It ended up being a bit long.