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Adobe: Flash 10.1 Will Silence Apple’s Criticism, Tablets Have More Appeal Than Netbooks

While Apple is reportedly badmouthing Flash all over town for being buggy and crash-prone, Adobe is championing its upcoming mobile player as a way to supercharge the very smart phones and tablets competing against the iPad and iPhone. It’s almost as if Adobe were saying “Want to beat Apple? Here’s your secret weapon.”

It’s not that Adobe is giving up hope that Steve Jobs will change his mind about HTML5 being the best solution for the future. But according to Anup Muraka, director of technology strategy and partner development for Flash, Apple’s aversion is based just as much on its desire for premium content to move through iTunes than any perceived technical issues. And according to him, the impending arrival of Flash 10.1 for Android, webOS, and other platforms will invalidate Apple’s and others' criticisms. But when is this player actually coming, why will only certain Android phones support it, and what difference will it really make?

Here are the quick highlights of our in-depth interview:

  • Adobe doesn’t hate HTML5, but it thinks it will take years to fully develop, and it strongly believes that Flash will evolve along with web standards.
  • Tablets (especially those with Flash) will appeal more to consumers than netbooks have.
  • Flash Player 10.1 promises to put an end to empty frames on web pages when using smart phones, delivering “the full web” instead just “walled gardens.”
  • Although Adobe’s PR spokesperson stressed that Flash Player 10.1 for mobile devices was still on schedule for the first half of this year, Muraka told us that “device releases will naturally lag the desktop releases by days or weeks--in a few cases maybe even months.”

Many people see HTML5 as a potential Flash replacement. What do you see as the benefits of this competing technology?

For HTML5 we’re excited because there are a lot of interesting capabilities in HTML5. A big chunk of Adobe's growth has come from the Web and from HTML, and our technologies, Flash in particular, embrace, interoperate, and integrate with HTML. And just as HTML evolves, we’ve seen Flash and other specifications evolve over time as well.

You're going to continue to see features that are innovative in Flash or PHP or Java or Silverlight or any other web-run time move into various standards. Those technologies that can continue to innovate, continue to move forward, continue to be valuable. So I think the HTML5 spec is a great evolution. It’s going to take years for the standardization process to complete and get ubiquitous adoption, and developers are going to be able to need to build and ship content now, and next month, and next year. It’s our obligation to continue innovating in our own technologies and continue to add value and offer capabilities that developers can’t otherwise get within the open standards.

What do you think Google is experimenting with both HTML5 videos on YouTube and Flash on Android? Are you getting mixed signals there?

It’s a great example of exactly that situation where there’s going to be experimentation, there’s going to be selection of what content they can distribute. But at the end of the day companies, not just Google but other content producers need to care about what kind of distribution can I get, and how do I ensure the protection of the quality of the experience that I’m delivering. So if the technology community can’t agree on things like codecs that to go into the HTML5 standard, that’s going to hurt the distribution of the technology, it’s going to make it harder for developers to choose one over another.

A big part of the reason why Flash became so popular was the fact that it worked inside the webpage and it was a seamless experience that would work on Mac, Windows and Linux. Now if we have different browsers from different companies and we also put in different codecs, we haven’t necessarily improved things for that broad base of content. Yes, you’re going to get some producers that will embrace one platform from one approach, but they’re going to have to decide how to get their content onto another device, another screen, or another browser, which will potentially operate differently.

Do you believe Apple’s opposition to Flash on mobile devices is based on legitimate concerns over the technology or do you think it's more of a business decision?

I’m sure there are considerations on both sides, both on the technical and the business side. We believe we’re going to be able to provide concrete proof that there aren't technical issues, and that will come in the form of shipping 10.1 on a lot of devices. It will come in the form of shipping on multiple other smart phone platforms that many people would describe as being less capable or less powerful than some of Apple's products. The business considerations will be the only remaining barrier, and those are things not in Adobe’s control.

Do you feel that Apple is afraid of free content?

I think certainly it’s a consideration to have content moving to the iTunes store, and the App Store, as the preferred distribution mechanism for that platform, but I think Apple has shown a lot of willingness to do what their customers want. I think they’ll have to look at those platforms where we are getting that support and that cooperation. With Android we’re seeing great progress.

What do you think your chances are of getting Flash Player on the iPad and iPhone?

I think we’re going to continue to build on what we have today, which is we can operate Flash and compile for the Apple platform. I wouldn’t want to speculate yet as to when we reach the point that the integration is complete and it shows up in Safari and those devices as well.

What's your take on tablet phenomenon in general? Is that type of device really solving a consumer need or is it a fad?

I think that the industry as a whole doesn’t want to admit a dynamic change is taking place once more, that we saw happen with smart phones. Two to three years ago no one would have predicted the capabilities of smart phones today. We’re seeing plans for multigigahertz, multicore smartphones within the next one to two years. I think the current range of excitement is not just about Apple’s tablet but about the form factor that will appeal to consumers more than netbooks seem to have, and can be designed in a form factor that can be compelling enough that we can create that category.

So we are seeing a tremendous amount of interest in the technology that will fill that category. One of our partners has said that they have over fifty OEMS in the pipeline to ship devices within 12 to 18 months in that form factor. I’ve seen devices in that category that I’m intrigued by.

You're working with HP on the Slate. Do you think it will be a hit?

It is a capable device. The hardware specs are there, the hardware capabilities in terms of acceleration are there. In many, many cases you’re seeing a CPU coupled with another chip that handles the graphics, such as the Broadcom Crystal HD part or another GPU from ATI or Nvidia. But I don’t think (the Slate) is alone. It takes time for the application and the design community to learn about these new interaction models. But if you look at these ultra portable light devices, if they truly are flexible and capable enough they can be incredibly successful.

With all of this anticipation of Flash coming to smart phones, do you think consumers will find it worth the wait? How will it really change the user experience?

Think about the fact that 85 percent of all websites and all of the top 100 websites on the web are using Flash. Maybe somewhere around 75 percent of casual games on the web are written using Flash, and some 75 percent of video on the web is delivered in Flash. That’s a huge body of content that you have to go through some significant workarounds today to get to. With Flash Player 10.1 all of that content then becomes much more broadly available. You’re not going to see empty frames on web pages. It’s a great experience, and there’s sort of this sense of no compromises to getting full access to the full web.

Do you have an update on when Flash Player 10.1 will be coming to Android, webOS, and other platforms?

Not much of an update. Obviously we’re in March now, so we only have a remaining three months to the end of June. The update is still on track for the first half of the year to deliver. Undoubtedly, it’s going to go up on our website for desktop use first.

We have to deliver Flash 10.1 through OEMs and device partners so you can imagine that the device releases will naturally lag the desktop releases by days or weeks--in a few cases maybe even months. Because we’re working with so many partners, we don’t always have day-to-day visibility on exactly where each one is.

So some of the promised smart phone platforms might not get Flash during the first half of the year?

That’s what’s hard for us to know because a number of our partners have had source code and they’ve been working closely with us for many months now. But it really depends on their product schedules and not ours.

One of the concerns that people have about Flash is battery life, especially when playing video. Will smart phone owners be able to watch an hour-long Hulu episode without having to plug in?

I think the biggest thing is being able to access and use hardware acceleration. It has a tremendous impact on battery life, and it has a tremendous impact on the overall experience. And you’re starting to see a couple of different folks starting to write about and do some analysis of where the hardware acceleration framework CPU load is, and that directly translates to battery life. So on those platforms where we’re getting access to hardware for acceleration of video for acceleration of vector graphics battery life is good and for those platforms where we don’t have that access it can suffer.

We have spent a lot of effort in this release to find ways to have Flash make better use of hardware and also to be a better citizen or a limited resource in terms of battery life and processing power. So as an example we do more in this release to look at what’s off screen versus on screen within a browser page and we actually pause rendering of off-screen elements page.

Is hardware acceleration support part of the reason why Android phones with slower processors won't be getting Flash?

It’s really more tied to some of the great work that the Google engineers have been doing with us on new APIs going into the OS. And so it’s really been a question of what release do those APIs show up in on what devices, and how they’re going to make use of those news APIs. We want to have Flash running in as many places as possible so we’re asking all of our partners, Google included, to get these APIs going into the OS available on a previous generation of devices. That’s where it’s not just that clear yet.

You recently announced Adobe Air for Mobile, but couldn't Flash 10.1 enable better web apps without developers having to use a separate set of tools?

It’s kind of the same thing as saying do we need general applications on a desktop. I think there’s a variety of interesting and useful and purposeful applications that aren’t ideal within a web browser particularly on a small-screen device. The navigation metaphor and the resources of the HTML overhead can be significant in terms of processing and rendering and displaying HTML pages just by themselves. That’s why you see a lot of games--particularly on mobile--written to take advantage of all the resources on a device versus living within a webpage for everything. So Air is simply our approach to how do we take web skill sets and apply those to building applications that feel native on a given device.

So how would people get Adobe Air apps on their phone?

The existing marketplaces are in many cases the only means to get apps on the device. So initially we intend to work within the existing app marketplaces. For example, in allowing Flash developers to build apps that will run on the iPhone, we compile from within our tools to generate the program in the iPhone format, .ipa. So developers can put that app in the App Store, and there are probably dozens of apps there already that were developed using Flash and Adobe tools.

We’d certainly love to see other distribution mechanisms. If a developer wanted to build an app, test it out, and share it with their friends-- that should be something we can enable versus having to spend on a centralized program. We believe that open distribution of applications of content in general is better for the community and for the industry than lots of little walled gardens.

If your roll-out is successful do you think smart phone shoppers will consider Flash support a check-off item?

I don’t know that it will be there this year. I think it will be a consideration for some number of designers and developers. I don’t know if it would be a mass-market consideration this year. I think some of internal estimates have been along the lines of 5 to 10 percent of the smart phones that are going to be sold this year. Next year we’re looking at somewhere around a third of all smart phones sold will have Flash support on them.

Just as there are ardent supporters of one platform or another, we’re going to have our share of folks who really do want to go out and buy a device because it’s going to have Flash on it. And I’ll think they’ll have some options this year. I think it will be a similar trend over time as what we’ve seen in Japan, where you get to a point that it’s hard to find a phone that doesn’t have it.

The official Geeks Geek, as his weekly column is titled, Avram Piltch has guided the editorial and production of Laptopmag.com since 2007. With his technical knowledge and passion for testing, Avram programmed several of LAPTOP's real-world benchmarks, including the LAPTOP Battery Test. He holds a master’s degree in English from NYU.