To Flash or Not To Flash? That’s The Question

I’ve been following the news out of the Mobile World Congress (MWC). There are probably two items that struck my fancy: the first is the debate raging in the mobile world regarding Adobe Flash on smartphones and the second is the lack of Android/plethora of Windows Mobile announcements. I’ll address the first this week and talk about the second later on.

Ah… Flash. To some it is the holy grail. To others it’s bloated c***-ware that’s run its course. Flash, if you are unaware, is a programming language that runs in the browser. It was invented by Adobe to provide browser functionality that wasn’t native to the web languages of CSS and HTML. Probably its most popular use in the early 2000s was as a way to deliver interactive advertising on sites like Yahoo!, but over the years it has been used to develop web-based applications as well, such as Quicken Online.

Here’s the problem: Flash is an intensive memory hog designed for desktop use and that makes it difficult to use on mobile devices. After all, who wants half the battery time.

The news: at MWC Adobe announced a consortium of mobile platforms — including Nokia and Palm — who will support the development of a full version of Flash that runs on their devices. Why is this creating a stir in the mobile world? Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, announced vehemently that Flash would never run on an iPhone. Now the world is a-twitter with “has Apple missed the boat” conversation.

The reality, however, is that Flash on a mobile device doesn’t really matter. It’s a dying platform on the web anyway, being replaced by a JavaScript protocol called AJAX that’s far less memory intensive, supported by all the browsers, and not controlled by any single entity, a holy grail for the open-standards web.

Who does Flash on mobile help? The market followers. Those crying for Flash on mobile point to Twitter clients and Facebook clients and the like. But those applications are already available at Apple’s AppStore, the market leader for third-party software. It’s everyone else that benefits from it as they get Twitter clients and Facebook clients without having to worry about significant additional development, hypothetically. Significant is the key word, of course, because some changes have to take place to work on the small, smartphone screen.

So what do I think? I think the entire conversation is a distraction. The reality is this: if Palm sells 25 million units in its first two years and sets up an effective software sales and distribution model then developers will flock to the platform, writing applications using its native development tools. And if Palm doesn’t sell millions then it doesn’t matter if Flash runs on the Pre or not as no developer will spend time optimizing their code for a couple thousand users.