It’s the end of an era: Yesterday, Adobe quietly removed its Flash Player from Google Play, meaning Android device owners will no longer be able to download and install Adobe Flash to access videos, games, and other Flash-based content on the Web.
For many mobile users, Flash support was a key reason for choosing Android over Apple’s iOS. After all, having Flash playback provided access to “the full Web.” That meant not just rich multimedia like online video and interactive elements, but sometimes even basic site access: There are still sites out there that rely on Flash for navigation. But Adobe was never able to deliver on its promise of a high-performance, touch-centric, battery-friendly version of Flash for mobile devices, and announced last year that it was giving up on mobile Flash in favor of HTML5 technologies. No, the hammer has fallen.
What can Android users do if they absolutely have to continue using Flash? And does Adobe’s capitulation on Flash essentially doom the technology — and end the Adobe’s mobile aspirations?
Flash in the pan
Adobe has removed (or “unpublished”) Flash Player from the Google Play store, which means that purchasers of new Android devices won’t be able to add Flash their setups simply by going online and downloading the software. The removal does not mean that Android devices that currently have Flash installed suddenly lose it — they will continue to be able to access Flash content — at least for the time being.
Adobe pulled Flash Player from Google Play because it hasn’t developed or certified the software for use with Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean.” The version of Adobe Player available from Google Play has mostly existed to enabling “uncertified” installations of Flash Player on devices with Android 4.0 and earlier. While Flash Player generally worked on uncertified those devices, users were on their own if issues cropped up.
Devices running Android 4.0 and earlier that already have Flash Player will continue to be able to use the software, and Adobe says it plans to issue updates and bug fixes through September 2013. So, Android devices that currently have Flash aren’t being abandoned — and that includes many brand-new devices available today. However, if users upgrade their devices to Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” Flash may “exhibit unpredictable behavior,” and Adobe says future updates won’t work at all. The company recommends uninstalling Flash before upgrading to Jelly Bean. And if a new device comes with Jelly Bean or later… Flash won’t be there.
Daring and technically-proficient Android users who want to install Flash on Jelly Bean devices — ignoring warnings and recommendations — can apparently do so by side-loading the APK, at least for now. Users will also have to enable plug-ins in their browser settings. For users with Chrome-only devices like the Nexus 7, that may mean sideloading Browser or the Android version of Firefox as well.
How many people are impacted by Flash not supporting Android Jelly Bean? Right now, not many — thanks to the still-fragmented nature of the Android ecosystem.
According to Google, Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean” accounted for less than one percent of all Android devices that accessed Google Play in the last two weeks of July 2012. The most common version of Android on the market remains Android 2.3 “Gingerbread,” which still accounts for more then 60 percent of all devices checking in with Google Play.
Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” — which was supposed to be a real game-changer for Android and put an end to pesky fragmentation problems — didn’t even account for 16 percent of Android devices in the same period. That figure puts it barely ahead of Android 2.2 “Froyo,” which was released more than two years ago. It was the first version to support mobile Flash.
That means most Android device owners are still capable of running Flash — and their versions of Flash will continue to get updates and fixes from Adobe for over a year. Fears of a sudden Flash-apocalypse for Android are a little overblown.
Several factors combined to ultimately kill off Flash for Android, but the root cause can be summed up in one word: Apple.
Apple never made room for Flash on the iPhone, iPod touch, or the iPad, and while Android may be the top-selling mobile operating system now, Apple’s iOS still commands enormous mindshare and revenue. The issue came to a head back in early 2010 when late Apple CEO Steve Jobs penned a rare open letter explaining why Apple’s would not embrace Flash in its mobile products. Some of those issues related to business — Flash is a proprietary platform, after all, and Apple did not want Adobe Flash to become a de facto standard for developing mobile apps, effectively inserting itself between Apple and iOS developers.
However, Apple’s other objections centered on Flash being a poor fit for mobile technology. Flash was designed with a conventional mouse and keyboard in mind, and Web-based Flash projects aimed at conventional Web browser tended to translate poorly (and sometimes not at all) to a touch-based interface. Apple also noted that Flash was a top reason its Macintosh computers crashed, and it didn’t want to bring that kind of reliability problem to its mobile devices. In fact, Apple stopped bundling Flash with Macs later that year.
Apple’s other concerns had to do with battery life and security. Mobile versions of Adobe Flash had (and continue to have) a significant impact on battery life — and the same is true for notebook computers, where running Flash (even in a hidden browser tab in the background) can chomp batteries. Adobe Flash also has a security record that can only be described as abysmal, both on mobile and on the desktop. When did Flash issue its latest critical security fix for the desktop version of Flash? Yesterday. And, yes, the exploit is being used in the wild, so updating is a very good idea.
It’s easy to chalk Apple’s reasons for not supporting Flash on iOS up to “sour grapes” — after all, Steve Jobs was known for being difficult and sometimes vindictive. But even critics eventually had to concede that Adobe never made mobile Flash a paragon of reliability, nor did the company adequately address battery-consumption issues. (Adobe kept promising that the next generation of smartphone hardware would be much better with Flash…and then the next generation, and then the one after that…) Even Microsoft implicitly side with Apple when it rolled out its Windows Phone 7 platform in late 2010, which also omitted Flash support. Windows Phone 8 won’t have it either — although Microsoft will apparently be supporting Flash on Windows RT, albeit only for a handful of whitelisted sites. We’ll see what it does to the battery life of Surface RT devices.
We come to bury mobile Flash, not praise it
Microsoft’s move to continue supporting Flash in the Windows RT does highlight Flash’s still-present weight on Web content. Although Adobe used to boast that something like 75 percent of the Web’s video content was served via Flash, the choice of YouTube and other popular video streaming services to support H.264 video seriously undermined Flash’s ubiquity as a video streaming platform. And, again, much of that push had to do with Apple: Few video sites wanted to be incompatible with Apple’s ever-popular iPhone or iPad, so they switched to video technologies fully supported by those devices.
But that doesn’t mean all video is available in a Flash-free world. For example, BBC’s iPlayer relies on Flash for both desktop and mobile video. The BBC says it is working with Adobe on an new player for Android devices, but — for now — Flash is the only way to get iPlayer on Android.
Few doubt that HTML5 technologies are the future of Web development, both for online video and highly interactive applications such as games. However, HTML5 still isn’t as mature as Flash, leading many to lament Adobe’s decision to abandon mobile Flash as a move that cuts them off from some of the best material on the Web.
The future of Flash
With the online world increasingly migrating to mobile devices — and Adobe abandoning Flash for mobile devices — does Adobe Flash even have a future?
Well, yes and no. Adobe is continuing to develop Flash for the desktop, focusing on two core markets: DRM-protected video content, and console-quality gaming. Standards-based H.264 video might be all the rage for streaming to iOS and HTML5-savvy browsers, but it’s not an ideal solution for video-streaming operators who want (or need) to protect their content from being casually pirated. That’s why Netflix for Macs and PCs relies on Microsoft Silverlight — a decision that company is probably reconsidering. Although companies like Google and Microsoft are pushing for standards that would enable HTML5 encryption, Adobe is betting it can leverage DRM and authorization technologies for Flash to step into the void, offering streaming services, movie studios, cable operators, and other paid video services a way to stream protected content to customers.
Adobe is also betting Flash’s mature authoring tools and scripting language will appeal to game developers — and companies like Zynga have certainly made a mint peddling Flash-based games via the Web. Relieved of the need to support underpowered, small-screen devices like smartphones and tablets, Adobe is betting game developers will follow Flash to the next level by developing high frame-rate, console-quality games using Flash.
Adobe is also keen to let developers know that, just because mobile Flash is going away, that doesn’t mean Adobe is giving up on smartphones. Developers who want to put video into their Android and iOS applications with DRM support can use Adobe AIR. This is the most likely the route being followed by the BBC’s iPlayer. Adobe is also leveraging its years of experience developing multimedia authoring tools to inform Adobe Edge, which (loosely) aims to do for HTML5 what Flash did for browser plugins.
But the bottom line: Flash will never again be a ubiquitous Internet technology. Smartphone buyers who chose Android thinking it was superior to iOS because it supported Flash will have to find replacement apps or services. Eventually, anyway.