Expanding the Mobile Web

An announcement by Adobe and ARM will let phones see more of the Web.

While it’s true that more and more phones can surf the Web, it’s also true that many mobile phones have only a limited ability to show much of the Web’s best content. Videos that run in Adobe Flash Players, such as those by the New York Times, CNN, and Technology Review, and Flash-heavy websites simply don’t work on many phones due to the software being incompatible with hardware. Today, in an effort to bring more of the Web to mobile devices, Adobe and microchip maker ARM, which powers 90 percent of mobile phones worldwide, have announced a collaboration to ensure that Adobe’s software runs well on future ARM devices.

Specifically, the companies say that Adobe’s Flash Player 10 and AIR (a platform for building complex Web applications) will be compatible and optimized for the ARM chips available in 2009. While ARM is used in a huge number of mobile phones, the announcement has broader implications: the chips are also used in set-top boxes, mobile Internet devices, personal media players, and automotive platforms.

The experience of publishing and viewing content on a PC is “near frictionless,” says Anup Murarka, director of technical marketing of mobile devices at Adobe. “But when we get into devices like set-top boxes and phones, you run into a lot of roadblocks.” While Murarka doesn’t think all of the roadblocks will vanish immediately, he believes that the Adobe and ARM collaboration can help make it easier for people to post videos from their PCs or mobiles and access them anywhere.

To be sure, the agreement won’t improve the Web on all devices. One big exception is Apple’s iPhone. Steve Jobs has historically eschewed Adobe’s Flash for the iPhone because the existing mobile version of Adobe’s player, called Flash Lite, runs too slowly on the gadget. But for a vast majority of phones, the collaboration could make a difference to users. Murarka explains that the two companies worked together to optimize the software and hardware in three different ways.

First, the compiler used in Flash Player 10, which converts program code into microchip instructions, has been written to work smoothly with the ARMv6 and ARMv7 chip. This means that the software understands how these chips transport data and can tap into the right part of the chips at the right time, speeding up applications.

A second improvement, says Murarka, is that some ARM chips have been built with graphics subprocessors–pieces of silicon that are specifically designed to handle the heavy lifting of graphics rendering. Desktop versions of Flash, he says, don’t use graphics processors, but the new version of Flash will take advantage of the graphics subprocessor, making graphics rendering more efficient on mobile devices and also saving battery power.

Third, the software that Adobe uses to compress and decompress videos will be optimized to run on ARM’s chips. Today, content providers have to make sure that Flash videos are encoded in a specific way, in order to run on some mobile devices. This is how YouTube videos can play on the iPhone. “Flash now delivers over 80 percent of Web video,” Murarka says. “By working with ARM, we can optimize that so that content that exists in video or audio form will be compatible with more devices.”

A broader implication of this initiative is that both the hardware and software companies are providing the tools that programmers need to build content that works across devices, says Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy at Jupitermedia, a research firm based in Connecticut. “The problem is [that] developers face a fragmented [mobile] landscape,” he says. “And Adobe, by trying to get this content architecture on multiple handsets, is trying to make it easier for developers.”

Earlier this year, Adobe announced the Open Screen Project, a collaboration with Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Qualcomm, and others aimed at standardizing Flash on mobile devices. The project led to Adobe removing licensing fees, which lets developers integrate Adobe Flash Player and Adobe AIR into any device or application without paying a fee. Many industry watchers saw the move as a reaction to Microsoft’s release of Silverlight, a Flash competitor.

The announced Adobe and ARM partnership is “about the ability to get Open Screen Project onto handsets,” says Gartenberg. “You’ve got the ARM folks supporting the technology, which is the critical first step.”

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