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Flash Forward for Mobile

Adobe announces a full Flash player for netbooks and smartphones, but not for the iPhone.

Today, at its annual conference in Los Angeles, Adobe promised to make more of the Web accessible to smartphones with the latest version of its Flash software plug-in.

Flash allows Web browsers to display rich media content such as video and animation. The new version, Flash 10.1, will be compatible with many smartphone and netbook platforms. For now, however, iPhone users will have to wait.

Many smartphones already support a less powerful, stripped-down version of Flash called Flash Lite. “Large chunks of the Web have been missing,” says Avi Greengart, research director of consumer devices at Current Analysis, a research firm based in Washington, DC. Though Flash Lite has been installed on millions of devices, Greengart says that it has mainly been used to build the user interface rather than to access content on the Web.

Greengart sees the new Flash player as a “very positive” step toward a Web experience that is truly consistent regardless of device or software platform. “People are starting to see mobile phones as portable computing platforms,” he says.

Software developers in particular stand to benefit from fully functional Flash players on mobile phones. Not only will users gain access to video and other media via Flash, but they will be able to make greater use of rich Internet applications, which often use Flash to create an interactive experience inside the browser.

Ben Wood, director of mobile research at CCS Insight, a U.K.-based consulting company, says that having the full Flash Player on portable devices will make it easier to create “write once, run anywhere” software. In other words, a developer’s application should automatically work on a wide variety of devices without requiring new code. In contrast, many applications today often have to be rewritten for each mobile device the developer wants to support.

“For [Adobe],” Wood says, “the worst-case scenario is fragmentation of their platform,” since Flash’s key selling point is its ubiquity. He says that Adobe’s rigorous certification program helps protect the unified Flash experience.

Wood adds that as recently as a year ago, smartphones just didn’t have the processing power to deal with a full version of a Flash player. He credits “the iPhone effect” for pushing device makers to give their products the necessary horsepower. Device makers had previously steered clear of powerful processors because of worries about efficiency, but most have changed in an effort to match the high expectations set by Apple’s device.

Ironically, though, Apple’s iPhone is absent from the list of devices that will support the new Flash player. Adobe says that the terms of the license for iPhone software developers mean that it can’t offer Flash Player for the device without support from Apple. Greengart of Current Analysis suspects that Apple either wants to work on implementing Flash at its own pace or has plans for its own competing technology. He expects Apple to reveal its plans by early 2010, since lacking Flash is a competitive disadvantage. Meanwhile, plans are under way to include it in Windows Mobile, Android, Symbian, Palm WebOS, and Blackberry devices.

Flash isn’t the only means for bringing richer Web content, such as embedded video and interactive content, to portable devices. The World Wide Web Consortium has been working on a new Web markup standard, HTML 5, that will handle a wider variety of content without requiring plug-ins. HTML 5 could present a threat to Adobe’s Flash platform, says CCS Insight’s Wood, but he thinks the resulting competition will ultimately be good for the end user, since it should help lead to the same Web on a mobile device as on a desktop computer. For now, many developers still have to build applications tuned to specific mobile devices, but Wood says that technologies such as Flash 10.1 and HTML 5 will trigger a “tipping point.”

Once both technologies are in place on mobile devices, Wood expects to see developers move toward offering more applications and services via the Web. “I think [this] will define the future of how applications manifest themselves on devices,” he says.

Adobe plans to make the new Flash platform available to developers working with Windows Mobile, Palm WebOS, and desktop PCs by the end of this year, and to Android and Symbian developers by the beginning of next year. The company expects the first devices featuring the Flash player to hit the market in early 2010.

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