Is Flash as bad as Apple says?

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from CIO.com. Visit CIO’s Macs in the Enterprise page.

At the heart of the great war of words between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Adobe CEO Shantanu Narayen lies a simple question: Is Adobe Flash really bad technology?

If the answer is yes, then Apple is right to ban it from the iPhone platform. If the answer is no, well, then it’s a good bet Apple is trying to sway public opinion and put an end to Flash’s reign on the Web for business reasons.

Apple has much to gain with Adobe out of the mobile Web picture: Flash is a popular app development tool that lets developers expose their work across platforms. Apple doesn’t want the competition. That’s why Apple recently tweaked its developer agreement to forbid developers from using third-party software tools, essentially banning Flash from the iPhone platform.

Jobs, in a rare and lengthy blog post, claims Flash is poorly written software that will drain battery life and drag down the mobile Web experience. There are better and more open ways of rendering video on the iPhone, he says, such as the emerging HTML 5 standard. It’s because of poor, proprietary technology that Apple has banned Flash on its iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch.

In a Wall Street Journal video, Narayen fired back at Jobs’s rant, calling it a “smokescreen.” He contends Apple is making false technology claims about Flash in order to justify Apple’s revised developer agreement. “When you resort to licensing language,” Narayen says, “it’s clear that it has nothing to do with technology.”

So who’s right? While the mainstream press has seized on potential antitrust issues stemming from Apple’s Flash ban—Feds are reportedly looking into the matter—the core technology controversy continues to go largely uninvestigated. Never mind that the two CEOs have taken opposing views in what should be a fairly cut and dry issue.

I sought answers from the geeks at the InfoWorld Test Center, a sister site of CIO.com. James R. Borck, senior contributing editor and former manager of the InfoWorld Test Center, clarified some of the technical issues. Borck knows the ins and outs of Flash technology. He recently tested and reviewed Flash Builder 4 for InfoWorld and found the toolset to be a sizeable improvement over its predecessor, Flex Builder 3.

Is Flash reliable or not?

The main technical issues raised by Jobs concern Flash’s performance, reliability and security, as well as battery drain and incompatibility with touch technology.

In writing about Flash’s alleged reliability and security issues, Jobs alluded to a spike in Flash compromises last year: “Symantec recently highlighted Flash for having one of the worst security records in 2009. We also know first-hand that Flash is the number one reason Macs crash.”

While Narayen pleads ignorance—“If Flash [is] the number one reason that Macs crash, which I’m not aware of, it has as much to do with the Apple operating system,” he says—Flash-based content has indeed wreaked havoc on Macs, says Borck.

Borck points the finger at Adobe. “In Q4 2008 and early 2009, sloppy coding affected certain machines while displaying video-centric content,” he says. “Today, Adobe’s hardware acceleration hooks appear to be a possible culprit. To be sure, this does not affect all Flash-based content on Macs though.”

But Narayen puts the blame squarely on Apple for being late delivering hardware acceleration that boosts performance. “Apple just recently provided us with hardware acceleration,” he says. “We have deployed a version of Flash player beta, it’s called Gala that now takes advantage of that hardware acceleration.”

Adobe’s willingness to make the right improvements in its products, just as in Flash Builder 4, is a recurring theme in the Apple-Adobe brouhaha, according to Borck.

Borck doesn’t believe Flash’s current reliability, security and performance shortcomings warrant the most ubiquitous platform on the Web from being banned on the hottest mobile device in the world. “Technically, Flash is a solid and well-designed content delivery platform that has continuously evolved to keep stride with a rapidly maturing web ecosystem,” he says.

Does Flash drain the battery?

Jobs says Flash drains battery life. When it comes to the iPhone battery, Apple should be concerned. After all, the iPhone battery has endured immense scrutiny. (Check out the CIO.com story, How to Know If Your iPhone Battery is on Death Row.)

“Although Flash has recently added support for H.264, the video on almost all Flash websites currently requires an older generation decoder that is not implemented in mobile chips and must be run in software,” Jobs writes. “The difference is striking: on an iPhone, for example, H.264 videos play up to 10 hours, while videos decoded in software play less than five hours before the battery is fully? drained.”

Narayen’s response? Jobs’s claims are “patently false,” he says. “When you have hardware acceleration available for Flash, we have demonstrated that it takes less battery power than on the Mac.”

Technically speaking, both CEOs are correct. Hardware-based IC video codecs require less power than software transcoding, says Borck, and a lot of videos were encoded prior to Adobe’s adoption of H.264 MPEG video standard support in Adobe Media Encoder.

Borck is quick to point out that Adobe is making strides, albeit slowly, in adopting hardware acceleration into its products. It’s only a matter of time for Web sites to catch up, too. Of course, Jobs would prefer Web sites “re-encode their videos using H.264 without using Flash at all.”

Is Flash untouchable?

Jobs says Flash is incompatible with touch technology, which the iPhone has brought to the smartphone universe with great success. Flash websites, Jobs says, rely on “rollovers,” as in rolling a mouse arrow over a specific spot to generate a pop-up menu. But a touchscreen doesn’t have a mouse.

“Most Flash websites will need to be rewritten to support touch-based devices,” Jobs says. “If developers need to rewrite their Flash websites, why not use modern technologies like HTML 5, CSS and JavaScript?”

It’s true that Flash user-interface development is based on keyboard and mouse input, Borck says. But Adobe is adapting quickly to touch technology. “I’ve seen touch and gesture support available in the Flash 10.1 beta,” he says. “I believe rollout for Flash 10.1 is slated for next month. So Adobe is closing the gap.”

Why can’t Apple wait?

It seems Adobe is in the process of fixing many of the technical hurdles, if it hasn’t already. So why can’t Apple wait for Adobe?

Jobs hints that he can’t trust Adobe. “We have routinely asked Adobe to show us Flash performing well on a mobile device, any mobile device, for a few years now,” he writes. “We have never seen it … We think it will eventually ship, but we’re glad we didn’t hold our breath. Who knows how it will perform?”

While Adobe quickly fixes certain technology, the company hasn’t always shown the same wherewithal when embracing platforms. “I do side with Jobs on the issue of delivery reliability,” Borck says. “Adobe’s roadmap is lined with rest stops that have delayed deployment to new platforms such as mobile, 64-bit, Linux.”

On the other hand, maybe it was Jobs’s rant that couldn’t wait.

As Adobe closes in on the technical demands of the mobile Web, Apple faced a shrinking window of opportunity to show why Flash should be banned from the iPhone platform. Make no mistake: Flash doesn’t play well in Apple’s App Store business model. “Why would I buy an app when I could surf the Flash-based Web for free?” Borck asks.

Thus, Jobs’s compelling technical complaints about Flash are underwritten with business goals.

“I’d say Jobs’s altruistic concern for his customers’ Web experience is tainted by Apple’s core business model,” Borck says. He adds, “I’m not suggesting that several of Jobs’ [technical] criticisms for the Flash platform are not without merit. But ultimately, I side with a free market economy and find Jobs’ arguments insufficient to justify walling off Apple customers from Adobe.”

[Tom Kaneshige is a senior writer for CIO.com in Silicon Valley. Send him an e-mail or follow him on Twitter.]

Subscribe to the iOS Tips & Trends Newsletter

Comments