Flash still not on the iPad -- and that's a good thing

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from ITWorld.

Just about a year ago I wrote a post here at ITworld titled Flash on iPad wouldn’t solve anything (but would strengthen Adobe’s control of the web). Back then the original iPad was brand new and Apple and Steve Jobs were catching a lot of flak for not allowing Flash on the device. My argument was that having Flash on the iPad wouldn’t matter for anything but video since most Flash apps expect mouse and keyboard input anyway. Further, not having Flash on the iPad could encourage Websites to offer video via HTML5.

A few days ago, I was talking to a co-worker who is in the market for a computer-like device for his mom. He was deciding between an iPad and a netbook. I asked him what his mom would be using the device for. Turns out she’s a fan of Facebook games (among other things). I had to warn him off the iPad (no Flash) but wondered if an Android tablet would work for her. I logged into Facebook and tried to play Farmville on my Android tablet (an Acer Iconia A500). A few minutes later I suggested that my co-worker buy his mom a netbook.

Since then, I’ve been trying to find Flash games that will run on my tablet, and having very little luck so far. Now, let’s get the caveats out of the way: I only have this one Android tablet to test on and maybe the Acer just stinks at Flash (though I doubt it given how similar it is to the Xoom and Galaxy Tab 10.1 in terms of internals) and maybe Honeycomb 3.1 will fix some of the stuff I’m about to gripe about. That out of the way, let’s get to the griping…

The first problem is performance. Flash on this tablet is a dog. It struggles to run high-def Flash video and can’t smoothly scroll a game as simple as Farmville. The tablet is no slouch in terms of performance otherwise, so I’m laying the blame here at Adobe’s feet. Presumably, Adobe can fix this as it continues to optimize Flash for the Tegra 2 (and other tablet) chipsets, but for now the combination of dual-core tablets and Android Honeycomb 3.0 just doesn’t have the horsepower to run Flash well.

Assuming we can get performance taken care of, the next problem is input. As I tested various games I’d run into problems as seemingly simple as a help screen that ended with “Press [Space] to continue….” and I couldn’t find a way to invoke the Android virtual keyboard to get access to the space bar, nor would any kind of tapping get me past it. Lots of games use keystrokes to move characters and those of course won’t work either. I suppose I could plug a keyboard into the Acer (hooray for that full-sized USB port) but that seems to defeat the purpose of playing on a tablet.

Even games that were built around point and click proved problematic at times. Clicking by tapping mostly worked fine, but when a game wanted me to hold the mouse button down and drag (to pan around a map, for instance) I’d be in trouble again. Sometimes it would work, but other times I’d end up scrolling the entire Web page instead of whatever was supposed to scroll inside the Flash app. There’s also the issue of clustered controls that are easy to target with a precise mouse cursor aren’t as easy to hit reliably with a big fat finger. Too often I’d trigger the control next to the one I really wanted to activate.

And the last problem I had was with the size of Flash apps. The Acer has a screen resolution of 1280x800. Some Flash games I ran into didn’t quite fit into those dimensions (the x800 aspect), which surprised me considering how many people still run their systems at 1024x768, but I guess those people just get used to scrolling the page up and down slightly. To be fair, this issue can’t be blamed on Adobe.

The bottom line is, if you’re thinking of buying an Android tablet instead of an iPad because you want something to play Facebook (or other Flash) games on, stop right there. At the very least, get into a store and try to run the games you play. As I said, I was only able to test on this one tablet and of course I didn’t test every Flash game out there! Maybe your favorite will work, but research it first.

In my opinion, having Flash available on my Android tablet adds very little to the value of the device (and don’t get the wrong idea: overall I’m quite pleased with the Acer Iconia A500). If you disagree; if Flash is what makes your Android tablet really useful to you, then please leave a comment and explain why. It’s entirely possible I’m missing a Flash-based ‘killer app’ for Android tablets and frankly I’d love to be proven wrong.

[Peter Smith writes about personal technology for ITworld.]

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