August 31st, 2010
Flash’s much-heralded, much-delayed appearance on Android with Froyo has received its share of attention, from both overly optimistic and relentlessly critical sources, and it’s difficult to give it a clear assessment at this point. A variety of videos have shown Flash running reasonably well, while others show it with its pants down around its ankles. The best verdict you can give it right now is, it depends on what you’re trying to do.
Apple’s argument has long been that Flash’s performance is not up to snuff on mobile devices, and there’s plenty of evidence to support that position. Even with the 10.1 update, many Flash-based sites run poorly, especially when playing video. Errors, choppy playback, failure to load and other problems are common. GigaOM’s Ryan Lawler, cutting to the chase as he presents a video by Kevin Tofel struggling with several different video sites on his Nexus One, concludes:
While in theory Flash video might be a competitive advantage for Android users, in practice it’s difficult to imagine anyone actually trying to watch non-optimized web video on an Android handset, all of which makes one believe that maybe Steve Jobs was right to eschew Flash in lieu of HTML5 on the iPhone and iPad.
However, I had another sort of experience with Flash on Android this weekend, which proves (at least to me) that there’s another side to the story.
I had recently shown my Web Foundation class the nifty Flash-based interactive video for “Sleepeater” by the New Zealand band Shihad. The song got stuck in my head, and I wanted to download it; and it happened, as these things often do these days, while I was in my car. (No, I wasn’t driving at the time.) However, the band’s latest album won’t be released for a few weeks, and a search on iTunes via my iPhone turned up nothing. (The song is actually available in the New Zealand iTunes store, but a kiwi I am not.)
So, I turned to the most logical source in a situation like this: MySpace. As luck would have it, Shihad’s MySpace page had the song in its music player, and it didn’t care what country I’m in. The MySpace music player, as you are probably aware, is Flash-based. I loaded their page on my Dolphin HD browser, scrolled over to the player, and tapped it to download the Flash piece, which went relatively smoothly. After it appeared, I tapped the song in the playlist, and after a bit more non-Flash-related fumbling to turn on the sound, my car filled with the song I would otherwise be unable to hear.
Now, the experience was not fantastic — the player is slow, it’s not very responsive, and of course the sound quality is fairly mediocre. But it worked. And the reason why that’s relevant should, I hope, be obvious: there’s an awful lot of content on the Web that’s locked up (or set free, depending on your point of view) in Flash, and many people will want to get to it, sooner or later, on a mobile device.
Apple’s approach is to try to convince the world it doesn’t need Flash content, because people can download an app to do the same thing; but that only works for the content someone has decided to put into an app. The same is true of HTML5 content. Howling reports of atrocious Flash video performance aside, there is a valid reason for wanting to use Flash on a phone, even if the experience is poor. Video and games may not be ideal candidates, admittedly. But the next time you just have to see or hear something on your phone and it happens to be in Flash, Android at least gives you a chance of success that is greater than zero.
That may be faint praise, it may not be a selling point for everyone, but it’s difficult to accept the idea that you should be glad your iPhone and iPad are absolutely, unequivocally unable to play Flash. Rocking out to “Sleepeater” in my car the past few days, I was certainly glad not to be stuck with Apple’s decision.