Flash Fades Away: What the Future Holds for Flash on Android

By Ryan Whitwam

It's the end of an era, a buggy and sluggish era, but an interesting one.

The news yesterday that Adobe would be ceasing development of Flash for mobile devices came as a bit of a shock. The company has been extolling the virtues of access to the full Internet for years in a bid to pressure Apple into allowing Flash on the iPhone. The overwhelming majority of Flash-enabled mobile devices are on the Android platform, so users of these devices will feel the change most acutely. Although, things aren’t changing all at once; Adobe isn’t actually killing Flash, as many sites have reported.

What we’re looking at is a slow wind-down of the Flash plug-in as Adobe focuses instead on HTML5 and AIR. We can understand the motivation, but it could be a let-down for Android users.

The strange journey of Flash on Android

It was back in 2008 that Google first talked about getting the oft maligned Flash plug-in on Android. Google’s Andy Rubin attended the Adobe MAX conference and showed off what was clearly a rigged demo of Flash on a G1. This got people’s attention, and the idea that the entire world of online video could be at one’s fingertips was alluring.

The first real word from Adobe had late 2009 as the window for release of Adobe Flash on Android. That deadline was missed, despite faster hardware like the original Motorola Droid being on the Market, In fact, it wasn’t until mid-2010 when Android 2.2 Froyo was released that we finally got the Flash plug-in.

It turns out that Adobe needed special API hooks in the OS to make Flash work well, but “well” might be overstating things. Oh, Flash did work in that initial release, but it slowed page loads, made scrolling a bit chunky, and generally behaved oddly. We expected it to improve over time, but few changes were made. Faster phones have made Flash a bit zippier, but through all the releases from 10.1 up through Flash Player 11, it’s still a poor experience.

What the decision means for Android

Right now, Android users can go on living their lives like nothing has happened. Adobe has committed to making one more major release of Flash on Android, version 11.1. After that is done, Adobe will work to create developer tools that allow Flash content to be packaged as AIR apps, and also on HTML5 video.

Adobe will continue to patch Flash on Android for security vulnerabilities and bugs. However, no significant feature updates will be forthcoming. Adobe won’t be updating for new browsers, ARM chips, or operating system versions. While Flash probably works on your phone right now, its days are numbered.

In the indistinct future, you will get a new phone, or perhaps receive an update to your existing one. On that day, you will come to the sober realization that Flash has stopped working. When you go to the Market, the app will state that it is not compatible with your device. And that will be the end of your Flash voyage. With the plug-in uninstalled, you will regain some storage space, but certain parts of the web won't be accessible. Eventually, Adobe might also choose to unpublish the app from the Market.

We don’t know when Flash is going to see its final days; Google might even deprecate the Flash APIs in future Android versions if Adobe isn’t using them. We just hope that by then, HTML5 video has finished its takeover of the mobile web.

Why Adobe is doing this

From where we sit, it looks like Adobe just underestimated how hard it was going to be to get desktop Flash content working on mobile devices in resource-constrained environments. Even on faster devices, Flash doesn’t run like a dream. We have found it useful to have around, but it was always set only to run on-demand.

It probably comes down to a question of resources. Maintaining code-bases on desktop systems must be annoying enough without also rolling out updates to multiple mobile platforms too. Mobile Flash was not immune from the same bugs and vulnerabilities on the desktop, forcing users to update just to stay safe. That’s not really a precedent anyone wanted to set on smartphones.

The tide started turning against Adobe soon after Flash was released. One-by-one, sites that once used Flash video started to switch over to HTML5 in order to capture iOS users in addition to Android. We have noticed several pages we previously used to test Flash no longer implement it. And why would they? HTML5 works on both platforms, but Flash was buggy and only existed on Android. Even with Android’s growing market share, many users didn’t take advantage of Flash, especially on mobile sites that defaulted to phone-optimized views.

Steve Jobs famously lashed out at Adobe for being “lazy”, and blamed MacBook crashes on Flash. Setting aside all this hyperbole, the Apple approach to interactive mobile content has won out. Apple took the position early on that the Mobile Safari browser would have no proprietary plug-ins at all. For example, there is no QuickTime plug-in in Safari either.

So perhaps we can look at this not as a loss, but the best of all possible outcomes for Android users. When Flash was still pervasive, there was Flash on Android. As things are shifting to HTML5, just like Steve Jobs hoped, Flash has been put on the back-burner. It can’t be denied that HTML5 is just better for video content, and Flash seemed to have hit a brick wall in the performance department.

Since Flash is not going away overnight, sites that are still using Flash will have the opportunity to move over to HTML5. Over the coming months, expect to see the final vestiges of Flash-based mobile content fade away in favor of HTML5. There could be a rough spot from time to time when you come across that bit of Flash content in a world without mobile Flash, but we can only hope those events will be few and far between.