Why the iPad can’t and shouldn’t have Flash support

On February 10, 2010, in Opinion Pieces, by Steffen Itterheim

Wired.com: “No Flash means that the iPhone browser is incapable of displaying a large portion of the internet.”

No Flash also means the iPhone or iPad for that matter is capable of avoiding a lot of issues that come with Flash. Besides, i don’t see “ads” as an interesting part of the Internet, next to games and streaming videos this is the third most widespread use of Flash on the Internet. The games wouldn’t work well anyhow on the iPad due to numerous issues (not designed for touchscreen, use too much memory, expect keyboard, bad performance) and the videos are at least partially supported via the Youtube app. I’ve said it before that the iPad doesn’t need Flash, and here i say why it shouldn’t.

There are actually good reasons for Apple not to support Flash on the iPad and many of those who desire Flash either haven’t realized that or chose to ignore them. So here’s a quick list for those who, instead of whining about the lack of Flash, would like to understand why there is no and will be no Flash for the iPad:

Flash Apps would undermine the App Store
This is the biggest issue from Apple’s business perspective. If any Flash app could run on the iPhone, any app would be possible including those that violate Apple’s Terms of Service. Flash apps would also be in direct competition to native apps, bypassing Apple’s but also competing developer’s revenue streams. Instead it would play in the hands of Flash portals, specifically gaming portals, and if you have to choose between the two and where you want to earn your money – i believe the App Store wins hands down.

Given enough will it would also be possible for companies to undermine iTunes as a whole by offering eBooks, music and video downloads. Apple is well aware of that danger and if one could remove all other concerns for Flash but this, Apple still wouldn’t allow Flash to run on the iPad/iPhone for that very reason. So if you’re hoping that eventually Flash will come to the iPad – forget it.

As it is now, websites who use Flash and are also targeting iPhone and iPad users would be well advised to develop their own native app if possibly. This in turn would strengthen the App Store, moreso the more popular that website is. Another gain for Apple.

There is no quality control for Flash Apps
Every App Store app must pass Apple’s quality control. As much as some may hate it, it’s good that this sort of quality control exists. It doesn’t mean that Apps can’t be total crap but at least a minimum set of standards for both content and user experience can be expected. Most notably offensive and malicious apps are much less likely to appear in the App Store than they are with Flash. Which brings us to the next point.

Security & Privacy concerns
It’s no secret that Flash brings with it security risks and privacy concerns. Not that anyone would care though. But maybe you care more about the next issue.

Flash performance
Well written Flash apps run rather well on most computers but it is also rather easy to overdo it and we still see particular Flash apps that don’t run smoothly even on multiple GHz computer. How would it scale down to a several hundred MHz system? Not very well. And while Adobe is currently porting Flash to the iPhone to allow developers to use Flash to develop native iPhone Apps, the performance numbers and developer’s experiences are discouraging to say the least.

And let’s not forget: many Flash apps are memory hogs – none of them have been optimized for devices that offer less than 100 MB of memory, let alone just around 35 MB at most on the iPhone. So how many Flash apps could you really use if the iPad supported Flash? I bet the number would shrink drastically and you’d be furious about Flash apps crashing frequently.

Yes, Flash apps also load incredible amounts of content and that comes from where? Correct, the Internet. So would you wait for minutes while on 3G or even EDGE for that matter? And then having it crash because it runs out of memory? It makes for a terrible user experience – and a lot of users will blame it on the device’s Flash support. So in that light no Flash is better than the best you can hope for, which would be: “Flash works in principle”.

Finally, Flash apps will drain your battery like any other iPhone app. If at all possible, Flash content would have to be started per user request instead of auto-loading as it does on computers as to avoid each and every ad to be a strain on the battery.

Flash games to this point are not designed for touchscreens
So forget the dream of playing all those Flash games if only the iPad would support Flash. While there are a good number of games that work with just one mouse button the rest of the games with keyboard support would simply be a waste of your time. And even for the one-click games it’s still doubtful they would work so well on a touch screen if only for the fact that your finger is much bigger than your mouse pointer which conceals the part of the screen you’re tapping on.

Further readings:
Venturebeat: Why the iPhone won’t have Flash anytime soon.
Wired: Why Apple Won’t Allow Adobe Flash on iPhone
Poking fun at Apple

Closing Words
I mentioned in my last iPad + Flash post that i’ve installed a FlashBlocker for Opera. Now every Flash app is a little “f” button that i have to click to play. Not surprisingly (to me at least) i found that 95% of the webpages i visit do not require Flash at all, or only show those nasty Flash ads which i didn’t even know are Flash based until i installed the Flash Blocker.

So what content am i really missing if i didn’t have any Flash? Well, for one i don’t see the stock market graph on Yahoo. Youtube videos obviously. The Zwoptex texture atlas generator i use for work. Slideshare may be of interest twice per year that i’d be missing out. Aaaaaaaand that’s about it. I can trade stocks, do online banking, research every bit of information i need, read news, stay up to date on sports, contribute to user communities via forums, chat and what not. All of this without native iPhone/iPad apps and without Flash obviously. So why is it such a big deal for so many people? I just don’t get it.

And then there’s a wise saying that certainly applies here: if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all!

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It occured to me while reading the Wikipedia iPad page that the iPad doesn’t need multitasking, in other words it doesn’t need to be able run multiple applications at the same time. Actually, it shouldn’t even be able to do so. Moreso, the criticism it received for the lack of that feature from tech experts even state as an argument that costumers have come to expect multitasking. But … come on, they don’t!

Many of them will come from an iPhone / iPod background, if any tech background at all, so their expectation certainly isn’t multitasking nor would i expect it to be a major concern for them. However, the techies and gadget geeks who are writing the most at this time about the device and discuss it at length, they of course have that expectation. But i don’t see them as the target audience in the same way that gamers are not the primary target audience for the Wii. Sure, they buy it but they won’t be as satisfied with it as the costumers who belong to the target audience.

What really brings down the argument about the lack of multitasking for the iPad are the developers themselves and how easy it has proven to be to develop apps for the iPhone / iPod. This is in large part because of – you guessed it – the (almost) complete absence of multitasking. Now consider if all those developers suddenly would have to share their app’s resources with theoretically any other app that which the user could now all run simultaneously. How much of a problem that is you’ll realize when you look at the current, most annoying thing about the iPhone for developers: memory leaks. If other apps leak memory and that isn’t available to the system anymore even after the app was closed, what happens is that over time fewer and fewer memory is available for every app. Soon, some apps will start behaving unresponsive or simply crash. The only solution is to somehow advice or even instruct the user to reboot his fricking device for god’s sake. But wait a second … it’s not the user’s fault at all! He will never see it that way – unless he’s one of the aforementioned techie or gadget geek. Numerous negative reviews have been posted because some people’s devices were unfortunately alarmingly low on system resources – but they didn’t know any better than to blame the app itself. And even to this day i expect a large portion of users to be unaware of this connection, or even how to “reboot” one’s device.

In a multitasking environment hell would break lose upon developers and users to the point that it would have a detrimental effect on the iPad’s and eventually Apple’s image. The ease to develop apps and the technical issues of multitasking, but most of all giving the user full control over which apps are running in parallel, would spell doom for a system like the iPad. Consider Windows machines. Consider what kind of apps are constantly running on yours. Consider what other user’s have running on their systems. Virus scanners, instant messaging, control panels for all sorts of devices and tools, news tickers, anti-cheat and friend-finder tools for games, download utilities, firewalls, another virus scanner because some people need two, or three, tools for notes, tasks, getting organized, and let’s not forget about all the unnecessary-ware regular software installs like speed launchers, document finders, auto-updaters, phone-home-ers, ad-loaders and the occasional trojan horse. And guess what? Everyone agrees that re-installing your Windows system is the easiest way to get back to a stable, responsive system. And so the cycle starts anew. Oh, don’t tell me iPad users wouldn’t start running all kinds of apps in parallel with each other just because they can. They most certainly would, even more so if it were advertised as a “shiny new feature”. Even worse would be if developers figured out how to install their app as a permanent system service. But no matter what, most users won’t understand what kinds of issues multitasking can cause. Most of them never make that connection with running multiple apps in parallel and one app constantly crashing – but only on their device of course. They might even turn the device in for a repair.

What i’m saying is, i can only give credit to Apple for making such unpopular decisions regarding the iPad. They do understand their users, their user’s behavior and they are fully aware that certain limitations are necessary to ensure greater satisfaction with the iPad. And the users aren’t stupid – that’s not what i’m saying. I’m saying they need not and should not have to understand all of this. There, i said it. We’re one step closer to a ubiquitous computing device that everyone can use. Thanks, Apple!

You can call me a fanboy now but that wouldn’t be true. I’m merely trying to understand Apple’s decisions and so far, it all makes sense to me. And that’s what i find fascinating about the iPad and Apple. But unless i’m paid to work for an iPad app i won’t get one myself. I use my iPhone rarely enough, so why should i get me an iPad?

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I would like to start the week by referring to a couple dramatic articles about the worst side of the game industry. The kind of stories that actually force companies to back down and turn around how work is done. As far as i know, things have changed for the better for EA. If the same is going to happen with Rockstar is still out in the open, first reports tell no immediate positive effect other than the promise of an extended time-off after production.

Back in the days when EA spouse was a hot topic it was quickly followed by the even more interesting report of events by Joe Straitiff as he experienced them while working for EA. Since then, it is said that EA has made major concessions and leaps forward to secure employees are treated fairly and crunch times are very limited. I can not really confirm or deny this, since i’ve been working in an EA studio that was bought in 2006. It was promised to us that we’ll continue working as we’ve always done. However things did change of course, there’s no way a big corporate entity who bought a small development shop is not going to have no or just a little effect on the team and how it’s working. Some things changed for the better, for example we finally got air conditioning, upped our server farm, hired a full-time system administrator and got access to a huge knowledge base and useful tools. Others changed for the worse, for example i’ve already mentioned how much i hated the employee rating system. It felt way too corporate and formal for our tastes. Overall i can just confirm what everyone who has ever worked for a big company already knows: how you feel about your work and how your work / life balance turns out to be like is highly dependent on the studio or department you work in, and of course the team and how they work together (or not).

A month after the EA spouse letter, Noel Llopis wrote his 2-part article “All work and no play makes Jack a dull game developer” which is by far the best summary of issues, myths and recommendations anyone has ever written on the subject. Make sure you read both part one and part two. I do, however, disagree with him that sleep deprivation might actually help for design and art, as they “have some of that touchy-feely creative mystique” as he puts it. It does not hold true as it is not creative art or design that is forged but often art is developed with certain technical and gameplay constraints, tools need to be used efficiently and numbers juggled. The same goes for designers who regularly juggle with numbers, navigate excel sheets of varying complexity, and always have to keep side-effects in mind with whatever they’re planning to do. So it’s not typically a touchy-feely kind of work that you perform as artist or designer and is subject to the same issues a programmer feels. Besides, even programmers have and need those intuitive, creative moments so they’re not all number crunchers and byte eaters either.

These issues were unfortunately debated again just recently, as Rockstar spouses made similar accusations about the working conditions at Red Dead Redemption developer Rockstar San Diego. The article itself was terribly written and received numerous bashings because of it. And i would say mostly because people feel it’s such a big issue and worry that the terrible writing could have a detrimental effect on the cause. If you read the Gamasutra article, don’t forget to concentrate on the comments. It currently ends with a statement from self-proclaimed Rockstar San Diego programmer Code Monkey after Rockstar apparently has promised employees an extended time-off after production is completed. He says:

“My apologies go to Rockstar for not anticipating that anything I said here could possibly have a negative impact of some kind.”

I can’t shake the feeling that that’s not the end of the story.

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